Taylor Swift in 1989. Miles Davis in 1969. The Emperor’s New Clothes. Hypothermia. Why there is no new music. And why we like it that way.
Roger CortonSo you had a letter printed in Time?
JCHWell, a snippet. I wrote one of my rants about the recent cover story on Taylor Swift.
RCWith all that’s going on in the world, why get worked up about some pop star?
JCHShe ain’t ‘some pop star’. She’s the pop star. And, as you may know, the title of the record (1989) is her birth year. The gag is that it’s supposed to be a summary of all the influences throughout her life.
RCBut it doesn’t sound like 1989. At least, not the music I remember from 1989.
JCHExactamundo. EDM wasn’t around. If the beats sound like 1989, it’s a porn soundtrack from 1989.
RCAll EDM sounds like a porn soundtrack.
JCHIt’s true. Anyhoo, I had this realisation: I can’t think of a single professional musician I know who makes a living playing music from today.
JCHYeah, well I don’t call this exactly living boy-o. Think about it. Can you think of any music these days that sounds like 2014? Do you even know what 2014 sounds like?
RCOK, but why is that a bad thing? What is wrong with continuing to mine a great art form? To perfect it?
JCHLook, art, Western art, is a force that always moves forward. It’s always reacting. And when the world is in a healthy place, that reaction creates something new.
RCYou make it sound like a shark; swim or die.
JCHWell then call it capitalism unbound. Movements develop, mature and then get bloated and are eaten by new, usually simpler/faster movements. Progressive Rock got taken down by Punk, which got pushed out by Disco, etc. It’s The Ciiiircle Of Liiiife! But now we’ve reached this age of collage where it’s all one soup and the only common denominator is ‘the past’.
RCAgain, what’s the problem? If people like Louis Armstrong or The Beach Boys or The Ramones or the 2014 version of them, who are you to squawk?
JCHIt’s decadent I tell ya. It’s a sure sign of a dying culture.
RCYou’re not serious.
JCHAbsitively and posolutely. It’s Nietzche’s worst nightmare come to life. When art stops being about the future, it’s time to check yer life insurance.
RCBut why can’t some music be reborn? Why can’t there be a new Disco that’s better than the original. Why can’t a form of music be improved upon over time? And what about cultures with a different philosophy. Think about China and Japan–with long histories of static forms of art; art that is slowly tuned over time but never really ‘changes’ much.
JCHAh, the inscrutable east. I can’t speak to those slant-eyed devils, praying to their hundreds of elephant gods (laughs). It’s a valid point, but I…
RCAnd now a word from the Anti-Defamation League.
JCHOr maybe one of Kim Jong Un’s minions will send my computer to a fiery death. Happy now? Look, we don’t live in Confucian times. As Ferris Bueller said, ‘Things move pretty fast.’ They’re always changing. In the healthy arts–like movies–it’s constantly about the new. Only in music now do the majority of people live either in the past, or in a facsimile thereof. And I mean that across the spectrum; from Taylor Swift to hip hop to concert music; there nothing new and that’s no good.
RCThis from Opera Man. What surprises me is that since I’ve known you, you’ve immersed yourself in ever fustier things like the endless rants on Opera.
JCHI definitely look to history for instruction; but not for -direction-. The older I get the more my practice has been rewarded, so I get the joys to be found in Brahms and Bartok. But that’s not where I live.
RCGet me a scented candle. ‘Cause that just sounds like something I’d read in a self-help book. I have no idea what you’re talking about.
JCHOK maybe that sounded weird. But imagine if everyone got all their entertainment from watching old family albums. Well, that’s pretty much where we’re at in the music world, regardless of what style you like.
RCAssuming I agree with you. So why do you think things are the way they are?
JCHCall it Cultural Exhaustion or Decline. Great musics generally develop where there’s great general sense of vitality. Vienna during the Habsburgs, New Orleans at the turn of the 20th Century. Detroit during the 60’s. Without that economic growth people look for the sonic equivalent of comfort food. But all sociology (or is it anthropology?) my gripe is that it’s a self-serving delusion.
RCWhy is comfort food a delusion? And again, what is wrong with comfort food? I love comfort food.
JCHMiles Davis said something like, “That’s why I don’t play ballads anymore. They’re too pretty.”
RCWhat people loved to hear him play.
JCHNo! It’s a lot deeper than that. He had to discipline himself. He had to go beyond the idea that continuing to perfect his ballad playing was artistically valid. And -that- is my point. You can kid yourself into thinking that your entire career should be spent working within your sweet spot. It’s as if your body is telling you to keep playing ballads. But I think what Miles was trying to say is that, for an improviser, for a guy who is creating, you cannot listen to that siren song.
RCNice product placement.
JCHWhy, thank you. (The Solid State Siren. $9.95. Get it in time for Christmas!) I’ve been thinking about this more and more as my rheumatism advances. Your body is constantly lying to you. It tells you to rest, when you should push. We do that all the time.
RCHypothermia is like that. You’re getting cold so your body tells you, “Rest for a minute. Lie down in the snow and relax.”
JCHThat’s how art works. Sometimes we have to not listen to what comes naturally or we die.
RCAnd die happily.
JCHYou don’t even notice you’re drifting away. If you’re going to continue to create something new, you have to… wait for it… do something new. You have to will yourself to try new things. I think the Miles message is that the default position is to do something safe, but talk about it as if it’s something new. It’s that self-talk that keeps people alive.
RCWhich is why everything currently sounds like 1989.
JCHExactly. The tough thing to admit is that, it isn’t something new. It’s just a re-hash. And I don’t think most of us want to hear that right now.
RCWell, nobody likes to be told that the music they like is crappy.
RCNot exactly. People don’t care so much if you say, “I don’t like that.” Most of us are taught from an early age to respect ‘choice’. The insulting thing is when you state that it’s a like The Emperor’s New Clothes; that you’re partying like it’s…
RCDon’t say it!