Friday, May 20, 2011


The music must change
It's gets higher and higher
Smouldering like leaves in the sun
Then it bursts into fire
Its rhythm grows strong
It's so new and so strange
Like bells in the clouds, then again
The music must change
-The Who, "The Music Must Change"

One of my favorite movies is Oh Brother Where Art Thou, a classic by the Cohen brothers. This film is a reworking of The Odyssey set in depression-era Mississippi featuring runaway convicts from a work farm. They seek a mythical hoard of cash but find instead a new and unexpected treasure in the music of the time, music that was so endearing that its early 20th century soundtrack became a best-selling CD.

Not long after that, Barry Manilow, object of contempt and derision since the 1970s, had a best-selling disc of 1950s hits. In the era of MP3 players and music downloads, old songs have suddenly become new again, with teenagers listening to Stephen Foster and Cole Porter on the same mix as Led Zeppelin and Lady Gaga. What's missing in all this, though, is the love of music that Oh Brother Where Art Thou examined.

If you go to Europe, one of the stranger culture shocks of the time (aside from complete strangers sitting next to you at a restaurant table) is how people sing out loud together. They invent songs for football (soccer) teams, they sing old hits and folk songs at the pub, and in general are more comfortable singing out loud in public than in America. The only place most people sing in public these days in the US is at church, or if they forget themselves with headphones on. Sometimes people still go caroling at Christmas.

That didn't used to be the case. A hundred years ago, getting together and singing was a significant part of the American cultural heritage. Songs we think of as old time hits like "The Cowboy's Lament" (aka "Streets of Laredo"), "House of the Rising Sun," and "Camptown Races" were not goofy songs on television shows but popular songs people sang together. Someone would play the piano and people would gather around and sing. About the only thing left like that is "Auld Lang Syne" for new years, and nobody even knows the lyrics to that any longer.

That lost culture of singing together is only found in tattered shreds at retirement and nursing homes, with old voices raised together in old songs well remembered and loved from their youth. These are songs that endure, songs young people are only now starting to recover and enjoy once more.

I am in my 40s and remember songs from my youth that still stick with me. I can sing along with songs like "Come Sail Away" by Styx, the big hits when I was growing up are still popular today. Kids are listening to stuff from my youth, 30 years later. That's the equivalent of kids in the 70s listening to music from WW2 era, which was unthinkable at the time.

Yet today, what songs do we have as a culture to remember? What songs will the youth of today remember and fondly look back on when they are in middle age, and what will endure? Does anyone seriously think that today's Justin Bieber and Black Eyed Peas songs will be hits in 2040? Will anyone even remember them?

The general consensus is that today's music is just trash, even young people who listen to it have a very low opinion of the modern offerings from the hit bands.

Lousy singers are packaged because of commercially-friendly looks, their voices Auto-Tuned and overdubbed to not sound awful. Their songs are mindless junk with carefully studio-crafted production and no originality, interest, or even much creativity at all. We've had eras like this in the past, and each time something new came along to shock the system and give us a break - in the 60's bubblegum pop was replaced by acid rock and blues revival, then disco gave way to a New Wave and Punk surge, which then was blasted clean with Grunge when it became studio-packaged, but after grunge things sort of drug to a halt; mainstream music hasn't really changed much for more than a decade.

We need another shift in music, and perhaps the only place that can happen now is online, with struggling new artists trying creative new things available from their websites. Record companies, panicked by downloads and shoddy product killing their sales are becoming more and more cautious. Gone are the days of Virgin Atlantic who signed all the really interesting acts in the late 80s. Gone is the Def Jam early days of new urban sounds. Now record companies want the safe, the reliable, and the easily packaged with their parent companies into movies and television, if not perfumes, clothing, and other merchandising.

So struggling new artists have to get their music out to people in new, creative ways. Sites with online artists and free music only are starting to become more popular and perhaps like so many movements today, the new music will come from the internet as well. All I know is, the music must change.

*This originally ran at the Washington Examiner Opinion Zone.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Look into Sacred Harp singing []. It is a piece of our musical heritage come back to us. It may not be your thing, but it is singing, in public, by some of the most joyful folks you will ever meet.