Indictment or Lament?

A very dear friend of mine, whom I met years ago in New York City, is an Artsy Person.  By that I mean he has overwhelmingly made his living in and around the visual and aural arts.  Back in the day his day job was as an animator, and he played drums in a band at night (jazz and swing, mostly).  I’d met him through the Navy Reserve.  I went to see his band once, and among my favorite memories is of him sitting behind his drum set, slinging sticks into the air and flailing away (he’d cringe to hear me use that verb), wearing a USS Guadalcanal ball cap and a black t-shirt with a huge Bugs Bunny head on it.  Wrap your mind around those two organizing principles and you were well on your way to knowing and loving this buddy of mine.  He’s since transferred to the National Guard where he plays in the 42nd Division concert and parade band.

I haven’t heard him mention working in animation for years now, from which I deduce that the trend he commented on all those years ago — a combination of computer animation and out-sourcing any residual drawing to scut-work hack-shops overseas — finally killed enough of the industry here that he couldn’t make a go of it any more.  For years he kept up his band; now that he and his wife have moved upstate he doesn’t play in that particular band any more, either.  But he’s still very much engaged with the State of the Art (pun intended), and so he puts stuff up on his Facebook page from time to time on the subject.  His most recent post is of this article:  “The Devaluation of Music: It’s Worse Than You Think,” from a blog called Medium.

The overall thrust of this article is that American society at least (the foreign market is not addressed) has forgot how to value music, and not just in a purely monetary sense.  The upper and nether millstones of paltry royalties from streaming services and digital piracy get a look-in, of course.  The article’s thrust, though, is that we as a society simply no longer put forth the effort to integrate what the author calls “the sonic art form” into the fabric of who we are individually.

Which is to say, the author paints and protests the elision of music as an art from our culture.

My buddy’s Facebook post was, “…and THIS, folks, is one reason western civilization is doomed. The suits run EVERYTHING these days. No wonder I am a culture snob…”  I think that, with one exception, he trivializes the article’s point.  [Here I should note that at some point during the past couple of decades, my buddy went from being a fairly economic and political conservative, as well as a social tolerant, to being a pretty flaming quasi-Marxist and sucker for PC demagoguery.  “The suits” are running and ruining everything is a steady background theme to much of his discourse.  He of course has a point, to some degree, but then it’s not an invalid point that the bills have to be paid by someone, and no one is in anything for free, and it’s the job of “the suits” to figure that part out.  I’ve never explored in depth with him the waystations on his journey, but the contrast between the friend I made and the friend I have is about as stark as you can imagine.  Emblematic:  About the first conversation with him that I can recall, all those years ago, he was ranting about how “the Masons” were controlling the world and everything was a Masonic conspiracy to X, Y, and Z.  He’s now a very committed Mason.]

The one exception mentioned is the pernicious influence of commercial radio.  From the article, in full, the relevant passage:

“It’s an easy target, but one can’t overstate how profoundly radio changed between the explosion of popular music in the mid 20th century and the corporate model of the last 30 years. An ethos of musicality and discovery has been replaced wholesale by a cynical manipulation of demographics and the blandest common denominator. Playlists are much shorter, with a handful of singles repeated incessantly until focus groups say quit. DJs no longer choose music based on their expertise and no longer weave a narrative around the records. As with liner notes, this makes for more passive listening and shrinks the musical diet of most Americans down to a handful of heavily produced, industrial-scale hits.”

Can’t argue with the author’s description of what happened, but I would suggest a more depressing take on it than his as to the why it happened.  The author seems to imply that how commercial radio has changed was the product of conscious choice, which implies, of course, that a conscious choice could be made to return to the Good Old Days.

I don’t think the author has given due consideration to the realities of the world that gave rise to those Good Old Days, and how that reality has changed since then.  Consider:  Until the rise of the 8-track tape in the mid-1970s, the radio was your only source of third-party entertainment in a car.  Around the house, unless you wanted to pop for a great big bulky CRT television or expensive vinyl record player (the el-cheapo ones produced crappy sound that made anything other than The Archies absolutely unbearable) in every room, if you wanted entertainment or even just background noise in any room outside your living room, your choice came down to . . . radio.  Because more people listened to radio, any given radio station could afford to specialize, or experiment, or really be what it felt like being, and still make a go of it attracting only a smaller percentage of the total listening market.

What started to change in the late 1970s and early 80s?  The 8-track player and even more importantly, the automobile cassette tape deck, for starts.  Now you had a highly portable, large capacity (90-minute cassette tapes, anyone?) medium for the music you wanted, without commercials or other interruptions, that you could start, stop, pause, and replay at will.  Tired of Miles Davis and want to get your Mozart on?  Push the eject button, flip open a jewel case, shove in the new cassette, and in a matter of seconds you’ve gone from 20th Century jazz to 18th Century classical.  Radio just can’t keep up with that.  Beginning in the early 1980s you had fairly economical high-quality portable stereos that you could strew around the house, with one in the kitchen, one in the laundry room, one in each bedroom, in the basement, in the garage, in the shop building.  I’ve never seen actual numbers, but I’d bet someone else’s monthly income that the proportion of the U.S. population that regularly listened to radio began to plummet.

Nowadays you have inexpensive flat-screen televisions, iPods and similar devices, most of which you can now plug into your car even if they’re not built-in standard on even low-end vehicles, high-quality sound coming out of your laptop or desktop, etc. etc. etc.  And of course you can access hours upon hours upon hours of music, organized to be heard however you choose (listen straight through albums in sequence, or shuffle among albums, or shuffle among individual tracks, and of course with the ability to start, stop, pause, and replay at the touch of a button), and all in a highly portable format.  I’d be surprised if the proportion of radio-listeners hasn’t dropped even further.  And all we’re talking about is music alternatives to broadcast music radio; how about talk radio, after all?  Or subscription satellite radio, with its hundreds of channels?

So what’s a radio station to do, which has to meet its bills?  You’ve got to capture a greater share of a smaller audience.  And how do you capture a greater share?  You go after what most people like most of, most of the time — what our author describes as “manipulation of demographics and the lowest common denominator,” to use the cacophemism.  That of course produces a feedback loop.  If you provide lowest-common-denominator fare, then the overall population’s preferences migrate toward that denominator, which means that there’s less to be gained from aiming outside that target area, which means that what’s provided gets even more relentlessly uniform.  And so forth.

Recognizing the truth of the article’s point that the proletarianization of broadcast radio is every bit as disastrous as presented, there’s a reason that enormous chunks of people quit listening:  Even a top-flight radio station simply cannot compete in control, quality, and choice with low-cost music storage and reproduction.  In my car’s CD player right now, I have Brahms, The Who, Don McLean, Jim Croce, Dietrich Buxtehude, and Mozart.  If I want to go back and listen to the Variations on a Theme by Haydn three times in a row, straight through, just because it almost moves me to tears, and then jump right on over to “Everybody Loves Me, Baby” because it makes me, a child of the 70s and 80s, chuckle, to be followed by “Gelobet seiest du, Herr Jesu Christ,” which was played at my wedding, and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” which you can describe as the theme song of the Dear Leader Administration, I can do that, and there has never been and never will be any third-party provider/selector who can keep up with me.  The dynamic the author’s describing cannot be stopped or undone without going back to the days of the captive audience.  Very respectfully, I decline to endorse that proposal.

So much for the commercial radio angle, as to which my buddy’s complaint about “the suits” ruining everything is by and large valid.  Of course, whenever you complain about So-and-So Doing X, you must, if you are honest, describe what So-and-So ought to be doing other than X, and how So-and-So can make the house payment by doing Other-Than-X.  I’m not hearing that alternative universe outlined with any convincing detail.

The linked article then goes on to describe several other trends that he identifies as contributing to the de-valuing of music, and as to which I think he’s on very firm ground, but as to which I think the conclusions to be drawn are even more pessimistic than his own.  The author describes as “conflation” of music with other aural or video entertainment the trend of shoving music alternatives in with those other forms of entertainment.  Music is not presented as something precious in its own right, but rather as just one more item on an ever-lengthening menu of Stuff to Pay Attention To, More or Less.  Gentle Reader is reading this blog at the moment, no?  Gentle Reader could be watching a favorite movie streamed or on DVD, or be playing a video game either alone or live with other players around the globe, or be working on his/her own blog . . . or be listening to the sonic art form.  And all those options are just a click away from each other.

The article’s author decries the lack of what he calls “context,” or more prosaically, the absence of intelligent, useful, or thought-provoking liner notes to the music.  If Bach’s C minor Passacaglia is reduced to an icon on a screen, then without some extra programming there’s no way to pop open the liner notes (and this was a massive advantage of the CD format over others; you could get 20 pages or more of liner notes into the jewel case) and read as you listen.  Of course, this problem is actually among the most curable the author describes.  Computer memory is cheap, and with devices getting ever-more-closely linked to each other, both locally and over the internet, what would prevent me from writing the code to tap or right-click that icon on my screen to access not 20 pages, but an entire menu of “context”?  It could easily range all the way from scholarly treatment to comparative reviews (this performer’s interpretation of a classical piece, or a comparison of Miles Davis’s rendition of the piece on this recording relative to some other recording of the same piece) to fan-based reviews to suggestions for further listening and so forth?  Every piece a portal, in other words?

Another trend the author identifies is what he characterizes as “anti-intellectualism,” which he treats thusly:

“Music has for decades been promoted and explained to us almost exclusively as a talisman of emotion. The overwhelming issue is how it makes you feel. Whereas the art music of the West transcended because of its dazzling dance of emotion and intellect. Art music relates to mathematics, architecture, symbolism and philosophy. And as such topics have been belittled in the general press or cable television, our collective ability to relate to music through a humanities lens has atrophied. Those of us who had music explained and demonstrated to us as a game for the brain as well as the heart had it really lucky. Why so many are satisfied to engage with music at only the level of feeling is a vast, impoverishing mystery.”

I do like his phrase “dance of emotion and intellect.”  Jacques Barzun’s magisterial From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Culture has an extensive discussion of the emergence of this dance in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries.  I think the author’s spot-on with his observation about music being presented as a talisman of emotion, and how that presentation has adversely affected the intellectual component of the experience.  I disagree with him, however, that it’s a mystery why this is satisfying to so many people.

I know nothing of the author’s politics, of course, but unless he’s really, really an outlier in the arts world, he’s probably several standard deviations to the left of the bulk of the U.S. population.  The elevation of feeling and emotion — what makes me feel good about myself — is at the core of leftist politics.  From third-wave feminism to environmentalism to the “war on poverty” to social justice warriors, “micro-aggressions,” “safe spaces,” and so forth, the common denominator in all is that the political policies which grow out of these movements invariably do two things: (i) they make the actual problems worse, but (ii) they allow the proponent to feel good about himself for supporting them, and to trumpet his membership among the Saved.  Leftism today is simply no longer about results on the ground, but rather a quasi-religious series of rites of purification and sanctification the design of which is to signal the proponent’s moral superiority.

Like it or not, American politics and public discourse is well to the left of where it had been before the FDR administration.  William Graham Sumner’s lecture, “The Forgotten Man,” was mainstream political discourse back in the day.  Find me anyone widely regarded in the public sphere since 1932 who could, or would, pen the following:

“When you see a drunkard in the gutter, you are disgusted, but you pity him. When a policeman comes and picks him up you are satisfied.v You say that ‘society’ has interfered to save the drunkard from perishing. Society is a fine word, and it saves us the trouble of thinking to say that society acts. The truth is that the policeman is paid by somebody, and when we talk about society we forget who it is that pays. It is the Forgotten Man again. It is the industrious workman going home from a hard day’s work, whom you pass without noticing, who is mulcted of a percentage of his day’s earnings to hire a policeman to save the drunkard from himself. All the public expenditure to prevent vice has the same effect. Vice is its own curse. If we let nature alone, she cures vice by the most frightful penalties. It may shock you to hear me say it, but when you get over the shock, it will do you good to think of it: a drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be. Nature is working away at him to get him out of the way, just as she sets up her processes of dissolution to remove whatever is a failure in its line. Gambling and less mentionable vices all cure themselves by the ruin and dissolution of their victims. Nine-tenths of our measures for preventing vice are really protective towards it, because they ward off the penalty.”

Modern political discourse would categorically declare itself “horrified” (which is to day, its emotions would be excited) at the proposition that we should leave the drunkard in his gutter, the gambler in his den.  And from that “horror” it then proceeds immediately to the conclusion that we have an affirmative obligation to mulct that Forgotten Man (or someone, anyone other than the person demanding we “rescue” the drunk) to “save” the drunk or the gambler.  This is government by emotion, not intellect.  It requires an intellectual effort to confront the truth and implications of Sumner’s moral point that the actual, measurable effect of much of what government does to “prevent” the consequences of private misfortune — all too often the results of years, and in many cases generations, of bad private decision-making — actually protect and perpetuate it by enabling the people making those bad decisions to keep on as usual.  It requires a moral effort to ask who pays the price, and in what form, and what portion of that payer’s prospects and future are taken from him because we have forced him to pay.  And of course, it’s not just the drunkard or the guy shooting craps behind the gas station, nowadays.  Now it’s everybody and his cousin, and the more zeroes come with the bad decisions, the more likely it is that the people being protected will have the ear of government.

In short, we have managed to create an entire society that has been taught to introduce the conclusions of its reasoning with, “I feel . . . ”  We are instructed, and have been for generations, that what matters is the desire behind a policy, not its actual effect, overall, on a society of 300-plus million people.  It is relentlessly hammered into us that the appropriate frame of reference for judging whether Program X is working is not whether it produces more people who need Program X in order to survive, but rather that more people are surviving on Program X (in other words, the program’s own pernicious effects are treated as proof positive of its merits).  It is then any surprise that we apply such reference frameworks to other areas of life?

I’ll note you needn’t ascribe the trend, as I do, to the dominance of leftism in particular in American society.  In point of fact both American mainstream political parties long ago conceded the central socialist premise.  The individual human is a building block to which is assigned a place in a structure designed by someone else, which will serve functions determined by someone else, and all for the greater glory of some abstract higher ideal determined by someone else.  In the late Middle Ages they built, all over Europe, magnificent stone cathedrals which reached higher into the sky than any other human hands had ever reached (in fact, for centuries they remained the tallest structures ever built by men), to the greater glory of God.  We now want to “build” “society” to the greater glory of whatever specific version of society it is that we favor.

I suppose you could trace the idea that each member of “society” is nothing more than a tool, a stone, in the structure back to the French levee en masse, which was at first a defensive mechanism but which rapidly morphed into an army of conquest for the “liberation” of Europe from the ancien regime wherever it was to be found.  But it found its first true application in Imperial Germany’s nationalistic militarism, and then — as Hayek pointed out in The Road to Serfdom — the passion for “planning” spread to the rest of Europe, then to Britain.  It first washed ashore here in the Wilson administration, receded during the 1920s, and took firm root with FDR.

What is the relevance of my thoughts to this author’s point about the talismanic use of “feelings”?  Well, if you’re going to use a man — and socialism is about nothing other than using men — for your own purposes rather than his own, it sure does help if he doesn’t think too carefully about what it is that’s happening to him.  How do you keep him from thinking, though?  Well, ever since the Romans hit on the notion of bread and circuses, it’s been recognized that what you need to do, and most all that you need to do, is to occupy with sensations — with feelings — the psychic space that might otherwise be taken up with thought.  After all, I can control your sensations much more readily than I can your thoughts.  I can underwrite your housing, I can subsidize your trip to the grocery store, I can just hand you $X per month to piss away as you choose, I can take your children off your hands, tell you that it’s now the responsibility of my employees (we’ll call them “teachers”) to make sure Junior doesn’t turn out to be a homicidal boor, assure you that he and everyone else in his class is unique and uniquely above average, and so forth.  I can plunder the Forgotten Man of his last thread of garment to do this; it’s why it’s so easy for you to forget him.

The article’s author includes what the cynic in me wants to characterize as the “inevitable” lament about music instruction’s demise in public schools.  He may have something of a point, but then I really have to question how much of a point it is that he has.  I mean, so much of what we recognize as the towering great music of Western culture took form in an era before massive public education in the first place, and when formal education was commonly broken off at ages we would now consider abhorrently young, and large portions of such primary and secondary education as did exist was conducted in circumstances in which the only music being made was from the human voice (and maybe an out-of-tune piano).  How many of the giants of early 20th Century America — the men (and a few women) who jerked entire new musical universes from the very earth — even got to high school in the first place, let alone finished?  Plainly music in the schoolroom is not necessary for the creation; you can easily falsify that proposition.

Is it necessary for the valuing of the music being created, though?  I’m not sure our author is on any firmer ground there.  For whom were these musicians playing?  Who made up their bread-and-butter audience?  Again, until after World War II a huge portion of the American population, even in cities, who actually went to the venues where the new musical forms were being hammered out (and by the way, those venues weren’t the great urban concert halls . . . they were the jook joints, the church socials, school halls, and so forth) would not have received more than bare-bones schooling.

If not the live audiences, who were the people who listened remotely, to the very first radio stations?  In the early 1990s there came out a documentary history of bluegrass music, High Lonesome, which I’m proud to say I’ve got on DVD somewhere.  There is a segment in which they talk of the explosive impact that radio had on these remote settlements.  You could rig your car’s battery to a home-made radio, run a wire out to an old bed frame outside for an antenna, and pick up stations as far away as WLS in Chicago (I still recall the Wow! of tuning into their AM station back in the early 1970s, all the way down here, late at night).  Radio and the music you could hear on it were . . . exotic.  There you had, right there in your living room where you could put your hands on it, this box which would reach out and pull from the thin air sounds from hundreds of miles away, sounds which could take you anywhere, anywhere at all in the entire world.  For people who’d been born, grown up, and grown old in a circle of 20 miles (or even narrower than that, for the mass of city dwellers in large cities like New York . . . hundreds of thousands of them would seldom have strayed off Manhattan Island, or out of Brooklyn or the Bronx, or the South End, or wherever their grandparents had fetched up off the boat, during their entire lives) it must have been nothing short of intoxicating.  And that which intoxicates us seizes our souls, as the religious objection to alcohol and drugs has long recognized.

So what changed?  World War I changed; millions of American men in fact didn’t stay down on the farm, after they’d “seen Paree.”  Harry Truman was only the most famous of them.  Movies changed.  The physical dislocations of the Great Depression changed.  The demise of gang labor in the South changed.  [Among the least studied mass migrations in history is of American blacks from the South into the rest of the country, beginning in the years just before the Great War, and becoming a flood during and afterwards; Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America is a very good introduction to a small slice of that trend.]  And then World War II came along and burst the American universe into what Forrest Gump called “a go-zillion” pieces.

So what? Gentle Reader asks.  What does all this recitation have to do with leeching an appreciation for music from American culture?  Well, what is the common theme of all of the things I’ve pointed out?  It is this:  The atomization of control over one’s immediate physical circumstances.  From tenement to townhouse to tract house to suburb.  From grain field to grunting shift work to mindless repetition on the assembly line to what’s becoming known as the gig economy.  From hearing no music but what you and your family could sing to the scraping of a fiddle, to cramming into a stuffy venue on uncomfortable seats to barreling down the highway in your car with the radio going, to rolling up the car windows and popping in a different cassette to punching a button to change CDs to telling your MP3 player to shuffle among all 1750 songs on your playlist.  To maybe once or twice a year seeing a play put on by some down-at-the-heels hack-faded actors to watching a movie once a month on a huge screen stretched across Main Street (how my mother used to see movies in the 1930s in small-town Indiana), to air conditioned movie palaces to multi-screen megaplexes where every member of the family can watch what blows his skirt to punching up Netflix on each of the four screens in your house and everybody gets to choose from 750 different movies.

And here I circle around to rejoin our article’s author.  Why has America forgot how to value music?  Because music has lost its preciousness to us.  Once upon a time music was the only entertainment the bulk of the population had.  There is a reason, after all, that almost all dirt-poor, oppressed, or traumatized groups developed incredibly rich musical traditions:  the Irish, the Germans during the 30 Years War, the Scots Irish both at home and here, the Eastern European Jews, American blacks, the rural South, Hungarian peasants.  Music was the one thing that the landlord couldn’t rack-rent you on; the church couldn’t tithe it out of your hands; the lord couldn’t force-labor it away from you; the slave driver couldn’t lash it out of your back; you could take it with you when you were expelled from the umpteenth country in succession; you could jam it into the hold of an immigrant ship.  The factory owner couldn’t shut it off from you in a lock-out.  The tax collector couldn’t padlock it or seize it.  Music was the one pleasure you could make yourself, that you could enjoy without having to worry about one more mouth to feed or losing that week’s rent money.

So of course people appreciated music more.

What has changed?  What has changed is human liberation from massive and profound privation, privation which modern Americans born after, say, 1960, cannot even imagine.  Granted, the enslavement of privation has been replaced in popular culture with a poor simulacrum of true human freedom (see my above comments about socialism’s modern substitute for Rome’s bread and circuses), but the fact remains that we — even the poorest among us — are surrounded with pleasures (or what pass for pleasures) undreamt-of to even our parents’ generation.

And now I will diverge from our author, once again.  If what is necessary to restore the uniquely precious significance of music to the broad mass of the American population is to return to the physical circumstances of the centuries in which it possessed that significance, then I cannot follow our author.  I am willing to do without the music.  What right do I have to demand the impoverishment of hundreds of millions of my fellow humans so that I may enjoy the pleasures of a new musical experience?

In bemoaning the demise of music’s place in the American soul, and in glossing over the contrast between the world in which it maintained that place and the America in which it struggles to keep it, our author betrays — perhaps inadvertently (remember I know zilch about his politics) — how profoundly the socialist premise has soaked into our collective understanding.  You should suffer so that Music (or “social justice” or “diversity” or “the environment” or the “dictatorship of the proletariat” or whatever) may flourish.  Or more pointedly:  You should toil in drudgery so that I may relish the satisfaction of Society as I conceive it should be.

The Five Year Plan demands it, after all.


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