The Day the Music Died

Today is Memorial Day, and it turned out to be a day to bring me back 40 years. I had my radio on all day, listening to WABC Radio Rewound. As usual, Mark Simone was terrific on the evening portion of the show. I feel young, free, and happy!

That got me thinking. Thinking about music, and how it has morphed from my childhood until now. Wow! What changes! I was a WABC Radio fan, like just about everyone back then. We had the music on all day, and listened to the DJs and the commercials just as much as the music. Today, as the old commercials came on, I found myself smiling and singing with them as well.

Now, I never listen to music radio anymore. I press buttons, and station after station disappoints me. I love music more than ever, but it seems that I can't find any MUSIC. I've been through many changes, and I fear that I'm getting old and crochety, but the music that is played on the radio now just doesn't sound like MUSIC.

Granted, oldies music is not the epitome of musical excellence. Still, it stayed with you, and I love the tunes now just as much, if not more, than I did then.

So, more thinking.

In sixth grade, we had to do a full research paper. Complete with bibliography, footnotes, and proper referencing. No computers of course, and no crossouts. Pen only. No corrections whatsoever. I pondered topics, and as usual, my Dad suggested an idea which opened my eyes. He suggested that I do a history of Jazz, from the Negro Spiritual through the current time. It sounded interesting so I went for it.

I learned so much! It was fascinating. I listened to gospel music, jazz, rock and roll. I loved the soulful, passionate gospel, its depth of feeling, the magic that it created. I learned about George Gershwin at that time, and Summertime and I've Got Plenty of Nuthin' made me shudder. The gospel music evolved, and Frank Loesser took Damon Runyon's tale, and the boat rocked!
Curiosity made made do more research, before the spiritual and the gospel music. Every uncovering was a revelation - I was only 11.

Music developed for 2 primary reasons - to make requests of the gods, and to honor and give thanks to them. Early cultures danced, chanted, and played rhythms to celebrate life and mourn death. The music was an outward expression of inner feelings - ecstasy - derived from Greek - to go outside yourself.

Music continued to be a celebration of the gods, and God, and of life. It took on new meaning when Vivaldi honored the seasons, and Handel's unsurpassed masterpiece added power and depth to an already rich art. The passion of the ancients was brought to its peak with the Ode to Joy.

Even the symphony expanded. Stravinsky opened the Earth and the Sky. We were drawn inward to a new interpretation of sound.

The music came to the people. Gershwin celebrated the city that he loved. Jazz evolved. The Big Band was Born. Time had passed, but the Call and Response from the gospel music was felt over and over again.

The war prompted a powerful nationalism, and we supported, entertained, and sang about the troops.

Jazz begat Swing, and along came Frank Sinatra, who sang of love; they era of the Love Song was upon us. Rock and Roll followed. Still, the music was celebratory. It spoke of emotions, life, death, gods. It spoke of Love. Music had moved, over time, from the gods to humanity.

Through the 1960s, and then a new transformation began. The music was not merely about love any more, but about things. But - they were fun things! They became silly things, but we still loved them. And we sing them now when we hear them on oldies stations.

More time passed. The music turned dark. Not dark emotion of sadness or loss. The music turned sinister. We loved that too. I don't know anyone who isn't rockin' when Sympathy For the Devil is Played.

It didn't stop. It got darker. But the darkness was not IN ADDITION to the ECSTASY. It REPLACED the ECSTASY. Love songs and silly were becoming rarer and rarer. The feelings inside changed. There was disruption. Chaos. Helter Skelter.

There is a new breed of music. It is charged with hate. I cannot create links to the few that I have heard. I never want to hear them again. Rape, murder, denigration of women, matricide, patricide. What horrors!

Now, songs of love seem to be a thing of the past. We must find oldies stations to hear them. Our children have never heard Rhapsody In Blue, and haven't the faintest notion of who Beethoven might be. The don't snap their fingers to a great beat, because the hateful music is played in non-rhythmic patter. It disrupts the heart. It scrapes at the mind. It overturns the soul.

Is music the reflection of culture, or its cause? There seems to be a common trend in our cultural brilliance - music and culture decline together.

I listen to the lectures produced by The Teaching Company. My favorite professor is Dr. Daniel N. Robinson. In a lecture about ancient Greece, he discussed art and culture. I am paraphrasing, but he suggested that it is not how WE look, but rather WHAT WE LOOK AT, that affects our outlook, sensibilities, and behavior. He pointed out that we might take a long hard look at the buildings that we erect - as he phrases it "In our name." Does a contemporary school compare with Notre Dame? Surely not.

I believe that also applies to what we HEAR. Beautiful music enriches us, lifts us, draws us outside of ourselves, and brings forth joy. Upbeat snappy music sends us boppin'. Love songs soothe our hearts and evoke feelings of love. Silly songs make us laugh.

Horrendous music draws horrendous emotions, unrest, depression, and hatred.

Somewhere, a few years back, the MUSIC died. It was replaced with a savage rage that insults every ear that is subjected to it.

Keep those oldies coming WABC!! Surely the music isn't REALLY dead??

Perhaps we might look backward, and listen to the works that came before this time. Swing dance. Take a ride in a convertible. Close our eyes and listen to The Elf-King and feel the fear and passion. Take our I-Pods to a park by a lake. Sit quietly. Play Moonlight Sonata. But ... laugh and romp as well!


Adam said...

Couple of points.

One - as to people not snapping their fingers: it's not that there's no rhythm. Most if not all of the hate-infused music you're describing carries a heavy rhythm (often the "sung" part does not but there's always heavy rhythmic accompaniment). I think think people don't snap their fingers because they're not enjoying what they're listening to... but they listen anyway.

Two - and related - you said in the beginning that music expresses inner feelings. But later you imply that music (and what we watch) causes us to feel a certain way. Moment-by-moment, perhaps, but I think that for the most part and in the longer term, the causal relationship goes in the other direction. We feel a certain way, so we listen to stuff that makes us feel that way (I cite as a reference the following excerpt from a well-known song:

"If someone else is suffering enough to write it down
When every single word makes sense
Then it's easier to have those songs around
The kick inside is in the line that finally gets to you
and it feels so good to hurt so bad
And suffer just enough to sing the blues")

I listen to sad songs when I'm sad and upbeat songs when I'm happy, and listening to the "wrong" sort of song doesn't make what's going on inside my head change (I know, cuz I've tried, and it's futile.)

In spite of the threat of nuclear annihilation, the 50s are generally considered to be a time of happiness and prosperity. In the 60s, people were angry. In the 70s... well, I'm not sure about the 70s. In the 80s, people were generally optimistic, and in the 90s, they were angsty. So in those eras you see music following society's general mood -- not the other way around.

I claim, likely controversially, that people who listen to hate-filled music are expressing how they feel about themselves. Society increasingly attempts to motivate us through guilt and fear. We got our prosperity by stealing it from Indians, and maintain it by being mean to poor people. We deserve the treatment that terrorists give us. "Individualism is dead," I was told on facebook.

What sort of music do they expect us to listen to?

Helen said...

I see your point about people listening to music that reflects how they feel, and I agree at that level.

However, I am talking about something on a broader scale. It's about what we hear and see, whether we actually want to hear and see it or not. Where once, I had several choices for music on the radio, now my choices are scanty. Commercials have an undertone of dismal, rhythmless music. The children that I spend my time with (and there are many) select angry, hateful music to listen to.

I also agree that people listen to music that reflects their feelings about themselves.

As to the last point - "We got our prosperity by stealing it from Indians, and maintain it by being mean to poor people. We deserve the treatment that terrorists give us."

Since the beginning of time, cultures have engaged in war against each other. In the case of the US, whatever is won is considered to have been stolen.

I am actually nauseous by what was done to the Indians, but, these wars are sadly a part of humanity.

As for being "mean" to poor people - beyond understanding. What, exactly is meant by that? Is it the food stamps, the free school, right through college, the free medical care, the free English-language classes, the free job training?

Or, is it the aid that we send by the billions to other countries? Some of it must be so distasteful that their governments will not permit them to have it.

Perhaps it is the notion that we should be made to feel guilty if we are not poor.

Fear not. Our "leadership" is convincing us that we deserve nothing. The democratic candidate has already inspired so many, in so many ways! He tells us that we eat too much, and that we keep our houses too warm, and drive too much, and we're too fat! How comforting to know that there is someone to do our thinking for us. B. Husein Obama will likely be our next president. Then we will ALL be poor.

What a problem for the rest of the world - at whom will they direct their resentment and hatred?