Shit Sandwich

I was listening to a review of a cd on NPR. I don’t remember who the band was (nor is it important that I remember). I do, however, remember asking myself why is it that music reviewers seem to think that the only good music is music that sounds like 80s college radio? I figured that the reviewer was probably some dude that most likely went to college in the early 1980s, and that, since that was the music that he came of age to, that he’d have some kind of natural bias towards the music that he listened to what he got high with his dormmates back in 1982. I still find that there is this kind of music snobbery that sticks to the claim that college radion is the only place where you will find music worth listening to. That’s where the real music is, they claim. I can imagine that listening to college-rock sounding music becoming a refuge for someone in the early 80s. On mainstream radio, where the musical tastes of housefraus and high school track coaches dominate, the music world was all Hall and Oates, REO Speedwagon, Night Ranger, and God save us, Howard Jones. College radio, on the other hand, was where you’d find the hallowed ground that gave us The Replacements, REM and Husker Du. I bet that that NPR guy is still lamenting that REM hasn’t made a record (and he probably still says “record” because we all know vinyl is better) that sounds like Murmur in over a decade. I have to admit that I have my own college radio experience. I had, like many a daydreaming underachiever, entertained the idea of spinning wax for a living. I, too, had a radio show at the local junior college. Now that was back in the 90s, when music, after hairbands and the freestyle explosion (I still like freestyle, though), was getting back to something called “quality”. Listening to music wasn’t supposed to be merely for enjoyment (and God forbid anyone listen to anything popular), it was supposed to be provoke thought. I was, like my music, supposed to be serious. No cockrock for me my dear, it’s all Ani DiFranco and Dinosaur, jr. . I coundn’t enjoy C&C Music Factory, and it was strictly forbidden to own a copy of Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em — I was to listen only to Eric Matthews and Throwing Muses. If I felt inclined to listen on the rap tip, I could listen to KRS-One or Eric B and Rakim. Because that rap was smart. They say that the 90s are coming back. Some of those who “shaped the decade” are pulling themselves out of mothballed obscurity and dusting off their sometimes painfully out of date aggro-rock and hitting the road. No Doubt, Greenday (ok, they’re still popular), Limp Bizkit, Tool, Jane’s Addiction, NIN… even Creed is planning to rub themselves all over the American music listening public again (as if we missed that). By the way, before anyone gets on that “who the hell are you to talk shit” vibe, I will state right here and now that I am the most important element to the whole music industry — the consumer. My dollar (or lack thereof) determines who stays and who goes. That’s who I am. And that’s why I will talk as much shit as I want to. That said, all this nostalgia, when looking backwards, makes things seem so much better than it was. That’s mostly because back then we convinced ourselves that things were better than it was. We were younger. And being younger makes you the authority of cool. There’s nothing more shattering of that delusion than thumbing through one’s cd sollection and finding a Tonic or a Squirrel Nut Zippers cd. It’s humbling By the way, when I did spin records, I played disco. Of course disco is the epitome of mainstream music. It is, to borrow a title from Depeche Mode, music for the masses. But, as it was the 90s, I was playing disco ironically. The funny thing about nostalgia is that we tend to only look back at the better things. When we do that, we ignore all the things that we once said, “thank God that’s over” about. Unfortunately, this stirs in us the habit of not just looking back, but wishing for a return to the “good times”. It’s kind of like how people talk about the 50s. They say it was a time when things were better, simpler. Meanwhile focusing on the good and making it better than it was ignores the fact the for some people, your good old days was their bad old days. I can’t imagine anyone who got beat up for drinking from the wrong drinking fountain wants to go back to those fabulous fifties. Wishing for the past to return (because back then was better than now) is almost as bad as those who not only wish for the return, but actively re-enact it (I’m not talking about Civil War re-enactments, although I think those are pretty creepy. I’m talking about things like 70s music reviews featuring people like KC of KC and the Sunshine Band (sans the Sunshine Band), and most of the guys from the Tramps. That sort of thing). Living in the past, like that, sort of becomes its own kind of experience machine. It becomes a fortress of solitude within which neither the outside world nor modern music can intrude. We may not literally be climbing into a box with electrodes attached to our brain, but drowning out the present reality while listening to Tragic Kingdom, telling myself that ‘this is what good music is’, is in my own way like hooking up my brain to electrodes and programming for myself a better, more good feeling reality. Actually, I’d be listening to the downward spiral, burning nag champa incense, with the lights turned down low, telling myself ‘ this is what good music is’. Of course, our prima facie comment is to say that my disagreement with the NPR guy is merely a difference of tastes. It is no different than if me and this guy were looking at the Mona Lisa, and he says that he sees a masterpiece while I say that my 8 year-old neighbor Dante can do better. If we scratch the surface a little deeper, to find the philosophy behind our disagreement, we may say that our argument is one of aesthetics. And this is correct. He hears the beauty of a cd that I do not. But, as Susan Sontag tells us (not just her, but plenty of others), any aesthetic judgment shuttles in a statement of ethics as well. It’s soon revealed that any discussion about music, art, etc, pretty much sucks all the way around. we’re either a) headed for a discussion of values, which is difficult enough, or b) we’re talking aesthetics, which is even less tangible. But we can’t ignore tastes. If I say that I listen to the Cure because whenever I hear the song “End”, it “moves” me, I am stating that the song ilicits an emotional response from me whenever I hear it. Tastes may be a matter of emotion (never a favorite topic among philosophers), and unwinnable. That is, emotions are philosophical nonstarters. But there is something else at work besides emotions when I say that I like this or that music. When I say that I like the Cure more than I like Bauhaus (and I do), or if I say that the music of my youth is better than the music that is out now (and I do), what I am saying is that my dog is better than your dog. It’s a matter of tastes, but the assertion is two-fold. It isn’t just a matter of tastes. It’s also a moral statement. In the popular vernacular “good” is often a matter of taste. A good wine, a good movie, even when we judge people (a good looking man or woman, “good” hair, etc), is often subjective or relative. There are people who like red wine and people who only drink white. Some people think that Super Troopers is the best movie ever made. Not everyone agrees that something is good. When we think of art (of which music is a part) we usually speak of things that we see — paintings, sculpture, drawings, etc. We’d say that we see a beautiful painting, or a visually stunning motion picture. In questions of aesthetics, it’s easier to discuss the visual. When we speak of music, good music, we are speaking in terms of beauty — beautiful melody, a beautiful voice… St. Thomas Aquinas says “the beautiful… is that which pleases us upon being seen”. Of course music is not seen (except for those people who say that the literally see colors when they hear music), but I think Aquinas’ statement applies equally to music. Aquinas says that a beautiful object has unity, proportion and clarity. Something that is beautiful is a whole composed of parts. This is also true of music. A composition is comprised of parts. We can say that a song has unity, proportion and clarity. It is said that, to the degree that they are technically what music should be, Mozart’s symphonies are the greatest musical compositions of all time. This is because Mozart’s music has unity, proportion and clarity (to borrow Aquinas’ terminology). Honestly, I’m not a fan. I like the Impressionists. For what it’s worth, I’d pick Satie. But here’s the problem again. Unity, proportionality, and clarity are supposed to be universal standards. But there is (still) disagreement. What about people who say that they don’t like Mozart’s music? What about people who say that they like a composer such as Phillip Glass? What about Yoko Ono fans? Is Aquinas guilty of pushing off his own tastes as universal standards? When I say that some band or music is good or is not good, like trying to convince someone that they’re wasting their time listening to Interpol, or that they should take up listening to the Brothers Johnson, I’m not just saying that the music is good aurally pleasing. I’m alco saying that the music is good for you. Listening to the Brothers Johnson will enhance your life. Listening will make you a better person, and by extension, if everybody listened to it, we’d all be better for it. Of course, Socrates spoke of this when he said that children must be taught the right kind of education for the betterment of the city. According to Socrates ( we all know that everything that is attributed ot having been said by Socrates is really Plato’s opinion, right?), the right kind of education (of which music is a part) produced the right kind of people. This, in turn, contributes to the ideal city. Socrates explains that “music” includes speech and literature (Russell says that we can expand music to include culture generally). Music, for Socrates’ ideal city, serves to enhance the soul. Therefore, the music that we hear must be the right kind to foster the right traits in the individual. Music must encourage qualities such as courage and temperance. Socrates says,” … in the rearingof music is most sovereign? Because rhythm and harmony most of all insinuate themeselves into the inmost part of the soul and most vigorously lay hold of it in bringing grace with them; and they make a man graceful if he is correctly reared, if not, the opposite”. Socrates goes on to say,” … the man properly reared on rhythm and harmony would have the sharpest sense for what’s been left out and what isn’t a fine product of nature… having the right kind of dislikes he would praise the fine things,… and receiving them into his soul, he would be reared on them and become a gentleman”. For the inhabitants of Socrates’ ideal city, music isn’t listened to for pleasure — it serves a greater purpose — to make better people. For this reason, Socrates warns, music must be chosen very carefully. Music, as we know, shapes not only individuals, but can influence an entire culture. As I’m writing this, I am reminding myself that last week celebrated the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, and how the music of the “Woodstock Generation” influenced and shaped our culture (a fact that the Baby Boomers never hesitate to remind those of us who first heard of Sonny Bono when he was elected mayor of Palm Springs). Socrates says that there must be rigid censorship of all music. Music has the potential to enhance the soul, but it can also damage it. Socrates says that Homer (because of his depictions of the gods) must be banned. Music should not encourage people to fear things such as death, or encourage people to laugh too much (a baffoon lacks seriousness). Men should not hear music that makes them weak. That would mean, in our time, that any music by Rob Thomas or Keith Urban would (and should) be banned. I get the feeling that Keith Urban cries… alot. Socrates isn’t wrong, exactly. When Reagan was elected in 1980, there was a push to reclaim what America had lost in the 1970s, which was, in part, due to an era of “sensitive” men, “in touch” with their “feminine” side, like Alan Alda and James Taylor setting the cultural tone for what men should be. As expected, a socially acceptable image of a weakened man led to the election of Jimmy Carter, which directly led to the taking of hostages by Iranian militants at the American embassay in Tehran in 1979. If a culture praises weak music, it will become weak. Likewise, this is why Ozzy Osborne got blamed ofr teen suicides, and Judas Priest got sued for encouraging teens to kill themselves. It’s why Tupac and Marilyn Manson were blamed for corrupting the souls of the youth and encouraging bad behavior. The worry is that by listening to the wrong music, we will nurture the wrong kind of soul and becone the wrong kind of people. Any parent whose child discovered speed metal in the 80s, or gangsta rap in the 90s, or who has a pre-teen daughter who thinks that the Pussycat Dolls are the greatest thing ever, or has a son who went emo two years ago, knows this fear. As Chop Top said in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, “music is my life”. This is true. How many people arThis is whate defined by what kind of music that they listen to? Emos, goths, deadheads, metalheads, punks — all are influenced by music. This is why we play patriotic music on the 4th of July or hymns at Christmastime. We know that Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” stirs the right kind of emotions at the end of a fireworks display. It makes us want to be better Americans. It makes us want to be better people. And this is what the NPR reviewer was saying. So the point is, is that when he says that that college radio sounding band is good music, it’s almost unimportant that I actually enjoy the music that he’s recommending. The point is, is no matter whether I enjoy it or not, the music is good. And even if I don’t think that I benefitted at all from listening to it, I did.

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