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Music: Gimme My Music

Reflections on what has made for the best popular music of our times

By Brad Balfour · January 6th, 2000 · Music
  Sonic Youth
Sonic Youth

A few nights ago I found myself in the subterranean, smoky confines of The Cooler, a former Manhattan meat-packing house turned into a club. There in its bowels was photographer/poet Gerard Malanga holding court at his debut party for his Web site which featured his poems and photos of such hip culture luminaries as Andy Warhol (his former employer and mentor), the late writer William Burroughs and musician/poet Patti Smith.

Also lurking backstage was Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore and drummer Rashied Ali who performed together that night. Radical Jazz pianist Cecil Taylor and poet Ira Cohen were there as well.

While gabbing about music scenes worldwide--Taylor had just returned from Berlin and other people were heading there -- Thurston asked about my work. I mentioned this piece on seminal music of the ages. To that Thurston blurted, "Music which ... music has no calendar."

Hearing that, Cecil replied in his gritty rasp, "Yeah it has no time; it's all timeless."

Well, since both of these folks were to be placed on this list of creators of seminal music, I didn't want to belabor the point. But there's no better starting place than with their thoughts.

I am writing about music which has no clock running it down.

Whether it be the Tropicalismo sounds created by a such passionate and yet introspective singer/songwriter as Brazil's Caetano Veloso or the religious fervor expressed in a Pakistani Ghazal (song of devotion) through the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's ecstatic wail, such music transcends.

When an American hears Paco De Lucia's Flamenco guitar, other world's images enhance its emotional impact. When my Post Punk cohort Antonio -- who grew up in both in Columbia and Greece -- listens to Patti Smith's "Rock & Roll Nigger" I witness the flailings of someone who imagines himself connected with a time and place he was never directly a part of.

Regardless of its cultural or creative genesis, such music delivers more than its commercial success or historical significance. This music constantly offers new interpretations and recreates the emotional experience that caused it to be created in the first place.

Such music creators have become culture heroes. They restate the obvious so as to not be obvious. They make it possible for others to believe that a little event such as a song or concert could have a life-affirming, or life-changing impact.

Real life is diffuse, confusing; change occurs not in the simple crystalline kernel of a song but unfolds as a never-ending drama. It's hard to feel in control. Great music gives one a sense of control in life just as when one takes disparate materials and fuses it together as a painting or photograph.

Unless a creator has such unconscious genius, commercial intentions overshadows talent. Music based on self-consciously commercial motivation rarely achieves this profound degree of impact. If the intentions behind its creation are of such a momentary nature, it rarely sustains its value.

In a world where the Pokemon theme song sounds equal to an adult Pop radio hit such as "Eye of The Tiger," such music becomes a pop phenomenon. The music of this day and age seems so mediocre; a pathetic and pale template wrenched from great stylists and laid down through digital reduction to be redundant or overblown. Though this lament seems as stale as the music it criticizes, I can't help but cry out. Ranging from Ricky Martin to Jessica Simpson, little of this music seems memorable let alone challenging.

When I review the current charts it stirs this lament: "What happened to great music?" Every couple of years, senior music critics condemn the state of Pop music as puerile, a total corruption of the work from previous generations. Though I've tried not to succumb to such nay-saying, I must admit, the current crop of music dominating the charts, ranging from Puff Daddy to the Backstreet Boys is some of the most pathetic, baseless, shallow, insipid Pop music I've heard with few exceptions. It lacks connection, except in the most commercial manner, with the grand history of Pop music. Such music has only the most tenuous connection to the best traditions of Pop music.

Even a great artist such as David Bowie allows his music to be used for such a tawdry purpose as a car ad. Nonetheless, his brilliance stills glimmers through.

I simply can't listen to music that's just made to be pretty or predictable, which riffs off standardized emotion and preset phrases and ideas. So much Pop music today whether made by a longtime established star such as Michael Bolton or Julio Iglesias or by relative newcomers such as Mariah Carey and Celine Dion, reflects the fabrication of their outfits more than the creativity of their music. Their displays of vocal gymnastics doesn't make them artists of long-term value or worthy entries into the creative pantheon.

So much contemporary music represents such a regression or rather transgression of what Pop music once had been. Much Hip Hop and Pop music have become a wasteland devoid of anything creative. The music has become co-opted; any artist will sell out at anytime to go for the Benjamins. Puff Daddy is a violation not because the music is so bad but because he is such a buzzard picking off the carrion of dead Rock groups. To many, Puffy ruined Hip Hop, not because he used Pop influences but because he did it in such an awkward fashion.

What Hip Hop group transcends the genre recently and has moved on to the level a Charlie Parker achieved in Jazz? Hip Hop has been co-opted in its attempt to go mainstream -- nothing new. The artists are no longer coming at it from the point of view of the disenfranchised. So much music has become a matter of style over substance. Artists are judged on the basis of their props not their chops.

I don't want to sound like an old fart only pumping up the music of my generation. Bands like Everclear, Rage Against the Machine and Tool offer something of the spark I seek. There's a whole underground in electronica such as Underworld and Fat Boy Slim. New Yorkers such as Soul Coughing and Skeleton Key kick it as well. There are new voices in Hip Hop, primarily female such as Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliot establishing new styles which succeeded creatively and commercially.

Music at its most instinctual, even with a dense intellectual foundation, excites me. Hearing the greats makes me wonder: Where the hell did they get those ideas? Even when the origins and influences of a pivotal artist seem apparent, they still make their sound seem like an incredible leap of consciousness beyond the obvious. Artists such as Parker, John Coltrane, Lou Reed or Captain Beefheart rethink music, the impact it has, its point and purpose. It makes you rethink every other premise you have when you listen to them.

John Cage once noted, music is as much about silence as it is about sound. So true about his music as well. Beefheart transformed the unexpected into the expected. The Velvet Underground said drone is good and pain was not far away from pleasure. The transcendentally aggressive Iggy Pop and the primal yowl of Nine Inch Nails challenge norms about pain and pleasure also.

Coltrane and other Jazz sax giants ranging from Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Sonny Rollins, to the "young turks" (Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Rahasan Roland Kirk and more recently Charles Gayle) pushed their instrument to its limit and gave it a new voice, sometimes an elegant one, other times, harsh and foreboding. Miles Davis added new tone to the shout of the trumpet while Dizzy Gillespie transformed it with Afro-Cuban influences.

Electronic music now impacts on the way music is heard. Progenitor Edgard Varese experimented in musique concrete during the '30s; modern dance auralists are electronic composers who fashion music into sensation in ways never envisioned before. Dancing becomes a statement of avant-garde expression with the audience adding to the creative process. Witness Moby's impact on a crowd when he himself becomes some whirling dervish on stage.

When my friend Vicki revels in her Roxy Music and Bowie fetishes, she's not just a fan to be a fan. She understands what draws her to such artists, people who intentionally bend gender definitions, merge contradictory emotions and fashion unique statements out of overworked material such as the Blues. She confronts her own sexuality and gender questions through such music; she connects with the outcast subcultures (drag queens and exhibitionists) the music highlights.

A singer/songwriter such as Elvis Costello captures the permutations of love and loss, obsession, distance, and the confusion between love and compulsion. No one does it better; no wonder that my former lover Deborah seeks solace in his exhortations. For her, Costello works beyond the loins, into her very being.

All this music in some way changed my perception of art and creative possibilities. In a sense it corrupted me, turned me away from ordinary pleasures, caused me to think otherwise about what stimulates me and drives my soul.

This piece is not so much about a history of music nor is it about the future either. It ís about artists that transcend time, genre and offer as much choice as possible. Maybe this generation of pop stars, the young ones such as Enrique Iglesias or a post Spice Girl will get this message and transform their music.

With the web making music listening a totally customer driven act, the old arbiters of "taste" -- radio programmers, consultants and record moguls -- can't simply dictate from on high. For once every consumer, even the most eccentric, the lover of the most idiosyncratic, has the playing field leveled. And from that point of view our future -- at least the musical one -- looks pretty bright. ©



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