What Happened to Our Music?
I am not a musician; but about a quarter century ago in the 1990s, I was in a restaurant with a musician who gave me a dire observation. He told me that a professor had mentioned to him that a vital, vibrant culture should produce a new form of music every ten to twenty years or so, roughly speaking.
I thought about what he said. It sort of made sense. Around 1900, America had ragtime. Tango came from South America around 1910. Jazz took over by the 1920s. Swing came in during the 1930s. Bebop came in during the late 40s, early fifties. Rock 'n Roll took over the culture in the late 1950s and 1960s.
But then this musician – mind you again, this was the 90's – asked me, “What new music has our culture invented since Rock?”
The question was rhetorical. By the 1990s, disco, rap, and hip hop had come about. So theoretically, our culture was roughly maintaining the every-ten-year schedule. However, that was not the point. It was obvious to me that my musician friend considered disco, rap, and hip hop to be degenerate forms of music; not true innovation, but rather deconstructive. I pointed out to him that disco had a little merit – one could whistle The Hustle - though I pointed out to him that I was not usually a fan of the style. He begrudgingly conceded the point, though it was clear that his general opinion of disco was poor. So was mine, and I let him know it.
Like many suburban whites of the era, I had despised most of disco; and I cheered when Steven Dahl organized Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in 1979. Steve Dahl would later be credited with destroying the genre which, though an exaggeration, was a proud achievement. Much of disco was total garbage, The Hustle and Stayin' Alive might be a bit catchy. However, the musical genre carried with it depraved homosexual overtones; and I could not stomach much of it. This particular disco tune: Disco Tex and the Sexolettes-Get Dancing earned my vote for the most insultingly insipid worthless mind-benumbing song of the decade. I was convinced that listening to it would erode neurons.
After Disco Demolition Night, I thought my then beloved rock would re-emerge. I was wrong. When Run DMC took a simple, barely passable, Aerosmith metal jam like Walk This Way, and turned it into rap, I then realized that rock had degraded and birthed rap, as a natural process of ongoing degeneracy. I knew the game was over and stopped listening to pop music for the most part. Rap/hip-hop had broken through to the mainstream. I had given up.
I was not an old fuddy-duddy. I was still in my twenties at the time; but I could not stomach much of popular music. I slowly started gravitating to listening to lighter classical music, and earlier broadway show tunes – pre-1970 for the most part, and often tunes before my day. I eventually began to realize that much of the problem with music had started earlier with the rock I had once loved. While some rock still attracts me, most of what I had loved as a teen, I can no longer stomach.
But at that restaurant that night, talking with that musician, there was no way I could defend rap or hip hop. They could not be considered new and innovative musical genres. Frankly rap and hip-hop sounded – and still sounds – mostly like noise to me. The observation held true. Western civilization had stopped producing new musical forms. He seemed to concur. By the time of this conversation, I was in my mid-30s, when new music should have been exciting to me; I was not some doddering elder.
The musician I was with was not a fuddy duddy, either. He loved the Beatles. He was not opposed to rock. He just thought that music had degenerated. Not being a musician, I took a stab at what I perceived was the root of the problem. Rightly or wrongly, I told him:
It can be argued that jazz is a competing form of classical music. American Blacks designed a complex musicology with improvisation. Then I added, rock 'n roll is dumbed-down jazz, with emphasis on the beat, with the melody often being sacrificed. And hip hop is everything thrown out, but the beat. Music had been deconstructed. Melody was lost.
Again, I am not a musician; but this musician, whom I was with, was; and he did not disagree. He concurred. He feared for our civilization, for he felt that our music reflected an inner cultural rot. More astoundingly, this was not the view of a conservative. He was rather liberal in his worldview, he just knew rot when he saw it.
I am not the only one to notice this.
Science Proves: Pop Music Has Actually Gotten Worse
So, what happened since 1955? Well, timbral variety went down. That means that songs are becoming more and more homogeneous. In other words, all pop music sounds the same now. ...
The study also found that pitch content has decreased – which means that the number of chords and different melodies has gone down. “Musicians today seem to be less adventurous in moving from one chord or note to another, instead following the paths well-trod by their predecessors and contemporaries,” Scientific American explains. - Smithsonian
I keep asking myself, how is it that we have the best audio technology in history; and yet, we produce such garbage. Can you imagine what Beethoven could have done with Garage Band or Apple's Logic Pro X?
To be sure, I am not saying that no good popular music is being written. Of course, some bright lights make it through in popular music. There is John Williams, and some of Andrew Lloyd Webber's work. However, I am asking what is the root of the general problem, and when did it start?!
The musical historian might trace it back to classical music's embrace of atonality. And some critics claim the degeneration started with Wagner's Liebestod, with its jarring unresolved chord, and a name that meant “Love Death,” a title that was purposefully contradictory, which was Wagner's point.
Richard Wagner's music elevated a dark pre-Christian Nordic paganism in his Ring Cycle. Is it any wonder than the Nazis embraced Wagner's music? One has only to look at this 1941 Nazi newsreel concerning the invasion of Crete, with its use of Wagner – almost four decades before Francis Ford Coppola copied the idea – to see how thoroughly Wagner had infected the German soul. Of course, one might ask, if there was something in the German soul which infected Wagner, and that is the rub.
Western society has embraced some dark, destructive habits; habits which are destructive to prosperity, health, and happiness. These have filtered through to our culture and our music. If this sounds too radical a claim, one has to remember than I am not confining the problem to modern music.
When one thinks of Broadway hits, America's version of lite-opera, how many of those hits pre-date 1970? Yes, Broadway still produces musicals; but compare Hamilton's My Shot to Richard Kiley's Impossible Dream, and ask yourself: Which will be remembered a century from now? Why is it that almost every list of great broadway show tunes is often top-heavy with music written before 1970?
Music at its highest should be a reflection of a great truth, whether that is in the form of a religious choral, a stirring national anthem, a magnificent reflection, or even a simple love song. It should inspire us. Somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, the idea of "truth" became devalued in Western society. Soon, as Wagner did earlier with his Liebestod [Love Death], popular music started to embrace contradictions. The music conveyed one message and the words, another. A classic example was John Lennon's Revolution, which had jarring music, but a contradictory conservative message.
When the single version [of Revolution] was released in August, the political left viewed it as betraying their cause. - Wikipedia
A more frightening example was Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones. If anyone would take the time to listen to the words, it was about the enslavement, brutalization by whipping, and sexual degradation of a captured black woman. But the tune was catchy, and who listened to the words, anyway. When I first heard it in my teens, I was horrified at the words; but too stupid to stand against the opinions of my friends who considered it a classic, and say, “This song is truly vile.” Rumor was that Mick Jagger was going to use even more offensive lyrics.
Yet, it got playtime on the radio. How long would that song have lasted were it about Jews, or the female of any white or Asian ethnic group? Though not black myself, I have a pet peeve that Brown Sugar is tolerated on the public broadcast band. I am not a prude, but songs about the rape of slaves should not be an up thing.
And that is the problem. The media pushed music that conflicted with Truth. Vile songs have always been around since the beginning of time; but the popular media started embracing these songs as standards, rather than relegating them to idiocies only played at stag parties – and not given air time. Society was encouraged to embrace schizophrenic dissonance. Good music, horrible lyrics. Melody, which is the very essence of consonance, cannot thrive with such contradictions. Soon, melody was removed from music. Music continued to degenerate.
The problem runs deeper. This dissonance would not have prospered unless our society had been acculturated to accept that there was no such thing as truth. Once truth has been erased from societal consciousness, then internal contradictions – which will eventually rip any nation apart – will emerge. In the early 1960s, homosexuality was seen as a perversion. By the mid-70s it was glorified in popular song (catchy tune, horrible implied message). You had kids singing it before they knew what it meant. Today, marriage has been redefined, and kids are being coerced to have gender dysphoria.
Music is a reflection of the society-at-large. One can argue if music degenerates the culture, or if the culture degenerates music. Actually it is a bit symbiotic, and they feed on each other. What that musician told me over two decades ago was true. Music had degenerated. But what we had not dealt with was that the real disaster was that society had degenerated, because no one valued truth.
Mike Konrad is the pen name of an American who wishes he had availed himself more fully of the opportunity to learn Spanish in high school, lo those many decades ago. He writes on the Arabs of South America at http://latinarabia.com. He also just started a website about small computers at http://thetinydesktop.com.