I’ve been thinking a lot over the last five years about hip hop and the dreadful state of pop music.
And I blame it all on Phillip Glass and C.P.E. Bach.
Back in music school there was this discussion of the constant tidal movements of complexity v. simplicity in all the arts. Some argued that this is ‘the Dionysian v. the Apollonian’, but I disagree.
Basically it works like this: every artistic movement starts out simple. Simple. A reaction to the mature prior aesthetic which has run out of gas. This can be a very good thing. The incoming group has fresh ideas that are stark and stripped down to their essence. They make the establishment look old and slow.
To contemporaries, ‘baroque’ music was a totally stripped down and simple aesthetic. But to modern eyes and ears, the term is applied to the overly ornate filigree that was only a part of the deal at the very end–when it was already being replaced by the classical period. Remember that J.S. Bach was considered a fuddy duddy and definitely not in the top rank of artists of his time. But his kid C.P.E. — a pre-classical composer of clear and child-like compositions was quite the big noise in 1750.
Now some people come into it because they’re posers. They can’t play. They can’t draw. They substitute hubris for craft. This gives them a shot they wouldn’t otherwise get. But over time? Generally speaking the public figures out who’s who and the real talent rises to the top. And as it does, the genre becomes more and more complex. And then, after enough time, the new genre becomes just as overblown and bloated as the one it replaced and is then replaced by yet another fresh and bracing aesthetic.
Except, I think that deal, which seemed to have been working pretty much continuously in Western Art since the days of Plato, has stopped functioning.
To me now, things are stuck in the ‘simple’ cycle. This started in the ’80’s with the advent of digital musical instruments. It was then that I started to notice more and more ‘covers’ of tunes from the ’60’s rising to the top of the charts. That was augmented by sampling (more technology) being used to re-purpose existing works into simple collage. Then, with MTV-unplugged, Grunge and the rise of ‘Indie’ one would hear ever greater quantities of music that is ‘stripped down’. Hell, even ‘Autotune’; that emblem of high-tech studio software is used to make any melody sound really simple-minded.
From ‘Americana’ to the thirty one flavours of DJ/electronica, the zeitgeist is simplicity in all three basic elements of music: few or no chords; the most basic beats; no melody to speak of. (If you disagree with that last one, explain to me why Black Eyed Peas are the most popular group in the world.)
As an unabashed ‘epic’ kind of guy, I keep waiting for the pendulum to swing back towards ‘complex’. But it hasn’t. It has only swung sideways to ever-more elaborate ways to keep it ‘simple’ (and stupid.)
My friends who rave about Americana and Indie argue that there is a ‘depth’ to this simplicity. In other words, the more complicated the arrangement the less inherently ‘honest’ it is; the less real ‘truth’ it has to offer. Johnny Cash or Neil Young and a guitar have more to say than a convention of prog rockers. I dunno about that. At the end of the day, there’s only so many words that rhyme with ‘girl’… and so many ways to play three chords in the key of E.
Maybe we get the culture we deserve. Perhaps the current dominance of simplicity in all areas of music—from Phillip Glass to Lady Gaga, betrays something about us; either who we think we are or who we wish we were.