John McDonald

Blogging about politics, life, and the web

In Defense of Music and Standards

July 9th, 2009

In response to:

Michael Jackson’s Death Was Tragic, But He Was Little More Than an Icon of Mediocrity

By Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez’s Blog. Posted July 9, 2009.

He was not a musical genius; didn’t break down racial barriers; wasn’t a great dancer; didn’t change American culture…

Alisa Valdes-Rodrigues is saying something a few of us have thought by now.  It seems a lot of people leaving comments don’t agree – But let’s face it:  Musicians are music snobs… and so what if it sounds pretentious?  Writers are book snobs and engineers frown on half-assed constructs.

Until you’ve picked up an instrument or three and put the required time toward learning how to play, you’ve got no relative concept of the effort & emotion that goes into creating that music.  Without those insights, there’s still a musical product fit for mass consumption – but its value is ultimately calculated by the ability to generate revenue.

I get where the negative comments are coming from – really.  If you haven’t been playing guitar for 2+ years you probably don’t appreciate death metal solos.  If you’ve never sat in a symphonic arrangement, you’re somewhat detached from the performance.  If you’ve never written a song, how could you appreciate what goes into performing your own originals or how it differs from covering someone else’s composition?

The “greatest” and “best” pieces of art can not be enjoyed passively.  They are way too deep and they require too much of the audience’s active engagement.  They are designed to make you think, contemplate, over-analyze – and they assume you’ve grown up from the introductory fare to face the bigger and tougher questions.

This may be why musicians tell you that the music in your iPods sucks: Because it does.  Popular music is missing elements and potential that its fans may not be aware of.  If MTV says it was groundbreaking, you can safely bet that someone did it generations earlier.  That doesn’t mean one can’t or shouldn’t enjoy “popular” music:  Not everyone is drawn to spend so much effort for music just as not everyone becomes an author or an engineer.  There is still some sort of combination of skill and luck that goes into creating global popularity, even if it isn’t enough on its own to impress dedicated connoisseurs.

Many will dismiss Alisa’s call for cultural quality as sour grapes or stereotypical Gen-X cynicism, but there’s a valid point amid the gloom.  The reward for mediocrity seems to be fame and millions – the reward for art appears to be an existence on the margins of culture: a cramped stage in an underground bar or a yawning audience in a half-empty hall. If there’s anything I really disagree with in this article, its the claim that Michael Jackson was himself a member or a symbol of Generation-X.  Most definitions of Gen-x start with births in the mid 1960s, and Gen-x music is more definitive of modern rock music than Michael Jackson will ever be.

In related news, the music industry faces record-breaking losses (again).  Apparently, they really believe that this is the best American music has to offer and can’t imagine something better.


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