Wednesday, November 21, 2007

David Brooks: Musical Ultra-Moron

This column was so impossibly bad that I simply had to exorcise myself with it. I apologize in advance to all of those who I am about to offend.

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This is why people suffering from "Feck-Deficit Disorder" shouldn't be allowed to write about music and culture. The original column, as much as I detest having to link to it, is here.

And so, off I go...

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November 20, 2007
OP-ED COLUMNIST
The Segmented Society
By DAVID BROOKS

On Feb. 9, 1964, the Beatles played on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Or as Steven Van Zandt remembers the moment: “It was the beginning of my life.”

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Me: OK, I happened to miss that when it first aired, however, I was six years old at the time and the first record I ever owned was Meet The Beatles, so count me in (The second was Beatles 65, and I used to love the Beatles movies).

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Van Zandt fell for the Beatles and discovered the blues and early rock music that inspired them. He played in a series of bands on the Jersey shore, and when a friend wanted to draw on his encyclopedic blues knowledge for a song called “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” Van Zandt wound up as a guitarist for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

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Me: And I remember, from my high school days, when "Born to Run" came out and the cover of the Rolling Stone had Bruce with the caption, "The New Rock Messiah?" I'm in on this as well.

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The 1970s were a great moment for musical integration. Artists like the Rolling Stones and Springsteen drew on a range of musical influences and produced songs that might be country-influenced, soul-influenced, blues-influenced or a combination of all three. These mega-groups attracted gigantic followings and can still fill huge arenas.

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Me: Are you fracking kidding me?! I was the kid carving "Disco Sucks" into desktops with my Boy Scout pocket knife during class in the 70's. Live music venues went from R&B to Tony Monero's musically lobotomized Saturday Night Fever haunts over night and in droves. It was a very fractured scene and a horrible, horrible time to be a small time musician into substantive music. The integration you speak of, David, is a myth: It's all in your mind.

The Stones and Springsteen still fill large venues because of other nostalgic souls with rose colored memories. I've been to a few of those shows: The Stones and The Who in particular, and I was amazed by the gray-haired demographic there. Lots of "Lone Wolf" Harley cartoon dudes and dudettes reaching back for a stale slice of a youth they idealize beyond the old reality they lived.

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But cultural history has pivot moments, and at some point toward the end of the 1970s or the early 1980s, the era of integration gave way to the era of fragmentation. There are now dozens of niche musical genres where there used to be this thing called rock. There are many bands that can fill 5,000-seat theaters, but there are almost no new groups with the broad following or longevity of the Rolling Stones, Springsteen or U2.

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Me: Exactly backwards, David: During the 80's Paul Simon began working with African musicians, Sting began working with jazz musicians, C&W integrated progressively more R&R elements, and the young mainstream country guys stopped "kicking hippies' asses" and started growing their own damn hair.

Then, there was the full flowering of this thing called Jazz-Rock Fusion, in which guys like John McLaughlin ended up working with... masters of Indian classical music. Even jazz pioneers like Miles Davis hired fusion musicians as sidemen.

The 80's also marked the beginnig of the computerized electronic musical instrument, MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), FM (Frequency Modulation) digital synthesis, and the sampling technology that lead, regrettably, to rap "music." I know, because I was on the leading edge of this as one of the first Synclavier guitarists: The 80's was the "golden age" of digital synthesis, and it was a GREAT time to be a musician.

One of the reasons there aren't many mega-bands around anymore is because they are dinosaurs: Corporate-sponsored schlok - not rock for the most part - with bazzillions of dollars thrown at promoting them. All of that technology I just mentioned has become cheap and ubiquitously available, AND THAT HAS DEMOCRATIZED THE MUSIC SCENE! Increasingly, bands no longer require record companies and/or corporate sponsorship. This is a GOOD thing.

I believe you are forgetting the late 80's heavy metal scene too, in which bands like Metallica filled huge arenas just fine, thank you very much.

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People have been writing about the fragmentation of American music for decades. Back in the Feb. 18, 1982, issue of Time, Jay Cocks wrote that American music was in splinters. But year after year, the segmentation builds.

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Me: Far from being a lamentable situation, the fact that audiences can now choose music that suits their tastes more closely is a wonderful development: It satisfies the listener better and it employs MORE MUSICIANS! I call chicken little.

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Last month, for example, Sasha Frere-Jones wrote an essay in The New Yorker noting that indie rock is now almost completely white, lacking even the motifs of African-American popular music. Carl Wilson countered in Slate that indie rock’s real wall is social; it’s the genre for the liberal-arts-college upper-middle class.

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Me: So, are you proposing forced integration in the music scene, or what? If so, why not decry the musical poverty of the rap and hip-hop scenes and the fact that those generas relate almost exclusively to only urban black audiences?... That's what I thought. I'm tempted to throw a STFU in at this point.

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Technology drives some of the fragmentation. Computers allow musicians to produce a broader range of sounds. Top 40 radio no longer serves as the gateway for the listening public. Music industry executives can use market research to divide consumers into narrower and narrower slices.
But other causes flow from the temper of the times. It’s considered inappropriate or even immoral for white musicians to appropriate African-American styles. And there’s the rise of the mass educated class.

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Me: This is a complete and utter crock of steaming, abject shite. As I mentioned previously, that today's technology allows more musicians to participate and serve specific audiences better is a VERY, VERY GOOD THING, and thank God Almighty that "Top 40 radio" is no longer the gatekeeper and arbiter of musical taste. Only legacy record companies radio stations could regret such a development. So, who's paying you, David?

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People who have built up cultural capital and pride themselves on their superior discernment are naturally going to cultivate ever more obscure musical tastes. I’m not sure they enjoy music more than the throngs who sat around listening to Led Zeppelin, but they can certainly feel more individualistic and special.

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Me: Just when I though this guy couldn't get any more asinine.

Yes, that's exactly what happened to me David. You've pwn3d me. After starting out getting the police called on me for playing too loudly in garage bands as a teen - yes, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix were to blame - I went and got a BM from Berklee in professional music, where I learned to play and compose jazz. You can just sense the inner snob coming out of me, can't you?

Not happy with this level of snot-nosed-ness, I returned to school for an MM in traditional theory and composition, during which time I fell in love with fugue writing. Now we're talking, right? My only regret ought to be that my little white guy nose isn't longer so I could look down it farther, correct?

Why then do I still play Led Zeppelin in my set... right alongside of Bach and Beethoven? How come I still play Van Halen in my set... right, smack dab in between some of the very traditional stuff I write? What reason could I possibly have for composing a sonata with a first movement that is based on rock tap technique, a second movement that is neo-Romantic, a scherzo that is a swing tune, and a finale that is a fugue?

Could it possibly be that I simply LOVE MUSIC? Remember Ellington's words, David? He was right.

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Van Zandt grew up in one era and now thrives in the other, but how long can mega-groups like the E Street Band still tour?

“This could be the last time,” he says.

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Me: Cry me a river.

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He argues that if the Rolling Stones came along now, they wouldn’t be able to get mass airtime because there is no broadcast vehicle for all-purpose rock. And he says that most young musicians don’t know the roots and traditions of their music. They don’t have broad musical vocabularies to draw on when they are writing songs.

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Me: Bwaahaahaahaahaaaa! Excuse me, I need to take a pee. BRB...

First sentence: Too bad/Thank God.

Second sentence: Young musicians have never known Dick Johnson. They'll learn, or they'll perish. Call it musical Darwinism.

Third sentence: This is ridiculous, and so I'll ridicule it. Kids growing up today are positively bathed in music from birth: It's virtually impossible to escape it. That's all the vocabulary they need to start out with. I know this, because that's what I started out with. And, seriously, look how well I turned out. LOL!

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As a result, much of their music (and here I’m bowdlerizing his language) stinks.

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Me: Since Thomas Bowdler became infamous for expurgating Shakespeare, perhaps you should think twice before sinking to his miserable level of mediocrity. Let me guess: Sucks?

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He describes a musical culture that has lost touch with its common roots.

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Me: Did you mean, "common root"? If so, there is no common root: You were right while being wrong (Unless you refer to the Western art music tradition, but since you never mention it in your article, I assume you mean popular music). American popular music has three main points of origin: The Scots-Irish tradition that leads to folk, bluegrass, and C&W; the negro spirituals that lead to blues, jazz, R&B, and rock, as well as the Western art music tradition. These things have been combining and re-combining for decades, and they will continue to do so. How can you not see this?

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And as he speaks, I hear the echoes of thousands of other interviews concerning dozens of other spheres.

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I deduce that you "live in a world without time: Where sound collides with color, and shadows explode." There are professionals out there who can help you with this problem. Either that, or tell me where I can get some of what you're smoking.

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It seems that whatever story I cover, people are anxious about fragmentation and longing for cohesion. This is the driving fear behind the inequality and immigration debates, behind worries of polarization and behind the entire Obama candidacy.

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Me: I love this phenomenon, and I notice it on a lot of liberal musician's blogs as well: It is almost impossible for liberals to write about any subject without mentioning leftist politics at least once.

What's behind the Obama candidacy is indeed new: An empty suit has been magnified into a perfect vacuum that sucks the brains out of any liberal that strays within 500 feet. Not that those brains would make a dent in that perfect vacuum, of course.

I thought John Edwards had done this last cycle, but I was wrong: Obama brings an unprecedented level of vacuousness to the term empty suit.

Look pal, I'm not anxious about fragmentation, because I actually do celebrate diversity, versus talking out of my ass about it while simultaneously lamenting it like you do. I also don't long for cohesion if it means snuggling up to idiots like you. I worry about real things like terrorism: I was in D.C. on 09/11 and watched the Pentagon burn out of my office window. That got rid of any lingering liberal sentiments I may have had.

What I worry about is that all of us remain free to pursue whatever kind of music we want, without the danger of censorship from fascists of any and all stripes. I want you to be free to be the Age of Endarkenment hairball you obviously are, so long as I can remain free to be the Age of Reason throwback that I am. Fair enough?

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If you go to marketing conferences, you realize we really are in the era of the long tail. In any given industry, companies are dividing the marketplace into narrower and more segmented lifestyle niches.

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Me: What on earth does the long tail have to do with marketing niches? As I understand it, the long tail is a term that relates to weblogs: If you've been around a long time and have posted a lot, you have a long tail, and so are likely to get more hits via search engines.

I won't be happy until lifestyle niches are so narrow that they are absolutely one dimensional and I can flip through them on my iPhone to chose the one I happen to be in the mood for at the time. Get it? I mean, at this point I have to wonder.

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Van Zandt has a way to counter all this, at least where music is concerned. He’s drawn up a high school music curriculum that tells American history through music. It would introduce students to Muddy Waters, the Mississippi Sheiks, Bob Dylan and the Allman Brothers. He’s trying to use music to motivate and engage students, but most of all, he is trying to establish a canon, a common tradition that reminds students that they are inheritors of a long conversation.

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Me: If you start with Leoninus and Perotinus Magnus and lead from there through Palestrina, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and then onto American popular music, count me in. Otherwise, piss off.

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And Van Zandt is doing something that is going to be increasingly necessary for foundations and civic groups. We live in an age in which the technological and commercial momentum drives fragmentation. It’s going to be necessary to set up countervailing forces — institutions that span social, class and ethnic lines.

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Me: At this point, I'm tired and bored, so I'l just get all ad hominem on your ass: What an intractable idiot!

I guess Steve does need something to occupy his time now that The Sopranos is history though.

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Music used to do this. Not so much anymore.

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Me: I can't believe 85 IQ BB-brains like this guy get paid to write this kind of insipid drivel.

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Well, today's practice regimen is in the crapper, but I somehow feel better despite that fact.



That is one of the most beautiful and graceful profiles I've ever seen. Simply magnificent.

2 Comments:

Blogger SillyBlindHarper said...

Bwahahaaaaa*snort*hahahaaa.....

Thank you, I needed that. You even got David laughing with this one - and it's been a long day for us here.

Hope that your Thanksgiving was full of, well, thanks.

Bless you, thanks for the ride.

Harper

2:55 AM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

Glad I gave you a laugh. When I first read that article, I thought my eyeballs were going to roll irretrievably into the back of my head.

If I had a nickel...

2:26 AM  

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