Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sequestered in Memphis: An Essay about Context

Okay, everybody ... this is going to take a lot of words.

Here is the question, in short form:

Does our enjoyment of music depend on historical context?

Here is the question in long form:

Last year, I went to Memphis. A buddy of mine works for the Grizzlies, so I went down there with some friends to watch some horrible NBA basketball. Thankfully, we also got to watch some great NCAA basketball, so it was a wash on the sports front. And Brent loves it when I explain, on a position-by position basis, how the 2007-2008 University of Memphis team would have beaten the 2007-2008 Memphis Grizzlies.

The plan was for a weekend of constant revelry on Beale Street, but temperatures were in the low 30s the whole time we were there, so we had to come up with some indoor options. One of those options turned out to be a tour of Sun Studios. One could make a very convincing argument that rock and roll was invented in Memphis. Elvis. Johnny Cash. Carl Perkins. Jerry Lee Lewis. Walking through the studio, it's easy to imagine those guys inventing a whole genre of music.

But, of course, they didn't invent anything. They played instruments that had been around forever, using chords and keys and time signatures that had existed since the dawn of man. They put their own unique stamp on it, for sure, but it's not like they discovered fire or anything.

Later that night, after many beers, I watched an above-average cover band run through the hits in front of a very receptive audience. There was nothing amazing about them, but they all seemed like competent musicians who worked well together, and they obviously loved performing ... but I'd seen hundreds of bands like that over the years.

So here's the question in a different form: If the Sun Studios guys had walked out of that studio directly into this bar, would they think that this cover band was the absolute greatest band in the history of the world? Or would they think it was just noise?

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the cover band stuck with rock songs played on guitars and drums (no hip hop, no crazy keyboard effects). Remember that scene in Back to the Future where Marty starts wailing on the guitar and it freaks everyone out? I'm not talking about that. Obviously, if Elvis saw a DJ scratching, he wouldn't know what to make of it. But simple songs, four-chord progressions in 2/4 time. Let's say they played this set:

Lynyrd Skynyrd - Sweet Home Alabama
Journey - Don't Stop Believin'
Guns N Roses - Sweet Child O Mine
Steppenwolf - Born to Be Wild
Bon Jovi - Livin' On a Prayer
Cheap Trick - Surrender
KISS - Rock and Roll All Night
Blue Oyster Cult - Burnin' For You
Rolling Stones - Tumbling Dice
Thin Lizzy - The Boys are Back in Town

There's nothing incredibly musically groundbreaking on that list. The Sun Studios guys would at least understand how the sounds were being made. What would they think? Would Johnny Cash listen to that set and think "I am absolutely wasting my time trying to be a musician. These guys are incomparable geniuses and I could never write one song as good as this, much less ten?" Or would they just be confused?

Let's try this from another angle. Nick Hornby, in his excellent essay collection "Songbook," makes this observation:

"A couple of times a year I make myself a tape to play in the car, a tape full of all the new songs I've loved over the previous few months, and every time I finish one I can't believe that there'll be another. Yet there always is, and I can't wait for the next one; you need only a few hundred more things like that, and you've got a life worth living."

So ... what if you could get your hands on that tape early? If you could get a tape from next year, I have no doubt that it would be awesome. It would be recognizable songs, probably by your favorite bands, and you would be the coolest kid in school, playing all that stuff early.

But what if you could get the tape from 2028? Do you think you'd like it? Bear in mind, these are songs that you WILL love in 2028. Do you think that your enjoyment of these songs will depend on your also listening to 20 years of good, average, and horrible music made in the interim?

Think about the implications of that: Is mediocre music necessary to create a backdrop for genius? Are "ahead of their time" artists really ahead of their time? Is there only a limited area of music that the culture is "ready" for, at any given time?

Okay, that's it for now. I'm probably going to re-write this three or four times, but I just wanted to get this out there.

Best of 2028 - would those songs be your new favorites?


  1. aaron, you just blew my mind. doesn't help that it's already fried from studying wills & trusts, but now i've got to think about whether my present self will like music that my future self loves? fuck man... fuck...

    best answer, i doubt it. i hated rap when i was a young teenager, and now there is quite a bit of it that i absolutely love. however, my hatred of country music remains intact. go figure...

    here's a question for you though. there are a billion genres now that completely didn't exist 20 years ago. for instance, i'm pretty sure there wasn't emo in 1988. i could be wrong, but who knows. so my question is what kind of genres will exist 20 years from now? will there be so many different varieties that the word genre ceases to have any meaning? what separates acid emo punk from acid emo speed death metal? and the big "if" is will those people still want to cut themselves...

  2. It is a great question you've asked (and the Carl-Perkins-popping-out-of-Sun-Studios-for-a-beer way of asking it makes it all the more intriguing). One thing that's worth keeping in mind is that Elvis and Perkins and Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis were a bunch of rednecks--crazy rednecks, yes, but rednecks nonetheless. I imagine that what would have happened when they walked into that bar would be that they would have had a reaction that was, well, reactionary. They would have hated it and thrown shit at the band and tried to start a riot--particularly since they all would have been on Bennies. But I'm sure they would also have been fascinated by the equipment and the sheer sound quality. If Sam Phillips were with them, he'd have got the band drunk and offered them a ridiculously small sum for all their equipment.

    Now, your second question, it seems to me, is essentially a Hegelian one. The history of music, like history generally, is an ongoing process of dialectic collision, with each genre, artist, style, movement, eventually confronting an antithetical style, movement, etc. The clash of the two results in a synthesis, blah blah blah. Once one style of music becomes a drag, baby, something else comes in to fill the void. I think that, if you were to eliminate all those interim steps, people's reactions would be dramatic. People might not even think of the future music as music at all (witness older generations' regular refrain that "That's not music; that's just noise!"). By the same token, as we all well know, many people form alleged musical likes and dislikes for reasons that have nothing to do with music whatsoever, but instead as a way of expressing their different-ness, their youth, their radicalism, their disapproval of what's come before. Presumably, regardless how "out there" the future music was, there would still be a healthy number of people who would voice their approval (regardless whether, in their heart-of-hearts or ear-of-ears, they actually like the music). For this reason, every generation has music that is radical (whether genuinely or not) for the sake of being radical. However, were one to graph musical evolution, although it would be a sine curve with radical extremes, but there would be a straighter line that represents the synthesis of the extremes. For example, when punk reacted to pop and disco, we saw huge extremes, but The Clash and Talking Heads and Elvis Costello and The Police and other bands were synthetic outgrowths of the collision of those extremes (regardless how Clash fans like to pretend they liked punk because they liked the distinctly non-punk Clash).

    But, really, you've asked a much more personal question: namely, would I (or any other reader) personally like the music if it were music that we certainly would like were we magically transported to our future selves. I personally think that there is a string that runs through all the music I have genuinely liked since I first became conscious of music at age 8 or 9. Although I generally have pretty broad musical likes, everything I truly enjoy (and here I draw a distinction between "enjoy" and "appreciate" because there's crap I can't stand that, at some intellectual remove, I can understand and appreciate) retains elements of the things that drew me to music in the first place: meaningful and honest lyrics, a genuine melody, relatively sophisticated harmonic structures, including harmony vocals, interesting instrumentation (particularly, but not exclusively, acoustic instruments), a good or at least steady drummer, and production values. The bands I first liked when I was a young kid--Beatles, Stones, Burrito Brothers, Dylan, Beach Boys, Emmylou Harris, Motown, Stax, hell, Elton John--are all echoed in some way in the music I've liked since and that I like today. Admittedly, these "requirements" have kept me from enjoying lots of music lots of people other than me enjoy (for example, things like Red Hot Chili Peppers, which I do not permit on any stereo in my presence, or Nickleback or the vast majority of hip-hop).

    I am absolutely sure that, had I heard "Two" by Ryan Adams or "On Automatic" by Michael Penn or "One Foot In The Grave" by the Pernice Brothers or "The New Year" by Death Cab or "Is There A Ghost" by Band of Horses in 1972, I would have liked all of them. On this basis, because I can expect that, 35 years from now, there will be music that contains those same elements and that I will enjoy, I would enjoy that same music were I to hear it today. By the same token, I am quite sure that I would hate Marilyn Manson regardless when I heard it.