April 6th, 2012


The Decline of Music


            Music is an art form, if for no other reason than that it is provocative, eliciting a response, whether disgust or elation.  It fills us with emotion and calls us to action – even if that action is just a few shimmied dance steps.  In other words, it can move us or make us move.  It utilizes our animalistic nature, coupling a physical connection with a visceral sensation, while simultaneously elevating us above the ranks of lower life forms.  Interacting with music is a high-minded, purely human activity.  We live our life to a soundtrack, bend to the vibration of guitar strings, ache at the mournful truth of a sustained A minor, and sway to the pretty melodies, the epic ballads, and the adrenaline-infused party anthems.  Downtime and in between time and overtime are populated by radios, CDs, and Ipods.  There are trumpets at our birth and bagpipes at our death.  All this is to say: Music is Important.

            And popular music is the most important, simply because it’s popular.  Everyone will have their preferences or guilty pleasures, but in our interconnected commercial world, it is impossible to escape the inundation of mainstream music.  Currently, the faces that construct the modern landscape of popular American music can be considered nothing but imposters.  They gained their throne through a concerted effort to turn the making of a superstar into a business model; a social construction that could be profited from.  The musicality of our generation’s performers is increasingly viewed as less important than the media buzz created by overexposure.  The names at the top of the charts are more readily identified as celebrities than as musicians.  For a time, there were singers who didn’t write their own songs.  Now, singers don’t even sing their own songs.  The artistry of music fades underneath layers of electronic manipulation.  The experience of this “music” is as hollow as the souls who set out to create it.

            But who to blame?  Surely, the decline of music has been a decades-long process.  Additionally, generational music is difficult to compare, skewed upon perspective.  Music from the past seems both better and worse than what is produced today; more pure, but less exciting.  One cannot judge with clarity songs not from his own time, as accurate perception only results from an intimate, era-specific experience with a subject.  Musical truth, therefore, comes from a firsthand account.  I can only fairly denounce the singers of my world, though their trespasses were made possible by trespassers of the past.  If nothing else, the imposters I want to single out are a signpost of how far things have fallen, even if these imposters aren’t completely responsible for how bad things have become.  Here lie the guilty: The Black Eyed Peas, LMFAO, and Lady Gaga.

            The Black Eyed Peas are a group of four vocalists.  None of them play instruments.  None of them are particularly good rappers or singers.  None of them are particularly good dancers.  None of them seem particularly talented or exceptional in any respect, even in appearance.  There are three black men whose looks range from average to alien-esque and a white woman whose beauty has a very polarizing effect (though in a perfect world, this would be beside the point).  So what is appealing about The Black Eyed Peas?  They are visually consumable.  They wear elaborate costumes and perform on decadent stages and blast through easy to follow songs.  They achieved mega-stardom once they embraced a “futuristic” style, dressing like runaways from some colony in deep space.  They are visually unique; one can’t watch them without getting a sensation of bizarreness.  Their stage presence is strange enough to distract people from the crappy, monotone songs that loop in the background, such as “Let’s Get Retarded”, “My Humps”, and “Imma Be”, none of which denote any musical identity or espouse any sort of purpose.  Some of their songs are blatantly sexual, some blatantly idiotic.  Their lyrics are transparent and lazy.  From “I’ve Got a Feeling”: Fill up my cup – Mazel tov – Look at her dancing – just take it off.  The Black Eyed Peas have hung around for over ten years because they are a brand, not a band.  Their existence has almost nothing to do with music.  And their lack of a musical identity – Dance?  Rap?  R&B?  Electronica? – makes them even more marketable.  Their songs can be heard on a wide range of radio stations, allowing for crossover appeal that garnered them the honor of performing at half time of Superbowl XLV.  That performance was fittingly riddled with technical difficulties, exposing the emptiness of the songs and the voices behind them.  With the names will.i.am, Taboo, Fergie, and apl.de.ap, the foursome is as far away from the simplicity of pure music as one could get.  Catchy choruses and production value aside, The Black Eyed Peas offer a listener nothing but forgettable parlor tricks.  In five years, The Black Eyed Peas will be as memorable as a concussion.

            LMFAO is a tag team of DJs pretending that it takes more than one person to hit the play button on a sound system.  With similarly ridiculous stage names, Redfoo and Skyblu, LMFAO is an enthusiastic force encouraging lightheartedness, valuing the party lifestyle above all else.  But instead of embracing the satisfaction of satire and making songs that are intended not to be taken seriously, LMFAO pegs themselves as the coolest guys in the room.  They don’t champion inclusion, as if the party is open to everyone, but rather exclusion, as if the party is just for them and those they deem worthy.  To me, someone not knee-deep in the underground club scene of cocaine and sleeplessness, LMFAO seems like a quirky joke; something that couldn’t possibly be that popular, simply because the niche group it caters to is so small.  But everywhere you go, LMFAO songs can be heard, each one more bland and repetitious than the last.  LMFAO packages computer-generated dance beats and sells them as songs.  There is absolutely zero musical variance.  I have no complaints against artists finding what they do well and sticking to it, but LMFAO seems to disregard that any other type of music even exists.  The smugness to their lyrics and their personalities is masturbation, both literally and metaphorically (The “Champagne Showers” music video shows them blasting away women with ejaculating champagne bottle penises).  It’s superficial and narrow-minded to depict the world as singularly populated by dance music, sex, and the dirty walls of a club.  Overall, it’s almost impossible to consider LMFAO a musical act, though they ostensibly play “music.”  They rap sparingly, dance a little, but mostly are just caretakers of the pre-recorded track.  They are DJs in every sense: they hit the play button and pander to the crowd.  Only in a musical scene as indifferent as ours could DJs be passed off as musicians.  But turn on your radio and there they are, lumped in with all the other “artists.”

            Lady Gaga shouldn’t be indicative of decline.  She was on the cusp of leading our musical generation into a more substantive plateau, with pop music masquerading as performance art.  She has a good enough voice, a clear enough musical identity, and inhabits the quality most important to creating art of any kind: sincerity.  Her failure is one of excess.  Just like when she shows up to the Grammy’s every year and tries to outdo her ridiculous costume from the year before, she seems stuck in a confusing struggle to top herself, thereby setting herself up for failure.  She anointed herself spokeswoman of homosexuals and transgenders, culminating in an ultimate expression of her “be yourself” crusade: “Born This Way”.  A crusade against…bullies, I guess?  But the statement was made late, gays having already gained a measure of acceptance in American culture, and awkwardly, perhaps owing to the hypocrisy of someone as public and embraced as her identifying herself as a representative of the marginalized.  When she sings of the people who won’t accept her, we know she has already gained the hardest acceptance there is to come by – she’s famous.  And her “difference” is a conscious manipulation.  Her strange fashion sense is a self-referential brag about her strangeness.  Lady Gaga is the grotesque extension of Madonna, running a shock-and-awe campaign against…once again, I’m not really sure.  Because she is primarily devoted to these nonmusical concerns, it is regrettable that her music can be quite good: original at times, soulful, and diverse.  But the most damning thing about Lady Gaga is that it was her decision to push the music to the backburner, opting to promote social opinions and cheap theatrics over musical excellence.  Lady Gaga is the worst of the bunch because she is more than capable of creating quality music for the foreseeable future, if only that’s what the public cared about.  But instead, we want meat dresses and to see her hatching out of an egg.  And for her part, she’s more than happy to give that to us.  For a price.

The names of these performers is signal enough that something has gone awry. And yet we accept all them as commonplace.  The Black Eyed Peas is a nonsensical non-pun, referring to…nothing as far as I can tell (other than actual black-eyed peas).  Lady Gaga is a satire of stately things and a disgusting, egotistical claim to the throne, tacking on an identity that used to be synonymous with insanity.  LMFAO is an acronym wrought of the digital age, useful for earmarking a particularly comical moment.  Yet, such juvenility only reveals that the joke is on them.  Or maybe the joke is on us.  I go a little gaga myself trying to decide who’s getting the better of whom. 

The problem, of course, is that these performers are concerned with creating a marketable experience, not music.  The taste of the modern music fan is maddening, somehow combining indifference and obsession.  We are careless enough not to question the musical product we consume, but avid enough to support it by buying concert tickets and downloading tracks.  We get riled up over our favorite artists with hardly any actual attachment to music they produce, drowning ourselves in non-discerning inebriation.  We will fight to the death to defend whatever is currently promoted as “American Music” without a second thought.  We choose the Peas, LMFAO, and Gaga over anyone making an attempt at serious music, unable to realize that that choice was made for us by men in suits who think that every lyric sheet is scribbled with dollar signs.

The fix is simple, but global.  We have to divert our attention to music that is less accessible, both in terms of finding a way to hear it and appropriating ourselves to the different styles we might find.  The internet shouldn’t be a mass marketing tool that will shove more of the same crap down our throats, but an open field where songsters and songstresses can congregate in celebration of their craft.  It is encouraging that Adele, aided by only a few simple love songs and the power of her voice, swept through the Grammy’s this year.  We need to champion artists that write their own music, play their own instruments, and sing with their own voices.  We need music that could be recreated on a back porch in Arkansas just as easily as it could be in a state of the art production studio in Hollywood.  We need musicians that give a shit about what they create, not the dollars it might yield.  We need music that is concerned with beauty and truth.  We need a public that will settle for nothing less.