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Another Disturbing Trend

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So I was driving home after work yesterday listening to NPR and during All Things Considered they had a review of a new album called “Transistor Radios” by a singer/songwriter guy named M. Ward. In listening to this review and the little clips of music, it occurred to me that I probably have a very different idea about the function of music than most people.

See, for years I’ve had arguments with my friends who are into punk / post-punk music. My argument goes something like this:

Punk developed as a reaction to the predominately over-produced, over-orchestrated FM pop music and disco of the late 70s. The idea was (as I understand it) to strip away all pretense and play raw, honest music. The problem is, nobody bothered to learn their instruments, write songs, or even understand music theory. Therefore, the only people to whom punk will be interesting will be those people who have a connection to the culture from which it sprang. In other words, once people have forgotten all about the over-produced, over-orchestrated FM pop music and disco of the late 70s, punk will lose 100% of its meaning. It can’t stand alone – it is purely reactionary.

At the heart of this argument is a notion that there is music in the world which is capable of standing alone – standing the test of time, and that this music – art for art’s sake – should be the acme to which all musicians and composers should strive, and all music lovers should strive to discover. These ideas are at the core of my philosophy and they strongly influence my opinions about music and musicians. In listening to this review (M. Ward is not punk, by the way), it became clear to me that this may not be the opinion most people hold.

The one consistent reaction I get from people when I say things like “if genius exists, why waste your time with the mediocre?” goes something like: “What’s wrong with just enjoying the music?” I’ve never been able to fully understand this reaction since I tend not to enjoy music if it is too predictable or formulaic. But the one thing this NPR reviewer kept repeating was that this M. Ward album was great because it transports the listener back to another time. In other words, the music, in and of itself, is only good because it reminds someone of different music at a different time – and it is the TIME that the listener is enjoying, not the MUSIC.

I know from first-hand experience that music as nostalgia can be a very powerful thing. My wife, to this day, has a guilty pleasure of putting on old A-Ha CDs precisely for that purpose. But if you look at the state of not only music but all entertainment media as a whole, it seems to me that, once you weed out the bubble-gum filler material marketed for 12 year olds, the vast majority of what remains fills exactly this nostalgia niche.

I’m not saying that this is entirely a bad thing – I still love The Band’s second album for this very reason – but it makes me wonder if we are losing something in the way of originality. I know this is true in the movie and TV industries simply because people have had their careers ended by taking a chance on an original project which didn’t make enough money – and to a great degree I would say that it is also true in the music business. But it’s funny how a Norah Jones or Wilco CD, or the soundtrack to “O Brother Where Art Thou?” seems somehow more authentic and original than the remakes of old movies and TV shows. Or is it just me?

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About Vaylor Trucks

  • Wow. So much misinformation packed into so small a space.

    “The problem is, nobody bothered to learn their instruments, write songs, or even understand music theory. Therefore, the only people to whom punk will be interesting will be those people who have a connection to the culture from which it sprang.”

    The only conclusion I can draw from this statement is that you’ve never actually heard to any punk. Either that or you heard some but didn’t listen to it. The idea behind punk and the DIY aesthetic was that anybody could play. Not “you can’t know how to play”, but “you don’t have to know how to play”. Big difference. Do you honestly think you’d be able to get a “White Man (In Hammersmith Palais)” out of a band that didn’t know their instruments? Or “Holiday In Cambodia”? “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver”? “See No Evil”? And on and on and on.

    Knowledge of music theory is not essential to the creation of compelling music. If that were the case, we’d have to throw most blues, rock & roll, country & western and R&B out. It’s like saying that you can’t act if you don’t use Stanislavsky’s Method.

    Your contention that punk was “strictly reactionary” just boggles the mind. Yes, there certainly was an element of that involved, but there was also a lot of political commentary and just plain ol’ self-expression. If you look at music in the right way, every new form that’s come down the pike has been reactionary in one way or another. Music doesn’t appear in a vacuum.

    If it’s true that “the only people to whom punk will be interesting will be those people who have a connection to the culture from which it sprang”, how come I see so many 14-year-olds running around wearing Ramones T-shirts? I kinda doubt that they spent a lot of time debating the relative merits of Styx, Journey, Foreigner, et al before they could enjoy “Blitzkrieg Bop”, y’know? Something in the music speaks to them. And that something has very little, if anything, to do with the state of radio in the 70’s. The music does stand on its own, whether you can see that or not.

    I realize I’m only focusing on a small portion of your piece, but frankly your sweeping generalizations on a topic you’re obviously not conversant with pretty much stopped me in my tracks. You lost your credibility right there.


    I think you made some good points. Music is a time machine for a lot of people.

    As for punk vs. the other music, in many ways you are right. I love the ear candy of a well produced album by a talented musician, but I like the raw energy of punk as well.

    bmarkey, Joe Strummmer admitted that the Clash had limited musical ability in the beginning, so did Steve Jones off the Sex Pistols, it is interesting to note that guys like Klaus Flouride actually had a good musical background but got into punk for the raw power.

  • I included that point for illustrative purposes only. I by no means am suggesting that anyone take that one argument as being central to the criticism. What I was trying to do was cite a concrete example where my ideas of the function of music may differ from those of other folks.

    I will say this in my defense, however: I will concede that there is a difference between “you can’t know how to play” and “you don’t have to know how to play” for sure – but I would counter that, yes indeed you DO have to know how to play. That’s like saying that you don’t have to know how to read and write to be an author. Can it be done without the requisite skills? Sure it can – but anyone serious enough about the art form would take it upon themselves to become educated in the medium in which they choose to express themselves. And anyone who purposely avoids such knowledge is at best misinformed about the role knowledge plays in the creative process, or at worst a poseur.

    I also don’t buy the argument that learning how to read/write music somehow detracts from the ability to compose/perform in any meaningful way. Again, that is tantemount to suggesting that knowing how to read and write English somehow detracts from your ability to speak.

  • SFC SKI – My point exactly. There were plenty of musicians in punk who knew what they were doing. There were plenty of others who, just by dint of sheer repetition, picked things up. The point where I take issue is with the statement “nobody bothered to learn their instruments (or) write songs”. See what I’m getting at?

    Vaylor- You’re absolutely right: the ability to read and/or write music doesn’t detract, in any way, from composition or performance. And if you’ll go back and look at what I said, you’ll see that I never made that claim.

    Again, the idea was that you don’t need to be some virtuoso to play rock & roll. You’ve heard the expression “three chords and the truth”? That’s the gist of it, right there. Your analogy of not bring able to read or write and expecting to be an author doesn’t hold up. A better one would be that you don’t need a degree in English to be a writer.

  • Eric Olsen

    Vaylor, a very readable and thought-provoking post that gets to heart of one of the most fundamental splits in art: skill vs expression.

    One factor not really mentioned here is the importance of energy, which can be viewed as an important value unto itself.

    Interesting points all around – thanks and welcome!

  • bmarkey – You may be exactly on the money about your issue with my statements, and perhaps it is true that I’ve not heard the “correct” punk works to make so sweeping a generalization. Time will be the ultimate judge, of course. I am by no means sheltered when it comes to punk, though, as I’ve heard things from the well known (Sex Pistols, Ramones) to the niche (Dead Kennedys, Lard) to the obscure (Sore Throat, Ultraboy). Some of it I liked, some of it I didn’t – just like anything else. However, I realized that, even of the material I enjoyed, there was a limited shelf life for the music, and that is all I was trying to say. If you enjoy it – great! I like some of it myself. The big question is “will it hold up…” – or, in the context of my criticism above – “if it holds up, will it be for artistic or nostalgic reasons?”

    I should, I suppose, add that the reason I am trying to make an effort to clarify my positions here is that I don’t want to give the opinion that my writings here will be primarily music criticism. In fact, most of the stuff I write is on theory (see my blog http://www.blogspot.com/theyetitrio for examples) and as such my primary interest is in the function of music, both technically and aesthetically, so it is important for any readers to be confortbale with the fact that I do my best to check, or at least overtly state, any prejudices ahead of time.

  • I think your argument that Norah Jones and, especially, Wilco, are simply “remakes” is patently ridiculous. Have you ever actually listened to Wilco? Or M. Ward, while we’re at it? I’ll stick by bmarkey’s side: you’re talking about something you clearly have little understanding of, and it’s plainly obvious when you make such ignorant comments as the ones about Wilco, M. Ward, and Norah Jones. And don’t think I’m simply taking offense here – I’m not one of the many Norah Jones fans. I just think your argument is hollow and meaningless.


    It’s amazing that nothing brings out the knives faster than music criticism!

    Genocide? Meh. Child molesters go free? Yawn! Somebody calls Wilco rehashed Counting Crows? IT’S GO TIME!

  • Yikes! It is clear that I need to pay closer attention to how my words can be construed. I did not mean to say that Norah Jones or Wilco – or M. Ward – are remakes (yes I have heard all 3). Indeed, I don’t think I made any negative comment about any of them. I was trying to make a point that, of all the popular artistic media, consumers of music seem to be more forgiving about overt use of nostalgia – and I would say that this certianly applies to all the artists mentioned in the piece. Why should that be construed as a negative?

    Clearly, I am much too thin-skinned to be a full-time critic. I guess that is why I gravitate towards the theory end of things, as the concepts tend to be less subjective.

  • Vern Halen

    I’ve see the point of contention here as being the difference bewtween inspired amateurism verses calculated professionalism.

    The punks, whether they be part of any of the subgenres under their umbrella, were for the most part insipred amateurs – they had varying degrees of skill, but the core of their ethic was, at least in the beginning, that they probably wouldn’t make a whole lot of money playing music, other than enough to pay the rent on the U Haul.

    The calulculating professionals, on the other hand, went where the odds were in their favor, playing music just familiar enough to be recognizable and just different enough to be unique, all with an eye tyoward furthering their careers, making sure every career move put them one step further ahead, and being able to initiate a backup plan for the occasional career stall.

    The differenc I hear in these two types of musicians is that inispired amateurs usually have avery distince voice & approach, because they are often (but not always) limited musically. Professionals, because they have more technique, can move chameleon-like trough the constantly changing music scene, making adjustments whe necessary too their style in order to maximize their earning potential.

    Please note, that these comments, like most comments about music & pop culture, are generalizations only. Feel free to disagree. BTW, every so often, you run across an inspired professional, and when you do, hopefully you can recognize something special. The last one for me was maybe Jeff Buckley – what a serious loss of talent. I try not to listen to his recordings too often – they make me want to toss out 90% of my collection.

  • Eric Olsen

    good points VH, another angle on the same thing is, speaking in broad generalization, the more technically proficient one becomes, the farther one gets from the source of the original inspiration, with many notable exceptions, of course

  • Hey, theorize all you want – just be able to back up your assertions.

    Let me put it this way: I detest German opera. Well, all opera, really, but the Germans especially. But if I were to go beyond that basic statement and start making claims about the genre I’d be foolish, because I don’t know anything about it (other than that I don’t like it).

    It’s not about listening to the “correct” music, it’s about making claims you can’t back up and stating them as fact. So yeah, paying attention to how things might be construed is a good start. 🙂

  • Eric Olsen

    on the other hand, I would say it is obvious from the tone and care of the post that Vaylor was trying to honestly work his way through his own conception and meant no offense

  • None taken on my part.

  • -E

    Pop music (as in popular, not just boy band pop) has people that study it from many different approaches. Some do so from a music theory approach and many don’t. But many agree that approaching it from the stance of music theory alone doesn’t work, it leaves out a lot of details and doesn’t answer all the questions. And I think you’re figuring that out with your unenthusiastic feelings towards punk and such.

  • Vern Halen

    So, let me ask – is Green Day and bands who play similar styles punk? Because I think these kind of bands knew there was a potentially large market for this stuff, as opposed to a band like the Ramones, who at the best might have seen a limited market for the music they unleashed on the face of God’s grey earth.

    I liked the Ramones, Television, Patti Smith Group & all those bnads of tat era. And they were easy to identify – they were all quite different in their styles. Nowadays, there always seems to be a few bands who are fairly interchangeable stylistically to those who don’t listen closely (I sound like some parody of a 1950’s father, “Turn that rock ‘n’ roll racket down! I don’t care if it’s Elvis – it all sounds like noise to me!”). And I just wonder if you set out to be punks if you really are punks at all. Unless of course, Green Day isn’t classified as punk – I’m not familiar enough with them to know.

  • Eric Olsen

    they are “heritage punks” in the sense that musically they vary pretty widely, but like the Clash remain identified as punk and still punk out when they feel like it.

  • Green Day & Co. self-identify as punks, but I don’t think anybody else really sees them that way. I suspect that if you woke up Billy Joe whateverhisnameis in the middle of the night and asked him if he was a punk, he’d say “no”. Then he’d call security.

  • And let me put in my 2 cents about a-ha-
    I don’t know about your wife, but I think their work was pretty damn original- my enjoying them has nothing to do with nostalgia. A so-called boy-band writing songs inspired by Franz Kafka? Landing a top-10 UK hit with a song about murder? Pretty subversive- melancholy with beautiful melodies- briliant songwriting. I recently read an interview with Chris Martin of Coldplay who also claims they were a big influence. I guess, as the old saying goes, music and art are in the eyes (and ears) of the beholder.