Saturday, March 06, 2010

The Day the Music Died

My friend made an observation the other day that has prompted me to think a good bit about Whither, Humanity. He said, “People have stopped making music. What they’re doing today is producing entertainment.”

This comment arose in the course of discussing the resurrection of The Who for the Super Bowl halftime show, I had remarked that the ongoing need to find pre-1980s musical talent for that event suggests the decline in music since the wide open musical explosion of the 1960s. While I recognize the somewhat self-serving nature of that assertion being a boomer, I also think it takes little critical skill in music to distinguish the harmonic and lyrical qualities of “Let It Be” and the recent love ballad, “My Life Would Suck Without You.”

My friend’s observation is truly striking when one examines the content and medium of today’s music. From hip hop to electronic music with its distortion of human voices, the focus tends to be on effect. How glib repetition of words, even nonsense syllables, punctuated by percussion and occasional musical accompaniment, came to be called music is beyond me. Don’t get me wrong. I admit to being entertained by the dance music one hears in clubs. And the percussion/special effects driven recordings that accompany everything from television spectaculars to the endless consumer advertising which attend them can be titillating the first 400 times one hears them.

What seems to be missing is content. Occasionally one finds the provocative lyric today such as “What if God were one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home.” (Joan Osbourne, One of Us, 1995) But for the most part, most of today’s lyrics are empty as the melodies, many of them recycled from earlier composers. They don’t call us to wake up, to become conscious, to take action:

What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side
It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
(Buffalo Springfield, For What It’s Worth, 1966)

Rather, they are designed to distract us, to numb us, to divert us. They are designed to insure disengaged solipsism as we walk down the streets, plugged in, tuned out, turned on, dropped out. Music is for actively engaged listeners if not performers. Entertainment is for passive consumers.

Since the 1960s we increasingly have traded engagement requiring music making and appreciation for mindless entertainment cranked out for disengaged consumers. This trend mirrors our change from citizens to consumers, the withering of public institutions and the ever increasing perceived need to numb the resulting pain.

So what is lost when music makers become entertained consumers? One thing is a sense of our legacy as human beings and as members of specific cultures. That lesson came home for me with a vengeance this week.

When I was in elementary school, music was a part of our curriculum. We learned to sing songs that marked our culture from “America the Beautiful” to “The Bridge at Avignon” to “A Bicycle Built for Two.” We learned about the cultures that produced those songs and for those of us who went on to participate in bands, orchestras and choirs, those early days of elementary school music provided a foundation for both our appreciation for music as well as our musical literacy as adults.

This week we were studying the Gilded Age in my Humanistic Traditions II course. The text used the song “Bird in a Gilded Cage” as an illustration for its material on the polarization of society undergoing transformation from industrial capitalism. I had found a clip of the song on the internet and a painting from a Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which illustrated the concept. I was sure this would be an interesting development of this song for students who had learned it in childhood.

So, I asked them, “How many of you sang this in elementary school?” No hands. “How many of you have even heard of this song.” Again, no hands. Gulp.

This song represents a fairly important chunk of American history and development. My students are completely unaware of it. They are the legacy of “streamlined” curricula that long ago eliminated music from elementary curricula along with art and, in some cases (outside the South, that is) physical education in favor of test taking skills and content. But at what cost?

What does a society that no longer values its musical, artistic, and thus cultural history look like?

Might it be the tyranny of the now our historically amnesiac students now evidence in their quick retorts that a given event occurred before they were born (and thus have no importance to their lives)? Might it be a society that no longer makes music, preferring to be entertained into passive unconsciousness by electronic noises and glib arrangements of words punctuated by percussion? Is such a life truly worth living? Perhaps more importantly, is such a culture truly worth preserving?

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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