Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Music of the Spheres

My wife and I do not watch "American Idol".  The humiliation of untalented people, looking to parlay their willingness to subject themselves to embarassment into their fifteen minutes of fame, is just not pleasant.  We won't watch.

Interestingly, we live in a society where people are told from early on in life that, if they don't sing well, they shouldn't sing at all.  I have heard the joke a number of times (and repeated it an embarassing number of times, too):

"Who sings that song?"
"It's (insert favorite performer's name)'s song."
"Well, let's keep it that way."

It is a beautiful joke.  It combines insult with humor, and everybody walks away chuckling. But it also creates an environment that is toxic to making music.

The message is pretty clear.  Leave the music-making to the professionals.  Nobody likes hearing amateurish efforts.  We love hearing Beyonce, Bono, Sting, Tricia Earwig, Carrie Overwood, Tailer Swift, Dame Gaga, Ryehanna.... whomever, but we want our professionals to be professionals. Being professional means not singing if you don't have a beautiful voice.  Means not singing once you have become old.  Or, once you become old, make sure that your voice is digitized, so that you sound better than you can produce live.  Lip sync whenever you can get away with it (but it had better be YOUR voice - no Milla Vanila for us, thank you). Perfect the sound before it comes to our ears.

Entertain us.  Do it well.  We can sway, but unless you call for us to shout out the lyrics with you, the performance is a chance for YOU to entertain US.

Your music is art.  And we, the purchasers of that art, will pay and judge and own that art.  But we will not be creators of that art.  We will be connoisseurs. Consumers.  Music will be a commodity, and we will fetishize it and package it, buy and sell it, and own it.

It wasn't always that way. 

Music used to be a way that we connected; it was an integrating element within the society.  You (plural) sang around the table.  You sang in the bar, arm in arm.  You sang in church, you sang at home. You sang songs of home, you sang songs of joy, you sang the blues.  You sang together, chorus style. You sang solo, under the balcony of your beloved.  You sang on the porch with a jug and a fiddle. You worked to the sound of music - not coming from radios, but coming from each other. 

Instruments were often used to accompany, but they were not necessary.  Or, if they were necessary, they were interchangeable.  Because the purpose of the music was to express, to share, and to join. That joining was not specific to the use of the piano, or mouth harp, or harmonica, or banjo.  If you had the instrument, people would join in and sing. And if you didn't have an instrument, voices would join to do the heavy lifting. 

Sure, there were specialists - there have been musical specialists throughout history.  But the specialist was revered for the ability, and was asked to join any group because of the value that they placed on the musical ability (court musicians in the 18th Century, for example, were paid pretty well).

The crux, though, is that only the very wealthy could fund their own musicians (and in times of financial stress, generally these were the first salaries to be cut).  For everybody else, music was played to unite.  To join.  To create identity and common purpose. 

Edison's cylindrical phonograph changed that. Radio changed that. Eight-track and cassettes changed that.  With the ability to store and broadcast music, people could share, exchange, and sell their music.  Identity became more an individual choice, based on where you spent your money, instead of where you spent your time.

Everything that used to unite us musically is now outdated.  Can you imaging an office filled with people typing at keyboards, singing together?  The image is ludicrous.  Music is now used as a tool to take us away, rather than bring us together.  The songs my family taught us on vacation trips are now only barely remembered by the silverbacks of the family.  Instead, we travel on driving vacations, each kid plugged into their own music (and video), disconnected from the rest of the family on the drive. (A situation which, admittedly, would cut down on our "STOP TOUCHING ME" vignette that played out every. single. trip.) 

I miss those songs, and I miss singing with my family. I covet the opportunity to have us sing together as a larger family - I am convinced that we as a society would benefit from the unifying mechanism that music provides.  One of my favorite scenes from M*A*S*H is the scene where the homesick medics quietly sing together a song about the homefires burning. (I also secretly harbor a spontaneous flash mob fantasy - something where everybody just joins in on a song we all know.)

I long for the ability to go into a bar and sing with people.  Even if it is just a bar, filled with Saints fans, all of us singing along with a piped-in version of that eternal ballad "Stand up and Get Crunk."

Singing together. Bringing our individual spheres together, and connecting us.  

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