[19 October 2009]
“To stop the flow of music would be like the stopping of time itself, incredible and inconceivable.”
In looking backwards, it’s always the difference that dazzles most. We chuckle at the hairdos of old driver’s license photos, and maybe think back to memories of old living addresses, but most of the important details (name, sex, date of birth) seem mundane because they remain the same. Nostalgia is based on change, an idea that originated in the psychology of homesickness in soldiers stationed in a foreign land—we can’t long for what we haven’t been separated from by either time or circumstance. It’s obvious, and fascinating, and worthy of full exploration. But what often gets ignored is that which remains the same.
In discussing a decade’s worth of music, those same differences will dazzle and enthrall us for all their opportunities for casual self-reflection. We are the first children of the 21st century, and we’ll all be inexorably drawn towards (and yet defiant of) finding a label for the century’s first decade. We’ll all try to fit our ten years of collected artifacts and memories into an understanding that fits into the same popularly-honored lineage of “the ‘60s”, “the ‘70s”, “the ‘80s”, and “the ‘90s”. And the easiest way to wrap all of that cultural weight into a presentable package is to highlight all that has changed.
In a word, the cultural force seems to be gathering around the idea of the ‘00s as a period of “decline”. We have gradually but steadily borne witness to “the decline of the music industry”: the rapid decline in album sales, the rapid decline in concert ticket sales, the rapid decline in concert tours, the rapid decline of corporate income, the rapid decline of star power and wealth and captive markets. We’ve witnessed the decline of the record store—first the independent and then the corporate—and the public space in the mall of culture that it carved out for music. We’ve seen the decline of formats before, and we certainly have a prime example in the final decline of the CD and the move towards digital media. We even have the final decline of the portable music player, the once distinct physical icons of the boombox-Walkman-Discman lineage simply absorbed by and incorporated into the stonger icon of “the phone”. Evolution can be a bitch.
All of this erosion has left a deathly pallor over the idea of where music is and where it’s going. (”[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]”) With the demand destroyed through a long-standing parasitic relationship between the industry and the consumer, and a corresponding human flair for piracy, the music industry was already drying to a husk when it got sucked into the larger storm of the global economic recession. Now artists are more likely to earn money—and see actual sales—soundtracking a commercial than fighting for airplay on the radio. And in the face of all of this change, a look backwards to a decade prior leaves us nostalgic for the way things were, and concerned about whether a music economy can adapt to the new environment.
It may be that the systems of yesterday that made music an institution are shifting, shrinking, even crumbling, but music is a current that conforms to and reshapes contexts through time. Recontextualization is one of music’s dominant traits. Before the “Introduction” was used in the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra was primarily recognized by classical music aficionados and those history buffs who were aware that is was proposed as the German national anthem during the Nazi regime, due in no small part to the problematic philosophy of the Nietzsche text that inspired the piece, the link to which creates a feedback loop complicating the message of the famous obelisk scene in Kubrick’s visionary work. Today, any instance of the music from Zarathustra‘s “Introduction” is inextricable from the imagery of the film, even in the absence of similar visual cues, while its complicated history remains the politically ambiguous subtext. And because of this connection, the commercial exploitation of the reference and its constant reification has made this now 113-year-old piece of music one of the most recognizable in the world. The music itself not only survives these mutations, it thrives on this expanded awareness and becomes an ingrained aspect of the shared discourse of popular culture.
Whether it’s the multitude of use value found in the opening “O Fortuna” of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana or the car commercial incorporating the latest hopeful single from an indie artist, music continues to play a role in shaping the context of our cultural landscape. And while we fret about the politics of the commercialization of art, it remains unclear whether that song will sell more cars, but there is ample evidence that the commercial will sell more records. The monolith of 2001 might seem emblematic of the culture industry, and the music it incorporates can be employed in the culture industry’s aims, but the music itself thrives and lives on. And if the corporatization of music as commodity implodes? Music will still thrive.
And in the complicated political arrangement of a burgeoning one-world vision (one which music has been thoroughly involved in cultivating) competing with the politics of the culture industry, it’s important to remember that, fundamentally, all music is political, and you don’t need to be Woody Guthrie, or the Clash, or Rage Against the Machine. It is all singing the body politic. Music is the vox populi seeking a sympathetic ear. We respond to the call en masse. Because of its very ability to captivate us, music can be wielded like a knife, or like a bandage. We forge intricate bonds of emotion as a nation of listeners. Every audience is a nation.
Similarly, the McLuhan-esque changes brought about by the shifts in medium can’t be denied. The transition to digital forms has certainly negated much of the physicality of music as a commodity. The message of this medium is that the object-orientation of sellable music is no longer valid. Where sheet music gave way to records, so the album—an object of concrete fetishization—gives way to the file. It’s no longer even device specific, as we all understand that the music isn’t “in” the iPod, but rather the product we own sits intangibly in memory banks and networked servers. And while this may affect our living interactions with music, the music itself remains.
In fact, music remains with us always, across all cultures, times, classes, ethnicity, religions, even species. Music is one of nature’s eternal forms, embraced by none of its children more so than humans, who have wielded its power for a range of functions. Music is spiritual because of its intangibility, both defined by and freed from constraints by its nature as pure auditory sensation. Music endures. Music is a sense memory that the brain recalls with near perfect acuity, long after the experience, fondly, as true memory. Music is organized noise tickling the brain’s love of patterns.
Music laughs at our hand-wringing and pre-written post-mortems, because music requires no Billboard accounting or A&R development to persist. Music is not constrained by economies of scale. Music doesn’t require expensive studio production or expensive networks of distribution (even less so after this decade of change). Music happens whenever a dishwasher beats two spoons on the metal rim of a sink, whenever someone actually gives in and whistles while they work, whenever communities come together to celebrate. So long as someone can fashion an instrument, music will be made. It doesn’t really matter if music is no longer supported by a huge, elaborate industrial system of professionals out to lure a customer-audience. It won’t affect what music is, or what it means to us—though it will certainly come at a loss of jobs and income. It doesn’t matter if the idea of liner notes and the multi-sensory bonus material of engaging touch, smell, sight, (and for you cover art kissers, taste) dissolves into the sight-sound dialectic of the digital world. The essence of music will not change.
So long as we live, rhythm and melody will continue to captivate us. As long as we sing songs of war and of freedom, and even of sports arenas, we will collectively cry out with music. Despite all that has changed in a decade, music is still an identity badge, something that we use to define ourselves, both for ourselves and for others. Music is still one of the fundamental forms of human communication, a language that regularly transcends tongues—and does so increasingly often as the distances between voices and ears shrink into a virtual vanishing point.
Yes, we can talk about fads and genres, and the rise and fall of styles and fashions, but it all comes down to music in the end. We will always create it, always embrace it, and always find new ways to harness its power. That eternal truth is one of the primary reasons music continues to fascinate us. History makes music seem like a system of incessant change, but from start to finish all efforts have been the singular force of music exerting its power within culture.
That thick, tightly-woven yarn and its twists and knots are worth delving into because they reflect the ever-shifting means by which music is expressed. Because we have come to depend on music, we will always seek it out—it will always console us, thrill us, seduce us, enliven us, and confound us. Yet we should never lose sight of the sheer scale of music in our lives. That’s why we purchase, consume, study, explore, agonize over, and review music—it’s always been about this engagement, about sharing and building a conversation investigating what music is doing, what it means, and how it shapes our beliefs and actions. And it’s also been about simply celebrating music for its own sake, honoring its impact and possibility, and believing in the inherent value of paying attention. It’s been about understanding that, like all of the eternal forms of expression, music is a celebration of itself.