A couple of weeks ago I sat down and settled in to watch the 1968 concert film Monterey Pop by D.A. Pennebaker that I had recorded from Turner Classic Movies. With a line up that included The Mamas & The Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, Hugh Masekela, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding company with Janis Joplin, The Animals, The Who, Country Joe and the Fish, Otis Redding, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Ravi Shankar, I had to simply lounge back on the sofa and wallow in the sheer goodness of it all.
Interspersed in the band footage, Mr. Pennebaker lets it all hang out with visuals of hippies, flower children, bearded, bespectacled intellectuals and button-down squares all soaking up 1968’s great American songbook. The strait-laced partying with the painted or costumed. The sophisticated sleek mingling with bikers and women in flowing, flowered caftans. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to go? I always thought so.
This morning I woke up to the news that 64 year-old Stephen Paddock repeatedly fired weapons from his Mandalay Bay Hotel Room upon the 22,000 concertgoers at the Las Vegas Route 91 Harvest Festival. With more than 50 dead and 500 wounded, this mass shooting has gone down as the worst in American history. But that’s always a tricky bit of trivia, isn’t it? It’s the worst so far. What in the hell could possible be down the road next?
I suspect the usual cast of characters in the wake of this mass murder will appear and then disappear like so much smoke like the somber-faced politicians reverently praying for those lost and those injured or the grim local news reporter spouting platitudes against a backdrop of lit candles and those angry self-appointed defenders of justice who if they had been there would have pulled out their own guns and dispatched the perpetrator with undue haste. But that’s always the problem isn’t it that those quick-draw Dirty Harrys are never around we they are needed. I also suspect that there will be the inevitable questions as to why Mr. Paddock committed such an atrocity, as if there could possibly be a good excuse or thoughtful reason.
Unfortunately, I don’t see a way to pray our way out of this. Surely, enough prayers were said in the wake of the Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan in Pairs, or the Pulse nightclub shooting on Latin night in Orlando, Florida or the bombing at the Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena to finally put an end to this kind of massacre. I don’t think the prayers are working. Certainly, cities like Caracas in Venezuela, San Pedro Sula in Honduras, Cape Town in South Africa and U.S. cities like St. Louis, Baltimore and New Orleans that made it onto Mexico’s Citizens’ Council for Public Security’s annual ranking of the world’s most violent cities for 2016 are chocked full of the faithful. If praying were the cure-all wouldn’t Chicago or Cleveland and Milwaukee be much different places than they currently are?
I further suspect that forces are gathering as I write this summoning the music community to respond to this tragedy by way of a proceeds-for-victims concert, or a foundation or a fucking bunch of heartfelt tweets. I simply can’t image looking back on a musical career and pointing to a single concert performance as one of your best, where you got to jam with musical greats or played your heart out, all to memorialize a bunch of dead music fans.
Bob Dylan sang to us “There must be some way out of here.” Well, Bob, I just don’t see that happening any time soon.
The musical landscape of American music overflows with cool. From Blind Lemon Jefferson to Woody Guthrie, from Ella Fitzgerald to Hank Williams, from Miles Davis to Chuck Berry, from Aaron Copland to Jimi Hendrix, from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Jessye Norman, the music of the United States has flowed freely. And that cool has spread far and wide as the likes of Aerosmith, Chicago and Bruce Springsteen have circled the globe many time over and continue to do so.
Without lapsing into some creepy American exceptionalism, we’ve reveled in the sounds of R. Carlos Nakai, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Muddy Waters, Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Mahalia Jackson and the list just goes on and on.
But here’s the thing – musically we’ve never lived in a vacuum. The general attitude of US audiences has been if it’s cool, we want it. In the early 1970s Ravi Shankar brought his Concert for Bangladesh to the US and the American audience was so enthralled by the sounds they applauded the group’s warm-up. Okay, the audience’s naiveté is amusing, but the point is we wanted this music.
Having been to a Buena Vista Social Club concert, I can attest that if anyone took my seat I would have clawed their eyes out, as I expect most others who have fallen hard for those rich, warm sounds out of Cuba. The same could be said of the concert featuring L. Subramaniam, his son Ambi Subramaniam and Mahesh Krishnamurthy. Think about it, how many times do you think you heard the Spanish summer song “Macarena” by Los del Rio or “Gangnam Style” by South Korea’s Psy?
In 1986, Paul Simon introduced audiences to South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo on his Graceland album and later in 1990 gave audiences a taste of Afro-Brazilian musicians like Grupo Cultural Olodum, Milton Nascimento and Nana Vasconcelos on his release of Rhythm of the Saints. By-the-way, Ladysmith Black Mambazo is currently on tour and will have upcoming concert dates in the US in February and March of 2017.
Bill Frisell let us into the goodness of Sidiki Camara, Vinicius Cantuaria, Christos Govetas, Greg Leisz and Jenny Scheinman with the The Intercontinentals. There are countless other examples of collaborations of American musicians with artists from around the world. We’ve been inundated by bits of bhangra, African, Indian, Celtic and every other genre under the sun in our popular music, movies and advertising.
I’m not sure how any movie soundtrack makes it without the sly addition of tabla or frame drum these days. Again, if it’s cool we want it. We need it. Let’s face it we’re the fat kid and there’s a whole lot of musical cake out there to eat. And the good thing is that we are all the better for it.
But what if all this musical collaborative goodness from around the world is coming to an end for US audiences? Let’s just forego the conversation about the President Trump’s plan to completely gut government funding for the National Endowment of the Arts and Humanities. There’s something more sinister afoot.
Recently, Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi has been forced to cancel US tour dates because he was denied a visa from the US Embassy in Harare. Speculation has it could be the US’s ongoing wrangling with President Mugabe’s administration or a summit of Sudanese, Somalian and Libyan musicians that coincides with Mr. Mtukudzi’s concert. Also, the Beijing Chinese Orchestra is reported to have cancelled a February concert in Seattle after 22 musicians were denied entry visas by the US government. With the current climate, the powers that be and the sheer force of will to dismantle any and all of President Obama’s actions by the hard-nosed hard asses in charge, can Cuba’s musicians be far behind in the denied visa category? And, which musicians will be next?
I want to be optimistic and say that US audiences won’t go for this, but already the cancelled concerts of Mr. Mtukudzi and the Beijing Chinese Orchestra have already slipped past our collective radar. It is quite possible that there is a whole host of foreign musicians and performers who have been denied visas and those concerts have gone quietly into the night and simply disappeared. Let’s face it this is not the most up-front and honest of administrations. But what is even more worrying is the idea of musicians, artists and performers simply passing up coming to the US entirely. What if we’ve become just too much of a hassle? What if facing a populace of angry, shouting, red-faced, gun-toting, wall-building nuts just isn’t worth it? So then what? What happens when our cool openness for whatever is around the musical corner is gone?
Don’t get me wrong I still think there’s a place for the sweet little square dance or the shit-kicking hoedown, but I don’t think we can live on it alone. I don’t think I’d want to.
One day while muscling a load of wet laundry into the dryer I caught the strains of some sadistically sappy music coming from the next room. I thought this odd as my husband was supposed to be watching an episode of some sci-fi series he’d entertained himself with while he ate lunch. What was he watching some girl movie? Not likely, as he normally expressed a desire to be dragged over hot coals than to watch a girl movie with that little snarl playing on his upper lip. Shoving the rest of the wet clothes into the dryer and snagging that soggy sock off the floor and into the machine, I decided to investigate the source of this music.
As I rounded the corner I was relieved that he was still watching the sci-fi show, but I just couldn’t help but ask as the sad music swelled and the hero looked out mournfully, “What did an alien kill his dog or something?”
“Or something,” he muttered back at me before munching another taquito.
It comes as no surprise that one can’t turn around with tripping over music of one sort or another. Movies and television use music to evoke the mood or the emotion of the scene, heightening the drama or absurdity of the situation. Just the strains of a bit of movie music can conjure up entire worlds or scenes. Think of the Star Wars movie theme or the swashbuckling music of an Indiana Jones movie. Can anyone really hear zither music and not think of Carol Reed’s The Third Man and Anton Karas’s quirky accompaniment on the zither throughout the movie? The Third Man, you ask? Go look it up. Clueless toddlers.
Commercials use music as well. A little dramatic music informs us that our teeth are too yellow or that we simply can’t live another moment without a particular personal feminine hygiene product. And it’s not just newly composed music that appears on ads. “Love Train” by The O’Jays backs a Coors Light advertisement and Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” is used to sell the idea of a comfy night’s rest on our travels by Choice Hotels. Some clever little bunny thought to appeal to the older set by backing a Viagra ad with Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin’” in order to add healthy dose of sexy to erectile dysfunction. Of course, if you have an erection lasting for more than four hours I guess the idea of a Howlin’ Wolf takes on a whole new meaning.
Most of us get the idea we’re being sold to, plied with nostalgia or just downright pandered to with the music behind many of our advertisements. This fine tradition goes back as far as commercial radio’s beginnings in the 1920s with the first jingle offered by a General Mills a cappella quartet, wooing cereal fans with the promise Wheaties were indeed “the best breakfast food in the land.” Those accuracy junkies up in the peanut gallery might dispute the General Mills ad being the first radio jingle as Gus Edwards and Vincent Bryan came up with the 1905 song “In My Merry Oldsmobile” despite the fact that this entry came before commercial radio. But we’re a long way from the 1920s.
Indeed, we’ve entered a darker phase in the ubiquitous use or over use of music. We’re treated to happy, perky tunes while advertisers lure us with the same sleazy confidence of a school yard drug dealer to buy foods that will make us obese, sometimes manufactured by the same company that comes along to offer us a thinner, healthier line of diet foods and products.
Pharmaceutical companies ply their products with ads showing folks who’ve found a new lease on life enveloped by feel good tunes, while saving us from the plethora of nasty side effects until the end of the ad after we’ve already been hooked on the happy ad results. While I doubt that many of us buy cheaply manufactured goods, fall for services that will never measure up to expectations or continue to patronize a company with dreadful business practices on the basis of the music used in advertisements, but that background music remains a little clue, a cue intended to provoke a response – the response to lower our defenses, to lower our suspicions and buy.
We’ve entered an age where news stories have their own theme. Have you noticed the opening of a horrific tragedy being played out with catchy graphics, pics of crying victims and a swell of mournful music before the news team launches into action, giving you the latest details and updates on whatever horror is on slate for the day? Be it a school shooting or a bombing or an airplane crash, there’s bound to be a theme. Can you imagine being the man or woman urged to sum up a tragedy in a couple of bars? We’ve become the Pavlovian dogs to the news, treated as if we were incapable of grasping the severity of the problem or the gravity of any given situation without that little musical cue. But what happens once we are trained to fall down as emotional victims to the sway of the news story music and then news isn’t particularly news or a tragedy? Will we know the difference?
What about politics? Politicians and their shady backroom minions adore the hometown guy/benevolent leader ads, complete with fuzzy puppies, well-behave children and the scrubbed up farmer or factory worker. Of course, this works in reverse. Think back to all the ads of the last presidential election, warning us about the dark dangers that lie in wait should opposing politician win. Doom, destruction and utter desolation are just right around the corner should the other guy win. Creepy music worthy of a cheap horror flick or that of the moments when the nature documentary wolves start circling the baby deer is intended to solidify our political views, instead of the facts, in the span of a minute and a half. Could any of us actually stomach to watch a political ad stripped of its music, much less fall for it?
But what of real dangers? BP is surrounding its advertising about the clean-up in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon disaster with benign, aren’t-we-the-good-guys music, all the while attempting to allay our fears about the years and years it will take to completely clean up the roughly 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled, the resulting largest man made environmental disasters in history and the devastating aftereffects. Should BP be trusted? Can they be trusted?
America’s Natural Gas Alliance runs music behind their advertising while touting the future benefits of hydraulic fracturing or fracking, as does Exxon, despite the growing concerns of water pollution, water waste, leaks in well heads and methane emissions at well sites (methane being a more potent contributor to global warming than CO2). So are you willing to trust the safety of your water and environment because the Oil and Natural Gas Industry parades a blonde in a nicely tailor suit against a backdrop of non-threatening music while giving you their take on fracking?
What about Monsanto’s lovely little ad campaign, complete with bucolic farm scenery and equally bucolic music, driving home their commitment to sustainable agriculture? This multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation is one of the leaders in genetically modified seed and the herbicide Roundup, as well as participating in business practices that have the attorney generals of Texas and Iowa (two states that do love their agribusiness) wondering if Monsanto’s actions violate federal antitrust laws.
Bob Marley said, “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” But should it be used to anesthetize us? Let’s set aside political points of view, the good and evil of consumer education and advocacy and fact-based truth telling.
Most of us are addicts when it comes to music. We are lulled, enticed and secretly seduced by music, so much so that we find ourselves unconsciously tapping our foot, swaying our hips or singing along to the music around us. Even songs we don’t much care for rattle around in our heads like so much loose change escaped from a pants pocket caught in the revolutions of a dryer. But does that mean that we can’t digest the news or faithfully make sound judgments about our health and welfare or follow a political candidate without music? Do we possess such small attention spans that we need those little surreptitious, subliminal musical cues? We are constantly being cajoled by a backing soundtrack intended either to coerce some sort of emotional response or cement an intended impression. Is it music or are we just being played?
All right, my little chipmunks let me tell you a story…
Once upon a time there was this performance artist and she cooked up a show for New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where she sat in a chair and stared at whoever wanted to sit in front of her. The critics raved and the people came, some 750,000 people. Folks stared back, others laughed and some really sad saps actually were moved to tears. A video game was released. A documentary film was made about the performance artist and was shown on HBO. And all were happy and content…well except for the performance artist. See, the performance artist only got an honorarium of a hundred grand.
I got this little tidbit about the $100,000 from an interview the performance artist Marina Abramovic gave to Andrew Goldman about her show and the documentary “The Artist Is Present.” Ms. Abramovic states in the June 17th edition of the New York Times Magazine interview, “I got so little I don’t even want to tell. I was paid an honorarium of exactly $100,000. It covered one year of my work, plus how much I pay for assistants and office rent.”
Something about this rubbed me the wrong way. I’d like to think it has nothing to do with my natural distrust of performance artists, and more to do with the blatant waste of a hundred grand. Staring at people as an art form? Come on. About halfway down my street there’s a creepy, old guy, who, with his equally creepy and equally ancient dog, stares at people all day and he does it for free. Now, most folks who want to turn the tables and stare at other people often head to the streets, or a club or some darker kinds of joints like Sleazy Pete’s Peep Palace or Bucking Bob Boob Barnyard. And, let’s face it creepy, old guy and those girls at the Peep Palace do it for a hell of lot less than what Ms. Abramovic was paid. And, maybe that’s just it. It’s the money.
Let me put that $100,000 into some perspective. With $100,000 you could buy
2,500 Cresent 4/4 Beginner’s Violin Sets with carrying case and accessories
3,125 Darice ArtyFacts Portable Art Studio – a 131-piece art set with wood case and add in some Strathmore drawing paper and the Pro Art 18-piece sketch/draw pencil set
2,000 1-hour guitar lessons from the Howard Vance Guitar Academy in Memphis, TN
7,692 West African dance lessons at One World Dance and Drum in Seattle, Wa
2 years at the Yale School of Drama and that includes tuition, fees, book, supplies and estimated living expenses.
Most artists, actors and musicians I’ve met would be happy if they were able to pay to fix their car, pay rent for the next couple of months or had enough to visit the doctor or the dentist. Ms. Abramovic got paid $100,000 to sit and stare at people. Let’s look beyond the price of living in New York, as I’m sure there are a few people who make due on less. But what’s this about office space and assistants? Why would you need an office? Why would you need assistants, and yes, that’s more than one, other than some hunky guy named Sven to come in every once in a while and massage your butt cheeks? Seems to me this whole deal requires a couple of chairs and bunch of dupes.
Let’s just separate ourselves from the what-is-art argument right here. Remember, this is a woman sitting in a chair and staring at people. I don’t want to hear about artistic angst, the toll of blood, sweat and tears of personal catharsis or the strain of provoking an emotional response from your audience. I do have my suspicions that there’s a little how-could-you-possibly-understand-you-don’t-live-in-New York thing to this entire business – yes, that the age old argument about how the New York art scene is far too sophisticated and erudite for the rest of us who live in the hinterlands to comprehend. I would like to counter that with the fact that I’ve been to New York several times and I’ve met my share of New Yorkers. I’d also like to point out that I’ve seen some of those slick, savvy New Yorkers sporting the season’s latest fashions, never mind the neck pulled to one side and the color made them look nauseous. Those tired arguments don’t hold water when we live in a country where public schools go without music or art programs, where public art councils go without funds and where sharp-tongued, hard-headed politicians are cutting off any and all public art projects labeling them as pointless, flights of fancy that aren’t worth your good tax dollars.
When it comes down to it Ms. Abramovic got while the getting was good. She can busy herself with whatever her next project is amid a flurry of press releases, interviews, assistants, sycophants and the like, but was it worth it? In the big scheme of things did that $100,000 go to waste? P.T. Barnum is credited for saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute” and I have to wonder if that’s true in Ms. Abramovic’s case. I mean she’s allowed, right? No law against the scam of performance art, right? I guess what bothered me was the fact that as an artist with assistants, an office, the notice of some 750,000 people at a major art museum in New York City and a documentary, she just could take money and run like any other good scam artist. I mean if she really felt it, really was filled up by the art she’d be like creepy, old guy and do it for free.
Several years ago World Music Central ran an editorial titled Dumbing Down, the Dwindling Funding for the Arts. This article sparked some interest and I found that bits and pieces of the article have traveled far and wide as I occasionally run across snippets of my article reprinted and reused in defense of funding for music and art programs in our public schools. Hey, we’re even cited on the Public School Review, listed as an “elective music association.” I’m not so sure that we merit such a lofty title as an “elective music association, but, hey, we do our part to spread music news and information.
Stumbling across some of my own research made me wonder though. Our original article ran in 2005 and it’s now seven years later. So, the big question is have we gotten any smarter about arts funding and the teaching of music and art in public schools?
A number of researchers have been busy on the subject of the benefits of a musical education, including Stanford University’s School of Medicine. According to a Science Daily article from 2007, Stanford’s research team studying how the brain processes information found that music and the rests between played music affects the brain’s ability to pay attention and spark memory. The research, chocked full of MRI [Magnetic resonance imaging] studies, posits that music sparks the brain to anticipate and sustain attention. How cool is that?
Here’s another example for you. According to “The Comparative Academic Abilities of Students in Education and in Other Areas of a Multi-focus University,” physician and biologist Lewis Thomas found that 66% of undergraduate music majors applying to medical school were granted acceptance, as opposed to only 44% of biochemistry majors. That 66% was the highest of any group! Now, here’s the kicker, the study also concluded that music majors had the highest reading scores out of biology, chemistry, English and math majors.
Music therapy is being used to aid children with autism, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, coronary care patients and anxiety and fear suffers. And, catch this, according to a snippet found in the Journal of Pediatric Nurses, a research study has shown that, “music has statistically significant and clinically important benefits for premature infants in the NICU (neo-natal intensive care unit).”
The Journal of Behavioral Medicine of the American Psychosomatic Society ran a brief about a study conducted by Italian researchers Claudio Pacchetti, MD, Francesca Mancini, MD, Roberto Aglieri, Cira Fundarò, MD, Emilia Martignoni, MD and Giuseppe Nappi, MD; who confirmed that music therapy improved the mobility and mood of Parkinson patients. There are even researchers out there using music as a means to treat eating disorders.
So, now that we know music is good for you, what are we doing about it?
• The National Endowment for the Arts reports that the number of children receiving arts education fell by some 21% between 1992 and 2008.
• The Tulsa Public School system is set to cut some 150 teaching jobs, including Webster High School’s band director Carl Curtis, essentially doing away with band altogether.
• The Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania is wrestling with a $2.6 million budget deficit and if a 2.3% tax hike is voted down the 5th and 6th grade band groups will be cut, as well as cuts to the 7th and 8th grade music programs.
• Manchester, New Hampshire middle schools are facing the layoffs of some 160 teachers, the end to middle school language arts programs, slashed budgets for art and music programs, and even reductions to computer and technology classes.
Well, hell. It should come as no surprise with news like the National Endowment for the Arts announcement that it intends to cut the PBS Arts series by some one million dollars. Whereas once the “American Masters” documentary series received $400,000, it will now have to survive on a paltry $50,000 budget.
I can’t say in all honesty that we are getting smarter. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that there are some valiant efforts out there being waged to save local music and arts programs, but we as a nation still do not see or accept the real value of an arts education. We say we are a nation of “for the children,” “save the children,” “children first,” yet we cannot look past the rhetoric, the political propaganda or the cries of the money movers to make us the nation we say we are.
The hard and the stingy would have us believe that the arts are simple outrageously expensive, superfluous endeavors, flights of fancy for the shiftless living among us, but I’m not sure that being debtless but dumb is much of a consolation. The saddest part of this is that there is simply no way to convince the hard and the stingy. Armed with a militant, defiant ignorance of anything that even closely resembling research or studies or academic studies, those hard and stingy folks who’d rather send their children off to the manly, patriotic playing fields across the United States of America for a round of concussions rather than the classroom with a clarinet will rebut, rebuke and reject any scientific study I can throw at them. Pity. I always thought the scientific method and well thought out reason would will out over stupidity.
If music is good and good for you and yet we keep cutting it to the bare bones, what does all this mean? What’s the end result? Okay, let’s do an experiment, because that’s something tangible – something provable. Take one day and avoid listening to any music. That’s right no music for a whole day. Unless you live in a cave or in the bottom of a hole, I’ll bet it close to impossible. No television, no radio, no sporting event, no public malls or stores, no phone for many of you with music ring tones and no political events, which for some might be a relief. No singing or humming to yourself or others either. Now, what kind of life is that?
Don’t get me wrong, I get it. I get the whole financial collapse and severely strained budgets that span the nation like a bad rash and spur on some politicians to talk of the apocalypse. Unfortunately, we’ve fallen into the chasm of “getting it better for cheaper” mindset. Education shouldn’t be part and parcel of the cheaper must be better or just as good thinking. Music in the big scheme of things isn’t free, so why do we think that we can get away with cutting the one thing that gives us so much joy, propels so much of our economy or inspires and encourages so much thought, math and science – that inexpressible force that allows us to dream, fall in love and, if only for a brief moment, makes us better people?
Let’s put aside the cheesy jingles, the patriotic blatting of country singers cozying up to the local politician running for office or the rehashing of Rod Stewart or Whitney Houston songs on one of those insipid, television talent contests to really consider what music is. It doesn’t just fall from the sky. Musical study is not the embodiment of latest four-year-old internet sensation who can mimic Beyonce like nobody’s business. Rumor has it Paco de Lucia’s father forced him to practice the flamenco guitar 12 hours a day, even pulled him out of school to practice. It can take anywhere from 10 to 25 years to train a classical Indian musician. Music requires classes, requires dedication, requires serious study. So, what makes the rest of us think it’s so cheap and easy?
Let me share one last thought in the form of a news story. Recently, a Pakistani religious cleric issued a death sentence for 6 people because those people had been captured on video singing and dancing at a wedding in the Kohistan district of Pakistan. Now, it turned out okay after the Pakistani police arrested the cleric and are attempting to protect the dancers, but it just go to show that there are those out there willing to take away the simple joy of singing and dancing at a wedding. Remember, that which you don’t protect is the one thing somebody else will gladly take away from you.
Recently I settled myself down to watch the PBS program Nature. This particular documentary was entitled “Lobo, The Wolf That Changed America.” Telling the story of the bounty hunter Ernest Thompson Seton and his battles with Lobo, the “King of the Currumpaw,” this episode promised to be interesting, if not a little depressing as well. Now I’m not an idiot savant. You give me a hunter armed with guns, arsenic-tainted meat and leg hold traps and I pretty much get the idea where this story is going. I might not like it, but I do know where this story is going.
Everything was proceeding as I expected up to the point where Mr. Seton shoots and kills Lobo’s mate, the lovely Blanca, when suddenly this sad, sappy Celtic music started oozing from the speakers. I forced myself to sit through this musical weeping and just prayed that it wouldn’t get worse. Of course, it did. After using Blanca’s body as a lure, Mr. Seton finally traps Lobo. He hauls the wolf back to camp where the wolf dies. Again, another horrid swell of sad music. I choked back another wave of nausea and wondered if the episode’s music director was some sort of sadist. Pandering to the downright weepy, this music director claimed every opportunity to slap on the musical choke chain and all I wanted to do is crawl into the dark shadows under some heavy piece of furniture and growl.
What has happened to us? Or, better yet, what is being done to us through the unrestrained abuse of music through film and television? The above might be a heavy-handed example, but have we become so stupid as to need emotional markers throughout the movies and television shows we watch? The use of music in movies and television is intended to support the content, so why are we being beaten about the snout with some of this overemotional garbage? I’m not naïve enough to think that music directors will ever stop the use of loud flourishes whenever there is some movie miracle or the swell of strings of romance when the lovers meet or the heart-pounding rhythms that accompany most car chases. But do we really need so much emotional direction in documentaries? Are we not capable of finding sadness or outrage through the content without these emotional turn signals?
I’ve found that most of this sappy music abuse occurs during nature documentaries. I’m not immune to an animal’s suffering or death, but I don’t really need to be told that animal suffering is sad. I get it. I also get the idea that we need people to be conscious of the disastrous effects we humans have on animals and their habitats, but I can’t help but think that music directors often overplay their hand. I’ve changed channels when I felt the music was way over the top in documentaries, so I wonder how many other people hear that sad music and do the same.
There’s also something a little patronizing about these emotional signals. It’s as if there is another person standing over me and saying, “Hey, dummy, this is the part where your eyes tear up.” I suppose there is some director out there right now telling the music person, “We need sadder music here. I want those kiddies throwing themselves on the floor as that bear crosses the road.” Of course, I can’t imagine what it’s like putting on your music resume that your song was used when the baby seal was eaten up by the big orca.
I guess my point is that we’re being musically coerced with emotion; we’re being told what to feel and when. I think the type of people who watch PBS’s Nature is a fairly intelligent set of people and do care about the environment; if they didn’t it would be a hunting show complete with twangy Hillbilly licks backing up the action. Musical editorializing is dangerous in that it forces us not to think but only feel what someone else wants us to feel. It’s turning rational people into overemotional goo. It says we don’t get to make our own decisions about how we view or feel about an issue.
I guess I’ll just have to ready with my finger on the mute button because Orangutan Island is on.
Reading several news sites every day, I can usually find at least one interesting music-related story. Although most of the music headlines are taken up by the latest pop star sighting, marriage, divorce or arrest, I sometimes get lucky in the downright bizarre category; like the story a couple of months ago about the guy who walked out of a Lewiston, Maine music store with a Fender Stratocaster guitar stuffed down his pants. There was also the October 22nd Associated Press entry about a man arrested after he broke into a Bridgeport, Connecticut church and started playing the drums. But the wackiest story that I’ve been following has to be the tale of 27 year-old Kevin Cogill, also known as "Skwerl," and his considerable troubles with the law.
If you’re not familiar with Kevin Cogill, he’s the blogger who made available for public download 9 songs off the unreleased CD Chinese Democracy by the group Guns N’ Roses on his website in June. Mr. Cogill was busted and sent off to the pokey for violating federal copyright laws of this great land, but managed to squirm out of jail on $10,000 bond according to a August 27th Associated Press story. The latest update to the story is about a deal said to be in the works between the feds and Mr. Cogill’s legal team, where prosecutors would reduce the charges against Mr. Cogill to a misdemeanor. So, instead of facing a 5 year sentence, Mr. Cogill would be facing a year in jail, although as a first time offender it would be more likely that he would be offered probation.
Now, I don’t know what would possess Mr. Cogill, or anyone for that matter, to go up against the type of legal team that’s usually fed on raw meat like the teams that represent Guns N’ Roses and Geffen Records (who is set release Chinese Democracy on November 23rd). Maybe poor Mr. Cogill is nuts or just plain foolhardy. Perhaps he saw it as his big chance at fame that made him do it, but I can’t imagine that he didn’t see his legal woes on the horizon. This is a Guns N’ Roses CD and. while this latest CD of theirs has been derided for simply taking too long to finish, this is still a major release. We also all know how protective labels and bands can get. In truth, Mr. Cogill’s actions were a bit like walking into any biker bar south of the Mason-Dixon Line and announcing that you won’t stand listening to one more Lynyrd Skynyrd song. You are just asking for trouble.
What bothers me about this story is the notion that fans think the music belongs to them. With the ability to make music and videos for sites like YouTube.com and MySpace.com being fairly commonplace, fans have gotten into their heads the idea that making music, especially good music, is easy and free for the taking. One could make the argument that the music industry’s greedy ways of making loads of loot off each and every release, even dated back catalog releases, is the reason for fan backlash. It would be equally reasonable to point a finger to the stories detailing the insanely outrageously expensive, often idiotic, antics of musicians revealed in entertainment publications around the world as a cause for fan anger. But is that cause enough for outright theft?
The music we love, the music we fall in love to and the music we use to get over love gone wrong comes at a price. Often that price is someone else’s experiences, someone else’s pain. If it’s so easy to dash off a hit song then everyone would be able to do it. Somewhere along the line we got the idea that art was free. It’s not. Music remains the one art, the one mode of expression that permeates our lives; it puts our babies to sleep, wakes us up in the morning, soothes us, enrages us and puts our lives in social and historical context. To assume that any truly good piece of music is interchangeable with its dismal counterpart cooked up by a part-time computer hacker and Piggly Wiggly bagger in a dingy apartment would be a mistake. It would also be a mistake to force a talented musician to work for Piggly Wiggly wages because fans won’t pay for music.
One should consider that there’s a whole host of people one often never gives a moment’s thought to who play a part in the making of music. Studio musicians, A&R staff, publicity folks, accountants and the like are all part of music’s magic. In the end, there is something honorable by perpetuating the art and business of music by coughing up a little cash instead of being just another disgruntled spoiler, just another Kevin Cogill.
Given half a chance most musicians out there in the big, wide musical nebula would give their right arm to have one of their songs serve as a backdrop on a national and international stage. The prospect of having just thirty seconds of a song circling the globe several times over the span of a single day is staggering. And, isn’t airplay what the music business is ultimately all about? The kind of airplay we’re talking about, the kind that can lure thousands of fans, send CD sales through the roof, secure future record deals and turn a moderate hit into a classic, simply can’t be bought. So, why have we seen so many music industry lawyers dashing off cease and desist letters recently?
The answer is simple. The presidential campaigns. Now, before you sigh heavily and skulk off with a pout, let me admit to you right up front that I’m no political pundit. I have no statistics with which to bore you into submission, I’m completely out of demographics and I simply couldn’t speculate on whether you live in a key battleground state or not. And, anyway, would you really listen if I did? While I think that most of our readers have earned a respite from the recent spate of politicking, I help bringing up the topic of co-opting music for political campaigns because it’s essentially about the rules – the rules the rest of us are required to follow.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave and have refused to come out until after the elections like some sort of politics phobic groundhog, the musical hash and rehash to find the right, feel-good song for both political parties has been in high gear. So far, the McCain campaign has received cease and desist letters from Ann and Nancy Wilson from the band Heart over the use of "Barracuda," Jackson Browne for the use of "Running on Empty," John Mellencamp for the use of "Pink Houses" and "Our Country" and from Van Halen for the use of "Right Now."
Before you shriek political bias, let me tell you that as far as I know no letters have been issued to the Obama campaign; although, the use of Brooks and Dunn’s "Only in America" did seem an odd choice for the Democratic convention, especially after a live appearance by Stevie Wonder and the fact that the song had been used as an anthem for President Bush’s inauguration in 2000 and again for the 2004 Republican convention.
Defenders of the practice of using popular music, the variety loaded with plenty of good, old fashioned Americana preferred, that serve as backdrops to our political campaigns are likely to claim free use. But is it? Isn’t it just bare-faced stealing? Let’s put aside the wedding video of the special couple dancing that first dance to "You Light Up My Life" or the tape with the kicky, little tap recital number by your 7 year-old performed last year to "On Broadway," or the secret, special DVD of the raunchy striptease your significant other did for you last Christmas just to check out the resolution of the new video camera. We’re talking about a national campaign in which images and sound will travel all over the world. And when it comes down to it, isn’t a political campaign a sales job? If a politician is using your song to sell his ideas shouldn’t you get a say in the message?
I have no doubt that there are special political strategists charged with the task of finding that one song that will sum up the desired political persona. Hell, it might even be the same folks who ratchet up the music at Ruby Tuesdays to get me to buy another couple of drinks or the same people who carefully select the music for the local Kroger’s because some study has postulated that a certain type of music will subliminally make me cough up an extra thirty bucks in crap I don’t want or need.
The fact remains that the musical choices of political campaigns are engineered, whether it makes any sense to do so or not. For example, Mitt Romney’s people elected to use Neil Diamond’s "Sweet Caroline" during his campaign, even though Neil wrote the song as an ode to Caroline Kennedy. Even if you go to extraordinary lengths to find that one song, it could turn sour. John McCain was using the Chuck Berry tune "Johnny Be Goode," so it must have seemed like a bit of shock when Mr. Berry came out and endorsed Barack Obama.
The ‘fair use’ simply doesn’t wash in political campaigns. The Wilson sisters, Mellencamp and Browne call all afford to say no to the McCain campaign, but that doesn’t mean that the music is free and that’s something every politician should know. If I wanted to use a song to sell anything from cars to snow blowers, I’d have to get permission and lay down some money. That’s the way it works. A critic might suggest that since there’s no money involved then free use of music is justified. No money? Really, really? Imagine any political hack on the scene and tell me that all the banners, balloons and music isn’t all just scene setting for a rousing political pick pocket fest, and that the politician’s not looking out somberly into crowd’s upturned faces and not seeing future campaign contributors.
In a country where the Federal Election Commission Chairman Michael Toner has set the estimated total for the 2008 presidential race at $1 billion (that’s b for billion, my little chickadees), certainly someone can cough up money for music. Of course, it might be nice if the campaigns would replace the music with content of their own; you know, ways in which they plan on dealing with the war, deficit spending, health care, failing schools and the like. I’m no fan of giving blow hard politicians any more air time for sarcastic bon mots, but forcing them to face the public without all the scene setting in the honeyed glow of their own crap, made palatable by the sweat off some musician’s back, might just be change we’ve all been looking for.
I guess the only consolation you’ll get this political season, despite the fact that your candidate doesn’t know the back story to the song or even know its lyrics, that when the music starts to swell you can count on him or her knowing it’s time to dance.
In late December I drew the short straw and got the unhappy task of collecting the names and biographies for the Music World Obituaries 2007 list. Sifting through the astounding achievements of lifelong careers and brief brushes with fame of those across the musical map led to a fair amount of contemplation of the life of a musician.
My guess would be that most musicians when not performing live lives much like the rest of us, where work and family mesh together into a kind of mellow routine. Just because you’re a musician doesn’t mean that you can ignore that the dog needs to be walked or that the kids need to get to soccer practice. No, I suspect that they suffer along like the rest of us when they have to call for a plumber or make an appointment with the dentist.
It is death that makes all the difference. Reggae’s Lucky Dube’s death comes to mind. He was 43 years-old when he was gunned down in October in an attempted carjacking while driving his kids across town in South Africa. Of course we were all shocked and horrified when we heard the news, and perhaps a little more shocked and horrified than we would have been if it had been some unknown person in our own town that was killed so horribly. Soon after Dube’s death the internet was hot with emails speculating on the dastardly crime committed upon Dube and the fate the criminals responsible should face when caught.
The lesson learned is that being famous doesn’t make you immune to the senseless crimes, tragic accidents or life-threatening diseases the rest of us face on a daily basis and nor should it. But being famous does mean that upon your death your life is parsed out for the world to ponder and scrutinize. The famous death becomes the personal map of successes and, more often than not, utter failures. My death won’t be accompanied by photos or stories of me during the overweight years doing a couple of lines of coke with a bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand and a hooker in the other, not that any such photos of me exist – or at least I don’t think they do. The point is that for many musicians what is written isn’t always fair or kind. The deceased don’t get to refute stories of substance abuse or that one really lousy CD that was some flunky producer’s bad idea or that a marriage failed because of both parties.
This brings me to three extraordinarily horrific deaths in the music world this last year. Zayda Peña was the 23 year-old vocalist for Zayda y Los Culpables. She was killed in the hospital recovering from a gunshot wound when she was murdered.
Sergio Gómez was a 34 year-old singer for K-Paz when he was killed. José Luis Aquino was a 33 year-old trumpet player for Los Conde; he was found beaten to death with a bag tied over his head. As things stand right now none of the murders have been solved, but there’s plenty of speculation that ranges from crimes of passion to revenge killings to assassinations linked to the underbelly life of the narcotic traffickers. We are at a place where these musicians cannot speak for themselves. It would be so easy to dismiss their deaths as part of the narcocorrido lifestyle and just let the reputation of their deaths, instead of as musicians, serve as the example to others.
I am more likely to take the musician’s side in cases like these. The thinking goes like this – you go where the gig is. For any salon singer during the heydays of Prohibition who got in the middle of gang warfare, or the blues musician who just started his set when a knife fight over a woman broke out or the court composer who survived only at the pleasure of his king, the life in music is filled with peril. Now, I would like to believe that William Congreve was right in that “music soothes the savage breast,” but I’m not that naïve. I’d bet that not too many seasoned musicians would believe it either.
We often admire and attack musicians for their excesses in the same breath. We envy their torrid romances with young starlets and scoff at their countless attempts at rehab. We cry over their songs, but ridicule them when they flop on stage or run to flab. We love and loathe them. We want to be them, but we’d be damned if we let our kids emulate them. And when they die, we are often equal parts of admiration and derision for them simply going to where the gig was.
I suspect the musician’s life is sometimes a lonely one; where traveling on the road takes its toll on family and friends or where devilish temptations just seem a whole hell of a lot more interesting than the boredom of a hotel room or where the companionship of someone who doesn’t much care about you, except for your fame or money, just looks better than being alone. If you don’t believe me go into a club in the middle of the day and turn all the lights on. Check out the luxury accommodations backstage, complete with leaky toilets and chipped paint. Take a good long look at the house tables with the cigarette burns and rank floors and the duct-taped repairs on stage. Now imagine an audience filled with rowdy drunks and /or bored Philistines and sing a song. And make it good.
My husband and I were in the midst of one of those lazy breakfasts listening to the radio when a story caught my attention. The story, "Drumming Up a Protest in Harlem," reported by Margot Adler on National Public Radio’s Sunday Edition recounted the furor over a drumming circle that meets every Saturday in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park and the newly planted residents who want to see the musicians banished.
The drumming circle, a fluctuating hodgepodge of musicians from Africa, Cuba, Trinidad and Eastern Europe, has been gathering off and on at the same spot in the park for a good thirty years, and has been in residence at the same spot for the past ten years. Ms. Adler reported that the circle now faces a not so accommodating audience of new residents who have moved into some of the freshly available luxury apartments and renovated brownstones; these new Harlemites are bristling about the noise of the all day Saturday drumming fest.The situation over the drumming circle came to a head earlier in the summer when residents of an apartment building near the park made noise complaints to the police. Finally, it was decided that the drumming circle would move further into the park. Turns out that the elderly and infirmed couldn’t travel to the new location to hear the drumming and so the musicians moved back to their original location.
Sid Miller, owner of a brownstone in the midst of renovation, said of the drumming circle, "I wish they weren’t there. It’s annoying. It’s very annoying. I don’t like it."
Baba Kunley, a long time supporter and spiritual elder of the drumming circle, shot back saying, "People, white people, move into the area and they just want to change everything, and we not having that. This is our church. So, if they don’t like our church then they got to go back in the suburbs."
But it was Mr. Miller’s final assessment summed up the issue for me when he stated, "Gentrification is taking place. You can’t stop it. The people that have been here for a long time have to understand that it’s changing. We live in the United States of America, under a capitalistic system and if you have the money and you want to do something with the money you’re allowed to do it. That’s the bottom line."
First, I would hope that Mr. Miller is wrong. The attitude that you have the money and you want to do what you want to do with it really covers a good deal of dangerous ground in my book. Swinging around a wallet load of cash doesn’t give you carte blanche in this country. I know a number of people who would like to think so, but it just doesn’t. This is the kind of argument used by corporations who ship jobs overseas, by robber barons in the past who used their wealth to have employees killed and by snotty Yuppies who think that it is their right to do as they please and the poor be damned.
Second, I can’t understand why a Sid Miller would bother to move to Harlem in the first place. I understand these upper middle class professionals are looking for cheaper housing, having been banished from the more trendy neighborhoods in New York by richer folks than themselves, but why move into a neighborhood if you plan on being such a crappy neighbor?
I can answer that question though. The Sid Millers out there in the world think that they can change the ethnic and cultural face of a neighborhood by sheer will and it all comes down to money. The idea here is that you take a ramshackle building, fix it up, elevate property values and you can move out the riffraff, the undesirable and the dark people. All it takes is a little time.
To the Sid Millers, they’re convinced in the end they will have their way. They know they’ll eventually get their their upscale grocery, their overpriced cafe and their exclusively private, French inspired daycare center because they have the money. They know that they will be able to conveniently make over their neighborhood to suit themselves by ridding the place of any vestiges of the neighborhood’s former self and suck in more Sid Millers.
I don’t want to be unfair to Mr. Miller and his kindred spirits, though I’m sure I already have. Sid might be a good guy; he probably doesn’t kick dogs and pays his taxes, but Sid is a cultural killer. He wants to end a community-inspired cultural event that has been there long before he ever dreamed of moving to Harlem. He’s dismissing the elderly folks who have a weekly event to attend and enjoy and participate in. He wants to deny the young people of Harlem an opportunity to absorb their musical heritage and learn.
Glum, petulant Sid just wishes "they weren’t there," and he might just get his way if the condo’s board, neighbors and the leaders of the drumming circle don’t come up with a compromise. Seems like the only thing the Sid Millers of Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park neighborhood are committed to is being lousy neighbors. Maybe Sid should consider a fixer-upper in Afghanistan or Pakistan, you know, one of the nice, quiet neighborhoods where the local imam has forbidden music altogether.
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