Sunday, February 16, 2014

Good Music - Still Kicking

It is the wont of older generations to denigrate the musical tastes of those who come after. Music and fashions change, but is it really always to the worse? It seems unreasonable to think that a whole generation has suddenly gone tone deaf. Yet, this seems to be the argument we elders often put forward. I’ve often thought about this and am always self-conscious about keeping my ears and mind open to new music and trends.

In December in Tokyo I spent a couple of days with my friend and cohort Naoko. She actively despairs about the state of the current music scene, to the extent that she would contemplate moving out of the country. It is true that much of Japanese pop is calculatedly commercial pap that is being produced and promoted by professional marketers whose main motivation certainly is not to create innovative or touching music. The extremely popular girl group AKB48 appears to be Naoko’s principal hate object (ironically, Naoko who is a dress designer and maker, once produced outfits for the troupe). The girl group’s musical merits are negligible, but that’s beyond the point: their sales pitch focuses on the visual effect of a large group of pretty young women in short skirts hopping around a stage in a more or less synchronized manner. AKB48 is a product, which is proven by the fact that there now are regional franchises of the brand in other cities, such as Osaka. (Perhaps I’m biased, but to me the similarly marketed boy bands in Japan are even more horrible.)

In an attempt to console Naoko, I kept telling her that it’s not worth leaving Japan because of the proliferation of bad commercial music. She would just be faced with the same phenomenon wherever she went. After all, who is more popular amongst teenage girls in the States than Justin Bieber? At least in Japan the image of such groups appears to be somewhat less vulgarly sexual than, say, that of Miley Cyrus and other girls barely out of their teens on this continent. (This point, I have to confess, I am not making confidently. It may only reflect the Lolita complex of so many Japanese males: the eroticism of innocence.) Similarly, young women in Japan don’t seem to feel the same need to prove their toughness as their counterparts in the West, but rather use their feminine assets to get their way. (The photos in this blog demonstrate the point. I took them during a student festival at Kyoto University in November. The performers are elite students from the highly prestigious institution of higher education.)

Commercial music has always been around, of course, and maybe it is that the production companies have got a stronger hold of what is being created and marketed. Naoko and I grew up at a very special time in history when an extraordinary amount of new original music was blowing our collective minds. This music was part of a counterculture revolution and we came to be defined by it. We are too young to have observed the British Invasion when The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Animals, and many others, broke new ground on their versions of rock ’n’ roll and rhythm ‘n’ blues. Somewhat sadly, we also missed the height of the hippie scene and never experienced the summer of love first hand. But we grew up with bands like Pink Floyd, King Crimson and Deep Purple, with a psychedelic need to include a colour in their names, as well as other highly innovative enterprises, such as Led Zeppelin, Cream and Jethro Tull (and the fantastic Finnish band Wigwam). We identified with the music and the music was a major—if not the major—part of the identity of our entire generation. In my own case, although I loved all of those bands, my primary identity was defined by modern jazz.

Then everything changed. Disco became popular and someone invented the drum machine to ensure an unwavering beat would keep the dancers moving under the disco ball. Audiences grew weary of lengthy suites with multiple parts, changing tempos and elaborate guitar and Moog solos. This dumbing down coincided with an overall change in culture and politics: young people became less critical of the society, wholeheartedly embraced capitalism, and never let their hair grow. And it’s been downhill ever since, many in my age group would argue.

I refuse to believe that the proportion of musically talented people in the population suddenly dropped so dramatically. I have another explanation. The share of people who truly are serious about music—whether as creators or as listeners—is relatively low and remains more or less constant over time. Still relatively recently, say in the late-19th century, “serious” music was the preoccupation of elites. There were no recordings and most people would not be inclined to go to concerts (or to afford it); for them, music was mostly entertainment provided by fiddlers and other jolly fellows in taverns and dances. The cream of the society would go to concerts and be confronted not only by lofty music, but by a social scene in which to be seen and to mingle with other wealthy people. There, too, the music was entertainment and audiences would often be shocked by the more adventurous composers (my friend Vesa who is a leading music critic in Finland recently published an excellent essay making a parallel between Verdi and Wagner, and the Stones and The Beatles). My guess is that most of the people attending concerts in Vienna or in Paris would not have a particularly high ability to absorb the finer points of the music they heard. That was not the primary purpose for many to go to the concerts.

The rise of popular music and recordings in the 20th century led to a change. Jazz spread around the world from its origins in New Orleans and the US South. Although many of the early star players were virtuosos on their instruments (whether they could read music or not), jazz was not particularly sophisticated or high-brow. Although people like Duke Ellington started to write advanced arrangements for larger orchestras early on, it was easy listening and easy dancing qualities that tended to dominate. One of the tests of a good drummer was whether he would be able to keep dancers on the parquet during a drum solo – Gene Krupa’s reputation was partly based on this ability. The be-bop revolution of the second half of the 1940s was a reaction to the prevalence of the simplistic styles in jazz. Innovators, such as Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Mingus and Kenny Clarke, put the emphasis on complex harmonies and advanced improvisation creating music that was impossible for most of the old guard to emulate. Be-bop was the music of musicians and, needless to say, never appealed to mainstream audiences.

In the next two decades or so, jazz evolved further, often towards an ever freer and more experimental direction. People like Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy stretched the definition of harmony in music. Arguably, the most important of all was John Coltrane whose own evolution from a hard bop saxophonist to a deeply spiritual musician pushed the frontiers of jazz and music in general ever further from the commercial mainstream. In fact, some writers have suggested that Coltrane killed jazz in the 1960s by taking it so far out of reach from the average listener. I don’t believe this to be a fair accusation, but it does resonate with my main point, that is: the majority of people have always wanted music to be easy entertainment for them.

Until around World War II it was difficult to draw a line between jazz and popular music. Jazz was popular music. Even after the be-bop revolution popular crooners like Frank Sinatra continued their own style of jazz or swing. Rock ‘n’ roll was born from the roots of swing and the rhythm ‘n’ blues music of the black population in the US. Chuck Berry, Little Richard and others built upon a foundation that had been there for a long time, while the white guys—Bill Haley, Elvis and others—brought in elements of country ‘n’ western making the mix more palatable to white audiences. The Brits further modified the music. The rise of rock-based pop coincided with a massive social change in the United States and Western Europe, which emphasized youth culture. The opposition to the Vietnam War, brutal suppression of protests on American university campuses, the civil rights movement, Black consciousness, Prague Spring and its crushing, psychedelia, the Summer of Love all were aspects of the era, which allowed creative musicians to develop their craft and push the envelope ever farther. Many jazz musicians also were in on the trend. Herbie Hancock and, perhaps the greatest creative chameleon ever, Miles Davis, made genre-busting music performing in venues like the Fillmore. In 1968, the sax and flute man, Charles Lloyd, played the Newport Pop Festival attended by some 140,000 people.

That moment in history would seem to have been an anomaly, when often complex, experimental music became the mainstream. Still, it is likely that the generation was not exceptionally talented musically. Rather, I would argue it was the zeitgeist that allowed innovative music to assume such a central role in mass culture. Perhaps all these social changes, questioning of the norms set by the establishment, opened up young people’s minds and allowed them to embrace the music without prejudice. Alas, the moment did not last.

That is not to say that there is no good music being produced today—on the contrary. It just often gets drowned in the commercial drone of mindless entertainment. Jazz is alive and well; and even in the commercial mainstream much of high quality good music is being made. Although the ‘soul’ music of BeyoncĂ© and Rihanna is not the soul of James Brown or Sam & Dave, it is still good and professionally made music. Globalization has enriched music by adding to the mix from other cultures: Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. Even in Japan, there are new artists – check out Ikimono-Gakari or Hajime Chitose, to name a couple – creating fresh and interesting pop with a distinct flavour. Many of the older generation—in the East and the West—also continue to evolve with the times, while keeping their own personality. Last December in Tokyo my friend Timo and I listened to a powerful performance by the legendary Japanese blues man Fusanosuke Kondo at a sold-out club.

More worrying to me is the trend that young people today are not willing to pay for music. Free downloading cuts directly into the income of musicians and composers – and especially those who are outside of the mainstream and can’t compensate by volume for the lost revenue. Online music services like Spotify and Pandora have not yet managed to work out a business plan that would allow them to thrive while compensating the artists fairly. In Japan, unlike in the West, still 60 percent of music sales are as CDs. But that’s another story. Where I live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the live music scene is bustling. A few months ago when Vesa was visiting we went to one of the clubs in the neighbourhood to catch some new bands. The ones we listened to were quite good and original, with skilful players. Still nobody stretched out with a long fiery guitar solo. It was a pity.