Music is our dominant medium. More people listen to more music than ever before. So, it’s easy to imagine mainstream music. We can picture label brands. We can imagine some kinds of continuity in the past decade: Destiny’s Child and Beyonce; Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus; The Rolling Stones and The Rolling Stones. However, after assimilating so much – punk, post-punk, southern rap, alternative, indie – the word is multifariously coded. The implication is that it’s not obscure enough (whatever it is). It’s never been easier to be obscure in taste, and if you’re of a certain age obscurantism might even be the prevailing attitude towards music.
There are multiple colluding impulses to obscurantism in pop music. One is that new labels won’t be able to exploit us, or are of the correct politics. Obscurantism in music is not simply analogous to cosmetics using shea butter or enzymes from the stomachs of a flamingo subspecies – music seems more ecologically and ethically sound than all that in terms of production. Another impulse reaches into the past – there is more art in the world than a person can ever appreciate. Then again, that would describe classic rock fans with Queen on repeat or a wall of Grateful Dead bootlegs. The music industry which the internet has killed was relatively short-lived, and the archival networks we see today are obviously still markets. The idea mustn’t be that the music is counter-cultural, because there’s plenty of pedigree. Beck curating remixes of Glass. Sonic Youth and Iron & Wine weighing in on the Criterion Collection. If I had a nickel for every time Oxford was needlessly invoked in praise of Radiohead. The explosion of music consumption which marks the past few decades has yielded its own gnostic cult of taste. Too often this goes unexplained, and descends into vague classism. There’s pop, and then there’s pop. We need to pop any bubble where this polarization is confused for an argument about artistic value.
We have an arsenal of criticisms against pop that have formed their own tired satirical genre of writing and music. Pachelbel. Verse chorus verse. Tonight. Alcohol. One night stands. Vowels. But the sneering trope that it’s all the same song won’t make sense.
If Top 40 music has declined it’s because it’s doubling down on the safest bets, the strongest tropes, the widest possible appeal. It won’t risk anything in the face of its own obsolescence. Demand isn’t simply reproduced. On the one hand, songs lose their expressive power on the listener over time. On the other hand, we all depend on the endurance of styles and forms. The Top 40 has to get people to look on the four chords with fresh eyes. We might emphasize rhythm here – the sanctioning of rap in the Top 40 in recent years, despite deliberate industrial attempts to suppress the exposure of independent black artists, gives club pop a wide palette of rhythmic tropes. Putting its connotations aside, cultural appropriation is the essential mechanism of culture. See, do. As the blues were to rock, “art pop” has long relied on afrobeat, Malian blues, and hip-hop for its melodic ideas, from Captain Beefheart and Talking Heads to St. Vincent and The Dirty Projectors.
The reason this is selectively called beating a dead horse instead of a tradition or a reinvention is because of revolt against the music industry as such. That concern is all to the good, but it’s curious. It wouldn’t be an argument about beauty as described (Van Dyke Parks is at the service of studios), but even as an instrumental argument it has to be qualified. It’s true that music can reinforce political consent simply instrumentally. Rage Against the Machine probably sold millions of Digitech Whammys, and they certainly reaped large profits for the capitalist conglomerate of Sony.
But can music determine or manufacture emotional responses? How could manipulation be innate, independent of the listener?
There are higher-flung arguments about whether music’s ‘expressive’ or ‘evocative’ particularity is more or less precise than any associated language. Lyrics might reinforce associations, but even compelling lyrics might not evoke the described emotions, and they can’t reign in the music’s potential any more than you can copyright an interval. The absence of lyrics in the sparse opening of Clair de Lune might suggest more melancholy than Schubert’s explicitly desperate Gretchen am Spinnrade. You can get tremendous pleasure from the frenzy and devastation of the Quartet for the End of Time. Werner Herzog presents this kind of phenomenon in Signs of Life when one soldier compels another to listen Chopin as something malicious – and no, it’s not the Funeral March. The proof is in the impositions of our intent upon our ear.
Mockery of melisma isn’t mockery of the voice’s use purely as a musical instrument. It’s the uncritical expectation of a linguistic function. If we reach for the semantics of ‘ooh’, they’re pretty vulgar. But melisma isn’t cheating, lyrically. It is sometimes suggested that melisma is a calculated attempt to reach international appeal, but how could that explain the prominence of hip-hop in the international market of English-language learners and beyond? International appeal is an overdetermined thing. The formulaic nature of rhymes in pop even finds justification as education in its capitalization on language patterns (we could rhyme all day on nominalizations). Lyrical repetition and redundancy is vital to the dialectical antics of Talking Heads or Devo. Also, consider the practical feature in hip-hop of using curse words as an infix to smooth out their cadence and fill the meter. You wouldn’t begrudge this in sculpture – it’s its own craft.
Perhaps when pop is criticized as formulaic this carries the hypothesis that the emotional language used in description of music is only metaphorical, and music only has certain objectionable kinds of emotional evocations for people who do not understand the structure. Meanwhile, there are effects which move us despite our contrary understanding, and constructions which resonate with their intended effects. I’m never unaware that cartoons are fictional, but there is some plausible proposition in Silly Symphonies when xylophones are personified as dancing skeletons or a sudden note is literally and not metaphorically frightening.
Melisma as decorative is the unknown as much as the remainder – like the monsters on a map. The idea isn’t that Leviathan does or doesn’t exist at those coordinates. If you asked a Buddhist whether Sitatapatra ‘exists’ you might raise an eyebrow. The melisma is a staple of meditative and religious music, and the trope of protracted melisma that is readily criticized in the Top 40 comes from its use in other pop as the secular appropriation of musical ideas associated with the religious. The disturbing thing the Top 40 suggests about the broader trend isn’t just that we’re being exploited but that the current aspirations of pop are a nihilistic counter-liturgy of Last Men.
Exhaustion as a postmodern theme is all over the higher-flung incarnations of pop. The apotheosis of twee in ‘aleatoric’ pop acts like The Books fit in with the ‘harsh noise’ subgenre and Steve Reich in the sense that they resist the difference between an ear and a microphone. It’s tempting to consign this to ‘science envy’; this exhaustion of the crude metaphor made of ‘chaos theory’, process vs. chance, but what also comes through is that nature itself is intentional. We necessarily make something out of it, and it’s not just anything.
Although music has spatial and even physiological characteristics that we might focus on, sometimes I stray from the attitude that emotions necessarily have intentional objects – as though music allows us, or is, the alternative. I associate music with the rhythms or sounds of human behavior which are sad or happy, but music might carry these emotions from their context. Whose funeral is the Funeral March? A preoccupation with the music beyond associations urges me to contemplate personal feelings in a similar way. I say ‘contemplate’ because the result is not always the pleasure of good taste or noble feeling, or even cathartic. I might hear a pleasant Arcangelo Corelli piece and feel strains of happiness associated with my mother. But then, I realize that this feeling is heightened because I no longer recognize my mother as the person of my memories. I cry because there is no continuity save by the presence of the same piece. There is no particular event or image in it which I have become closer to, and that makes it more dear. We have some interest in coming to terms with our negative experiences and emotions when we listen to music – and in that spirit we should try to parse the spontaneous prejudices of our tastes.
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