The Crisis in Musical Literacy
Posted by Peter Lawler
...as described by Little Steven/Sil. He’ll whack you if you don’t do your Dylan homework.
5:33 PM / November 21, 2007
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He can't whack you for not doing your homework. He can only be deeply disappointed. You'll still pass the class. The music that Van Zandt wants to teach kids plays in elevators now. Who doesn't know it? I am sick of hearing it. If this is our canon, mores the pity. It's like demanding that slang be the standard for the language. Who says this is good?
Let's see if Kate agrees. I'll raise Van Zandt to William Byrd, to Gustav Mahler, to Vaughan Williams, to Jean Redpath and Anna Netrebko,, to Gilbert and Sullivan, and Shakespeare....
Yes, I will certainly agree. Happy Thanksgiving, Robert!
A happy day to all.
My sister Terry outdid herself tonight, every single dish served was exceptional, absolutely exceptional. The only thing that could have made the day better was if the football games had been competitive.
I hope all of you enjoyed your Thanksgiving.
A few observations, lengthy as usual. 1) Van Zandt’s music/history curriculum probably isn’t very good. I’d rather leave the American history to those more likely to tell it via Jefferson, Adams, Marshall, Douglass, etc., than via Muddy Waters. But contrary to Lawler’s mocking, I wouldn’t mind a music-ed course that featured helpings of Dylan and Waters alongside more traditional music-ed fare. Anything is better than not trying to musically educate our young, and compared to suburban alt-rock and ghetto rap, Waters’ and Dylan’s music contains many forgotten subtleties—for today’s kids, it points more to the musical values of the past than to the wasteland that threatens us tomorrow.
2) The real musical illiteracy issue is not whether we have a common radio soundtrack, which is what Van Zandt longs for, but whether we have the rudiments of a common musical language. Can we get together, be handed a piece of choral music, and decently sing? Most of us cannot. We have parlors without pianos, front-porches without guitars, even night-clubs without musicians. THAT is the musical illiteracy problem. Life becomes less musical, despite the amazingly diverse/broad/hip Ipod personal soundtracks some of us cart around, and despite hearing Elvis or even rare Billie Holiday sides while we shop.
3) From 1920 to about 1980 or 1990, a common pop-music experience was available, particularly in America. Yes, it was “segregated,” along racial and along rural v. urban lines, but with a flip of the dial, one could hear the whole gamut of what America was listening to. For reasons cultural and commercial, this experience became fragmented during the 70s-90s, and has remained so. Who’s to blame? Well, Brooks makes a nod in the direction of it being the fault of white middle-class suburbanites shunning black music, but this really is a tired story line. Yes, the musical segregation that hard-rock dominated AOR radio of the 70s and 80s encouraged was regrettable, but that’s hardly the whole story. The fact that blacks themselves turned against Afro-American musical values, that precious few of our current black performers could make a Motown-quality recording if their life depended on it, is the story that no-one wants to tell. Rap’s unprecedented stylistic run of twenty-five years--“fresh” it ain’t--and its defacto surrender to the gangsta-identity scam has more than a wee bit to do with the suburbanite retreat into alt-rock. But maybe, just maybe, some fault for this, beyond the changing patterns of commerce, lies with the capital R rock stars themselves. Van Zandt mentions that if the Stones came along today, they wouldn’t make it, given the lack of a common radio market. (This of course ignores the fact that Chess-style R+B isn’t new and exciting in 2007 the way it was in 1963-Anglo-land) But the Stones were among those who taught us that “pop” appeal was corrupt, that the correct stance was to care less if your authentic music sold records or not. And this authenticity quickly became about a hell of a lot more than being an R+B purist, but about a whole “Get Off of My Cloud” youth identity/hedonism. If you were a young white rebel in 65 and 66, you didn’t listen to the latest Stones song and say, “Gee, is that disc better than the new one from (insert random mid-60s top-forty artist here)? Which should I purchase for the dance-party?” No, you said, “These guys speak to where I’m coming from. I don’t give a shit about critics pointing out that Mick’s singing is inferior to most of the Motowners, Stax-ites, let alone the Nashville-ans or the Basie/Sinatra set. I’m a Stones kinda man, and get offa my cloud!” It was now as much about IDENTITY as anything else, and so OF COURSE the pop-charts had to fragment. No “rebels” were going to sit around and let the aristocrats of rebel-dom(the rock stars) define their rebellion indefinitely. Especially the rebels of each new generation. Things like punk-rock, and “being hard-core” in whatever genre, were bound to happen. And now, in 2007, we can all be cooler than the next guy with our own designer I-pod soundtrack identity, and boo-hoo, the Stones couldn’t make it now. Actually, to some extent I join in the boo-hoo, even if the real tragedy is that an Ellington couldn’t make it now, but the point is that the Stones, and yes, admit it, Springsteen also, taught us all too well how to play the music-identity game. If we can ever get back to the supposedly shallow attitude of “what performer, or what recording, will please us better at the dance,” then the fragmentation that dismays Van Zandt can be partially mended. But can we let go of our egos and identities enough to do so?
BTW, Springsteen and his band don’t deserve the credit they sometimes get for holding the rock and roll torch. I agree with this assessment by Martha Bayles: “For years Springsteen’s trademark sound was that of many instruments blending into a single monotonous pounding that [Springsteen champion] Dave Marsh aptly calls the ‘dinosaur beat.’ To be sure, Springsteen’s best songs have a melodic force capable of defying gravity, in effect lifting the dinosaur off the ground and making it fly—albeit heavily, like an overfed pterodactyl.” I don’t doubt that Van Zandt has a far greater musical vocabulary than the younger rockers he criticizes, but he who had the vocab to know better shares some blame for the curse of hard rock, a musical style that has not attracted, even in its E-Street incarnation, very many black fans, or more to the point, very many dancers. And yes, this has something to do with the inability of capital R rockers to admit that, at their best, they will be “entertainers,” and they will never acquire the cultural significance of a Dylan, or the dramatic sweep of a symphony. Nor will the rock concert replace the revival tent. If they fool themselves into thinking they have to be all that capital R rock critics like Dave Marsh have said about the likes of Springsteen and the E Street Band, they will give us more of that leaden dinosaur beat, and more of that wearisome insistence that rock music provide some sort of life-raft of hope amid the dashed dreams of modernity. It just cannot carry that load.
Thus, I will end with an unsettling quote, which I recall from Spin magazine circa 1997: “Say it. Face it. Music just doesn’t matter as much as it used to.” That is, pop music doesn’t matter as much, and especially the capital R-rock music. I can accept that fact, and upon reflection, welcome it, even while also wanting more music education--my hope is that music will “matter” in a more realistic and healthy way, whether in the night-club or in the concert hall/drawing-room. Can Van Zandt? Can he accept an even harder truth, that his generations’ suffocating embrace of Afro-American music is partly responsible for its decline? That if he becomes a real music educator he will to some degree be fighting against trends he helped unleash?
Carl, One of the best posts ever. Peter
Thanks, Peter. I've had Springsteen's "Glory Days" running through my head ever since I wrote it, probably because it is an instance of the E-Street band making a solidly danceable tune. I also like Springsteen when he tries to be the Woody Guthrie of New Jersey, producing haunting songs like "Atlantic City," although I'm never totally convinced that it's more inspired by actual working class NJ than it is Bruce wanting to be a rock-era Guthrie.
Like all decent Americans, I too love the Jersey Boss, who I think actually reached his peak with Jungleland and Thunder Road. Don't care about Glory Days, Atlantic City is alredy a bit too abstract. I have no use for the ideological Bruce, whether his topic is Youngstown or any Tom Joady thing or 9/11 or Bush's foreign policy. He is great beyond great live, though. The eros/seekerness of his early songs largely evaporated along the way. He's no Dylan as a poet, but Dylan doesn't compare with him as a musician/performer.