Friday, July 22, 2011

Music Snobbery (Why Pop Radio Blows and Music Snobs Have A Handle on Something Grand)

I’m sorry if you think I’m pretentious. There’s more than a good chance I come across that way. I don’t mean to be rude, but I’ve discovered I’m a self-proclaimed snob. And I think I am not alone. There are countless others out there in the world just like me, strutting around with our heads held high, sure to make it known that we like what we like and it’s better than what you like. Again, we’re not trying to be rude (okay, some of us get off on being rude, but I don’t count myself as one of them. I actually worry about being rude.) but we just happen to be thoroughly convinced that what we like IS better than what others around us like, for good reason. Let me clarify, folks like me who know what they like, which is most likely contrary to what is popular with the general masses, are the ones who come across rude or pretentious mainly because what we like is in fact not what is embraced by most of society.

What is the meaning of all this blathering, you may be asking. Let me back up a bit. As per usual, this blog post is simply stemming from things that have been stewing around in my head for quite some time. Usually, after things have been stewing for quite some time, something I see, hear, overhear, or somet unknown muse sends a spark and the whole batch of stew erupts like a gas station falling victim to a careless smoker (a la Zoolander). Suddenly all that has been swimming around in my mind comes spewing out of my fingertips and into words read here or elsewhere. As I’m bad (aka lazy) about editing, I fear that often these words stay a jumbled unorganized mess, but since I know what I’m saying, I simply leave them be. There’s always time for editing, I tell myself. It’s nice to tell yourself things sometimes. This is not where I’m going with my self-proclaimed snobbery post, but is indeed a preview into the chaotic inner-workings of my mind. Perhaps what you read here or hear me say in person will now make a bit more sense with the knowledge that most of what’s written and spoken by me is simply verbally processed spew…which in itself aids in the mental processing, uh, process.

All that to say, as I was on my way to my coffee shop the other afternoon, something lit the match and the gas station erupted and now I’m spewing wordy flames, sorting out the idea that somehow it became okay for music to cease to be art and instead become a mindless opiate for the masses. And that’s when I started to think about how I sound (and probably am) really pretentious. Yet, I remain firm in my convictions.

The music I like, the music my friends like, and that several of my friends make, is in fact better than most of what is heard on popular radio. Let me clarify by what I mean by “better.” Let’s be honest, if we’re basing what is considered “good” music solely on numbers sold and amounts of money amassed, then the majority of true music is not considered good, and therefore definitely not better than what’s on popular radio. But herein lies the problem. Good music doesn’t sell. I mean, it does, but not nearly in the amounts that its popular counterpart does. I suppose that what I mean by “better,” is mostly “higher quality.” So if good music doesn’t make millions of dollars, what constitutes as good/true music?

One word: artistry.

It is the time, dedication, hard work, and yes even natural abilities that makes one a good musician.

Just because someone puts on a pair scrubs, tosses a stethoscope around their neck, that doesn’t make them a nurse. In the same fashion, just because a person is handed a guitar, a microphone, or even a recording contract, that doesn’t make them a musician. I hesitate to even use the term “recording artist” as the word “artist” is involved. If it didn’t make them sound like a small woodwind instrument given to elementary school students, I would just call them “recorders.” So…what do we call the individuals who get so much radio play today, but do very little besides gyrate their bodies while scantily clad? Who cares! It’s sexy, and sex sells. And besides sex and money, what really matters anyway?

I’d like to know who is responsible for deciding music no longer needs to have any sort of quality before being fed to the masses and punch them in the face. You know, if I wasn’t a borderline pacifist. Maybe I can just glare at them intensely and make them uncomfortable with my unwavering stare. But it’s not just their fault. Folks line up to buy this fabricated crap (Well, not so much anymore. Now they click their little keys and make sure gratification is nothing but instant.) The masses feed the industry that feeds the masses.

Okay, obviously not all popular music is terrible. It’s catchy and thus fun to listen to. That has to count for something. I’d say it’s fun to dance to, which given the right crowd, it can be. But dancing these days has turned into nothing more than rubbing against one another’s genitals in a public space with lots of flashing lights…and generally really off-beat.

I often have people ask me how I learn about the musicians that I listen to. It starts with turning off the radio. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? Wanna find out about good music? Turn off the radio! Hmm, no, turn off pop radio. Feel free to leave it on the classic rock station, the classical music station, or NPR (I promise they’ll play you good music and not turn you into a flailing socialist.) Also, stations like KEXP and The Current do a good job at playing music that wasn’t written in 45 minutes by some dude with a computer in a cubicle. Though, theoretically, they’re tied to public radio, so return to the NPR comment and move on.

Fellow music snob friends help, too. It’s important to keep the cycle flowing of telling folks you know about a new band you just heard, so that they may return the favor. And on and on it goes. And you know, the internet might have a little something out there about music. I’m not sure. It’s pretty vast.

Let my conclude by showing you two videos. One is of mega popular multimillion dollar pop star Rihanna. “Her” song “Rude Boy,” was a chart topper written by several dudes (okay, in her defense, she helped) whose native language isn’t even English. Hope you don’t have to dial 1 to understand the lyrics, cuz you know, it would be absurd to be a multi-lingual nation. Wait….that’s off topic and being saved for another blog. Honestly, I think I’d prefer Rihanna’s song in another language. If I couldn’t understand it, I wouldn’t feel the need to douse my eardrums in Holy Water every time I’m unfortunate enough to fall within earshot. Obviously, singing about sex isn’t a bad thing. It’s a totally natural event that people think about on a daily basis. Good music and art and the like lose their power if they aren’t engaging in that which makes us human, both good and bad. But, if I want to hear a woman describe how she’ll give her man an erection, I’ll just hang around the condom aisle in Wal-mart.

The second video is by Drew Grow (formerly of the band Five O’Clock People) who while makes a decent living, continues to play sold out shows to possibly hundreds of people. He is a working artist, constantly developing his craft. Ever evolving as an artist and human, rather than changing with the passing trends. I chose to pair Drew Grow with Rihanna relatively arbitrarily. He just came on my ipod as I’m finish up this post. So I went to his website where he has a post that touches on things similar what you’ve just read. He, as a quality musician should, wrestles with the larger questions and struggles of life and invites his listeners to do the same. He, like a quality musician should, convies emotion and moves his listeners, with and without words.(Close your eyes and listen instead of watching the video.) He might even talk about sex sometimes, who knows. He's playing here with The Portland Cello Project who also find themselves to be pretty outstanding musicians. He also often plays with a band and together they are called Drew Grow and the Pastor's Wives, if you should feel so inclined to check them out. You should feel so inclined. :)

I know stylistically these two songs are super different. Apples and oranges if you will. I'm not so much focusing on that though. For the moment, ignore style. Focus on quality.

You’re free to like what you like, and we're all going to stick with what we like anyway. But I'm going to  stick with quality artistry. (Okay, with the occasional guilty pleasure of music that falls short of the title of “good,” because, damn, that mass-pleasing music is catchy!)

At last, the soap-box is free now. I’m off it.

++It should be noted that simply because someone writes and sings a song in a language other than their own, it doesn’t have to suck. Example here.


  1. Interesting post. Though I would like to make a couple points in response. And I think I will, since the internet just lets me do it. Thanks internet!

    So, please correct me when I go astray, but the main thesis of your posting is that most music that sells a lot is bad because that music usually comes in the easiest of digestible forms (and as you point out, the masses usually take the path of least resistance). As well, that music is the most pervasive in our culture because it's often part of a broader, less transparent, marketing campaign involving large media companies, even bigger corporations, and mega-tours with flashing lights and large portions of the artist's body as part of the "art." Oppositely, the music that doesn't sell very well is good because that music involves one person, or a small collection of people, making exactly the kind of music they want to make, unencumbered by corporations, unfettered from a large record deal, and untethered from the trappings of clear channel, etc and so on. And that music is better because it fosters true artistry within those years of touring and playing music without "instant gratification." Those years of work don't bear fruit in terms of monetary reward, merely just pockets of admiration from people who also know what real artistry is.

    But, by that stream of thinking, I think you very quickly run into a couple problems. First, is a problem ancillary to your original point and that is the problem of sex and drugs and other base topics these major selling artists seem to always sing about. The problem being, they sing about those things less than the minor selling artists, at least in terms of volume. I mean, there are literally thousands of independent artists, hip-hip, hard rock, metal, etc and so on who don't sell very many records, don't have any label backing, and aren't sponsored by any corporations who are making music with lyrics that are 10 times as lewd or crude as any Rihanna song. What's more, the major selling music is often purposefully generic so as not to not offend, to be more palatable for a wider audience.

    The second problem is the slippery slope in your argument and that is this, what, exactly, makes Drew Grow a true artist and what, exactly, makes Rihanna not. From the time she was seven years old (thanks, wikipedia), Rihanna has been singing and aspiring to be a musical artist. Her dad was a crack addict, her parents were divorced by 14, and she was abused by a shit-head boyfriend. I would venture to say that Rihanna has infinitely more trails and hardships and heartbreak to make into art than some white guy in Portland with a bunch of cellos. Not to say that things don't get a little confusing when Rihanna, or Katy Perry, or Beyonce, wears the things they wear and my brain just wants to look at them and not really listen to the things they're singing. That's not to say they haven't been working hard at the craft of singing, their art, for just as long, probably longer in terms of time spent on earth, than Drew Grow.

    Lastly, the most important thing to note is that often sales and good music often intersect because, simply, that music is the best there is and it sells a lot because there are always more people living who want to hear it. You would not disagree that bands and artists like The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Elton John, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springstein, and of course, U2, are some of the greatest songwriters and singers and players of instruments in all of history. And guys also happen to have sold more music, than almost anyone else, in all history.

    That's all I had. I think your posting was thought-provoking and well-written and I would be curious to hear your thoughts.

  2. First of all, Vanessa and Jeff, thanks for reading my blog and commenting! I get super excited about comments.

    Now, to delve into a response to you, Jeff. It’s taken me a long time mulling it over and randomly thinking of stuff, but here goes. I think it might be too long, so I'm going to try this in stages.

    I’ll start with the nature of my blog/writing and the fact that this particular post was a “slippery slope.” You are right. It most likely is a slippery slope. But that is mostly because of my use of this blog. Feeble internet blogs such as this one with an understood readership of about three people have a general tendency to e a biased, “this is the way I see things and think they should be,” sort of vibe. My posts aren’t so much a well balanced, perhaps even well thought out, balanced article.
    I often worry about my posts being unbalanced, unrealistic, and even unfounded because generally when I write them, I’m really wrapped up in my own thoughts and it is the process of writing that both unwinds them and clears my mind. It also serves as an exercise in the basic skills of writing. Thus, most of my posts are quite often verbal spew meant to process and wade through the unwavering, unrelenting thoughts that pervade my mind.
    It is this inability to distance myself or objectively unwrap things that I fear will continue be a hindrance to ever becoming a great writer.
    But thanks for indicating that it was “well-written.” That’s probably more what I’m going for here than attempting to persuade my audience. As I said, blogging for me is more an exercise in writing, making myself hit little black keys so words appear on the screen in a way that make people say, “hey, you’re a good writer,” than “wow, your thoughts are pure spot on genius.” I do find it interesting, however, that of the two of you who commented, the musician is the one who replied, “Brilliant.” Which, admittedly, I think is a bit much, but thanks, Vanessa!

    But this brings me to another point. Reading both comments on this blog post made me realize that as both a writer and a human being, I desire validation without criticism or argument. I mean, don’t we all? But this is not the real word, and will certainly not strengthen me as a writer. Thus, your comment, which has taken me a while to respond to, is a good and necessary exercise for me if I am serious about putting myself out there in the real writing world. And the real real world.

  3. (2nd half)
    Ok…I think that is not what you meant by being curious to hear my thoughts and so I’ll address the music thing in 2 points.
    1. My post was not intended in the least to bash Rihanna. The point was that in my opinion, modern pop music has ceased to be “art,” in the manner that art I believe art is intended to inspire and wrestle with the beauty and ugliness of what it means to be a human being. To me, the majority of music being written today that is making more money than any other music is pretty much an opiate of the masses, meant for nothing more than entertainment. There is nothing wrong with entertainment. It’s a good thing. It’s fun. But I think when it replaces people’s understanding of what art should be, which I think it has because for many people, it’s the only music/art they know, something is lost. Obviously millions of people think about sex and drugs, so these are important things to address in all forms of art. I used Rihanna’s song because, from my perspective. “Come on Rude Boy can you get it up,” doesn’t strike me as seriously wrestling with this issue. I could be wrong.
    And the purposely generic, not meant to offend thing pretty much furthers my idea of current pop music’s inability to be called art. Since when is art generic and non offensive? I’m not opposed to Rihanna’s song because its lyrics are regarded as offensive by more conservative listeners, but am opposed to calling it art because there is no substance.
    And yeah, Rihanna and tons of other pop starts, probably have struggled a lot through hardships as children, adolescents, and as starving musicians. Let’s get together someday and talk about my childhood (or lack thereof) and shitty circumstances and abandonment and whatnot. Then maybe I can write some fluff that will sell to the masses.
    I’m considering jumping on the zombie or vampire bandwagon anyway. Write and sell some fluff and pay off my damn student loans. 

    2. Briefly regarding the other bands you mention….notice how in my post I mentioned to listen to the classic rock station. All those guys can be found there. Popular music has not always been terrible. Music that makes millions of dollars hasn’t always been, and isn’t always bad. There are exceptions and will continue to be. And I suppose art evolves and that in 20-30 years, our children and grand children could look back on current popular music and see the value and brilliance of it. I might just be behind in the evolution.