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2006/08/22

Disposable Music

There was a time in my life when a song could rule my every waking moment. Music infused my life – each happenstance a musical cue – it was a soundtrack complete with montages, chases, tender moments of realization, and, above all else, the stirrings of love (or lust). The music meant something and the lyrics were potent and important.

This was during a time when the concept of ‘selling-out’ was something no authentic artist would ever consider. The idea of commercializing a song they wrote – had given birth to - was tantamount to the desecration of the holy. True inspiration and revolutionary innovation were made of the mind, blood, body and spirit – not technology. The qualities that made a song resonate across the airwaves for generations were human ones – very human.

But no more.

Now everything is technical. Everything is commercial. Everything is disposable. And, thanks to the practice of sampling – everything old is new again – or so they would like us to believe – but it’s not.

We live in an age of disposable music. Music created in such sheer volume that one song barely has time to register on the cultural horizon before being replaced by something just as marginal, just as meaningless. Music isn’t ‘catchy’ anymore, it’s frequently merely irritating. Yes, it gets under your skin, like ringworm.

When was the integrity of music replaced by commercialization?

It can be traced back to the 70’s. Disco was the first blow to the empire. Not that there weren’t disco songs with integrity – there were tons of R&B-driven, funky grooves to be sure, but at one point the proliferation of disco albums far exceeded the appetites of its audience. I remember seeing discs dedicated to the idea of ‘the disco opera’ incorporating themes like ‘Dracula’ and featuring song titles like ‘Suck, Baby, Suck’. Kitschy now. Anathema then.

The subsequent backlash was huge. Integrity reared its ugly head in the form of a couple of enterprising radio DJ’s who organized the first ‘Disco Sucks’ demonstration whereby a pile of donated disco albums were run over with a steam roller during the halftime of a local baseball game. It was a shot heard round the world. Disco was dead. Integrity was back.

But it didn’t die. It simply changed its name to ‘Dance Music’. And, as with disco, while there is still the occasional undeniable gem (Suzanne Palmer’s ‘Home’ for example), so much of this genre holds about as much cultural significance as Paris Hilton.

The next step in this rampant disregard for the value of music came, not from the artists, but from corporations. During the 80’s we saw the rise of the corporation as svengali, wielding their financial might as a means of controlling artistic expression. Music became product – success a matter of the financial, not the critical.

Clive Davis, once a talent maverick for Columbia records, would now ask that many of the established female vocalists he signed to the Arista label be remolded in order to maximize, not artistry, but selling power. This frequently meant that these women had to turn their backs on their considerable writing talents (Melissa Manchester, Jennifer Warnes) or previous wealth of work (Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick) and submit to the whims and desires of the powers that be in the corporate office in order to obtain financial success. Those that failed to comply and/or flourish were dropped quickly – this being true of men and groups as well. It was - play by our rules or we won’t promote your music. Discord was frequent. So were label changes.

There were exceptions to these rules – chiefly brought about by numerous independent labels – where innovation still ruled the day. Unfortunately these lights of hope were frequently short-lived or extinguished. They either perished due to poor business practices (lack of financing, lack of distribution) or were gobbled up by the major labels in order for the major to glean the artistic glow of the minor. This made way for the age of acquisitions – when even former major players like EMI, Mercury, and Arista would be swallowed whole by conglomerates with faceless names like Universal, Sony, Polygram, and BMG.

But business practices alone would not account for the lack of integrity popular music would succumb to.

The promotion of style over substance created a generation – an MTV generation. Visuals and pyrotechnics substituted for artistry. The gift-wrap became more important than the actual gift.

Technology would also play a part – computers would make it much more affordable and easier to recreate sounds, splice sounds, manipulate sounds. Manipulation of vocal tone, quality and pitch has become an accepted practice. Indeed, now anyone can ‘do it’.

Encouraged by accountants and corporate conglomerated labels – artistry has fallen by the wayside. The concept of ‘selling-out’ is no longer considered such a bad thing. The Beatles catalog, now in the hands of Michael Jackson and those to whom he owes a lot of money, has been licensed to sell cars on television and a ‘Cirque Due So Lame’ touring phenom. Perhaps integrity died on a sidewalk in New York – or perhaps John Lennon would be just like everyone else and go for the gold that buys future security.

The Rolling Stones have begun licensing their music for use in movies and commercials. These are the same artists who once claimed they would rather be dead than be rocking at the age of 40. Hey, Mick? What time is it?

I watch television. I pay close attention to the commercials. If music videos were the great indicators of our cultural mindset in the 1980’s – then commercials are their 2006 equivalent. Goldfrapp is gaining considerable market recognition, thanks to their presence selling some new electronic all-in-one device and promoting the new season of FX’s popular (and admittedly shallow) Nip and Tuck series. Good for them. IPod commercials have broken a number of new acts and created life for songs that otherwise might have fallen through the cracks – sometimes I’m grateful, more often, not.

Yes, way back when… in the sixties – when many a rocker or songwriter mistrusted the establishment and its apparent desire for the commercialization of popular music – these misgivings were much more than mere poses. But alas, everything they once feared has come to pass. Music is now disposable. Little more than background noise to sell product. (For historical reference, please check out the original cover for The Who’s “The Who Sell Out” album). Little more than ring tones. Little more than a vehicle for promotion.

Ahhh, and I remember when we thought elevator music was the ultimate horror when it came to the devaluing of music.

Now where’s that steam roller?

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