When Was the Day the Music Died?
By Susan D. Harris
I don’t believe a generation gap exists in music now. I believe it’s much more serious than that: that music is largely dead because latter generations have never been exposed to real music.
I have not, with few exceptions, heard any “new” music I liked since the 1990’s. There is, of course, new music coming out that is good — but ironically it’s the new music that mimics sounds from an earlier era that catches my ear. For the most part however, every genre has deteriorated badly in the last twenty years.
Pop music started to seem repetitive. I remember hearing Hootie and the Blowfish for the millionth time and turning off the radio; vowing never to turn it on again.
Country music had just seen its last peak of quality music in the 1990’s; from there it morphed into mainstream pop music that only distinguished itself by using occasional southern drawls or an “ain’t” here and there to give it a faux down-home feel.
What many people began to refer to as “jazz” sounded like chaos to me (akin to a band warming up). Like other genres, the best songs in this category stopped being written about twenty years ago.
The extent of my appreciation of rap music began and ended with Blondie‘s “Rapture” — which I considered an amusing, creative novelty. When rap came along and demanded to be taken seriously, I laughed; surely it wouldn’t catch on with the masses. Speaking words instead of singing them reminded me of Tony Randall on The Tonight Show, reciting lyrics to popular songs to show how silly some of them sounded with no musical attributes.
But rap did make it to the big time. Eventually it expanded to hip-hop and gangsta rap and other subgenres; and young, white men and women with good voices, in an attempt to get noticed, started wasting their talent emulating young black men chanting frustrations of urban ghetto life. I guess it was shocking and exciting at first, a clash of cultures and a rebellion that made old women gasp. When that got old, women had to start taking their clothes off to maintain the spotlight. Rapping/hip hop is so monotonous that artists were forced to become visually shocking to perpetuate sales of their substandard product.
The main draw of hip-hop music is not the music itself, because it does not contain melodies (no one walks around humming it); the distinction between songs lies in the lyrics themselves. Today, some of the biggest successes in the hip-hop/rap genre are songs that alternate between real singing and chanting. Every time it’s done it’s lauded for its “uniqueness” or “hypnotic juxtaposition” of genres.
Christian music contains various genres, and is separate from gospel music. You really have to love the Lord to appreciate a lot of Christian music, because the quality of the voices and the simplistic lyrics leave much to be desired — how many times can one sing the line “My God is an awesome God” unless they are caught up in spiritual fervor? The old hymns with deep, meaningful lyrics and soul-stirring melodies have been abandoned in an effort to keep God “cool.”
Opera, it seems, is one genre that has changed very little; not too many new ones are being written. It’s always been a love-it-or-hate-it genre, and I’ve never known anyone personally who sought it out, myself included. However, in a desperate attempt to escape the poor quality music on my radio, I recently sat spellbound for two hours listening to what I later learned was Turandot. The irony was I had always loved Nessun Dorma, but had staunchly spurned the genre that spawned it. Yet something from Turandot spoke to me, before I even realized it contained the aria I cherished. Still, the fact that I resorted to listening to opera speaks volumes about the quality of the music on the radio.
Music stirs something in the soul; the trouble is that for the majority of the population, I don’t think contemporary music is stirring anything good. I used to work with a woman, about 30 years of age, who constantly played Eminem and Marilyn Manson at her desk. I was forced to endure hours of this mindless, screaming noise. In a diplomatic attempt to not offend a coworker, I would even try to find nice things to say when she would ask, “What did you think of that song? Wasn’t it awesome?!” I could never understand how she could be moved by it in any good way. Not surprisingly, I learned she lived a troubled, tumultuous life; her music choices were only a symptom of that.
We all went through our music phases. Somewhere in my basement sits a dusty album I picked up at a garage sale when I was 18 titled, “Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.” I can only remember that it made me want to jump up and down and scream; likely a release valve for youthful vigor I couldn’t contain and didn’t understand. But I quickly grew out of it and my musical tastes matured. Nobody matures anymore; they are stunted; perpetually stuck in chanting, rhythms, noise or screaming.
It’s no surprise that shows like American Idol rarely use contemporary songs to judge voice quality; because voice quality is rarely a prerequisite for contemporary songs.
The other day I heard Dean Martin‘s version of “La Vie en rose” for the first time. I was in seventh heaven. Perhaps I’m an old soul, but so many songs recorded long before my time make me blissfully happy to be alive when I hear them. Who can sing “Fly Me to the Moon” like Tony Bennett? Who can elevate you to rapture with “Stardust” like Dinah Shore? Where are the likes of Lena Horne‘s sultry rendition of “St. Louis Blues” or Keely Smith‘s clear, crisp “A Foggy Day“?
Contrasting pop or rock and roll music from the 50’s through the 80’s with what is being produced by big labels today is shocking. Bread‘s introductory line, “I found her diary underneath a tree…” would be updated to “I found her panties underneath a tree…” if it were to be considered for mass appeal today.
And where will the next “Rhapsody in Blue” come from? Nowhere, I lament. I seriously doubt there are but a handful of people who have the talent to create such masterpieces — or having it, can find a market for it.
I suppose it’s easy to dismiss me as a snob or a fossil, but I’ve tried to be open-minded, I really have. I’ve painfully endured or wonderfully enjoyed everyone from Ravi Shankar to Béla Fleck, from Keely Smith to the Oak Ridge Boys, from the Rolling Stones to the New York Philharmonic. I’ve parsed out what I liked; what speaks to my soul. I see the effect of music on people and realize we all have different tastes. But do we?
The common thread of music that used to bind us together as a society — back when everyone, regardless of age or color, knew the #1 song in the country — is gone. We have shattered it into shards of broken glass that can never be pieced together. If art reflects life, maybe a few generations of painkillers, antidepressants, weed-sucking and drunken stupors have finally altered our creative genius as a people. Maybe the effect of too many benzodiazepines in the water system is finally being realized on our airwaves.
Music may not be completely dead: The best hope for music today — for all genres — falls into a category called “indie;” short for independent labels with smaller budgets. It seems that’s where artists go when they realize their music is too good to be accepted by the Beyonce/Jay-Z big-money record labels. So when was the day the music died? For many of us it was a long, long time ago. Yet we can still remember how that music used to make us smile.