Sunday, March 22, 2015

Creme de carrot

I made a reference on my likebook page to “pop music pablum.” The only explanation I gave was: music “pared down and pureed to death.” I’m guessing that some will see it who aren’t quite sure what I’m getting at, and might even feel insulted.

I think I’m borrowing the term from Frank Zappa. I think he compared pop music to baby food because, within the great realm of musical possibility,  mainstream music purveyors stick to a very narrow field; songs that are structurally simple, repetitive and formulaic (baby formula?) and within a very limited selection of chord combinations and patterns. Obviously Zappa had a deep mind musically, which had the capacity to appreciate – not just theoretically but to really dig – unusual structures in music. He had an unusual maturity of mind in this regard.

Here’s an example in the extreme: Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is an awesome kiddie song. It is so simple it is accessible to just about any baby brain. But we grow out of it because it is just too simple for most of us and thus gets very old very fast. I think that Zappa is suggesting that pop music has moved only inches beyond the Twinkle Twinkle Little Star level based on a scale of music maturity that many of us don’t “get.” And I don’t think he was trying to be elitist about it. I think he felt that if the pop music executives and intelligentsia would widen their repertoire, that the minds of the public would grow.

But major record labels and radio stations, like any corporation of course, embrace the world domination greed mentality. Keep everything as accessible as possible – in order to reach the widest market quickly and please the shareholders.

For some reason, as a kid, I got intrigued by the band, Rush, who’s music, at least that from most of their various incarnations over the last forty years, is not immediately accessible to the masses. But they’re very very good at their own game, and thus are popularly considered the world’s biggest cult band. Rush stretched my mind enough to appreciate their unique music and the reward has been incredible. Their music moves me immensely and never gets old. Their songs never go stale. The huge grassroots popularity of early album 2112, in spite of corporate and critical derision, won them a rare immunity from label interference. This was only possible because of rare courage. They obeyed their creative yearnings instead of the man with the chequebook (to their own demise, they assumed). But surprise: they got lucky. Or were just that good. Or both.

Neo has a deep Zappa-like mind. He especially, but also JazzLion, have pushed my brain even further, as I have opened up to neo-psychedelic and jazz music for examples. Again, I am slower to absorb this stuff but then its impact is much greater. People stuck strictly in the pop world perceive, I believe, that the songs of other genres are not “catchy” and don’t have the magic that keeps your foot obliviously tapping.

But they are. And they do. Just not immediately (for this novice anyway). You invest time getting to know the song and the investment is worth it. You get a lot more back. There is a timeless component to music appreciation. You’re not simply enjoying the precise sound component which last entered your ear, one component at a time. You like the stream you’re hearing, in part because of how it interacts with the stream that came before it, and in part with the stream you know – or predict – will follow. At least that’s how it seems to me. It’s slippery to talk about music appreciation considering it mostly goes on in the secret depths of the subconscious brain. Right? It’s not like we get to choose our ear-worms. Not with perfect authority anyway.

Pop songs become predictable half-way through the first listen. Hence wide, shallow appeal. Twinkle Twinkle Piles of Cash.

So that’s what I mean about pop music being pared down.

What I mean about it being pureed is how all the lumps are taken out. Every apparent blemish is removed from pop songs. Everything is metered and tuned to robotic precision. These days I hear the radio and usually all I hear is computers. Sometimes I half wonder if computers are actually concocting the songs. Not that computers shouldn’t be used as an honest musical tool.

I think it was Tom Petty, in a documentary, who said that music is not supposed to be perfect. Perfection takes the humanity out of it. It takes the experience out of it. And you will hear other pop musicians complain about the paring down if you can catch them at an unguarded moment. I think most of them would rather be more creative and making more experimental music if only agents and executives would let them.

So I don’t mean to insult pop musicians. I think they mostly get taken advantage of and regret where they end up, unless money and attention is their only bag, of course. And I don’t mean to insult radio listeners. I listen to pop songs too and I enjoy a good lot of it – in a simple easy way. But there is so much more to the world of music and it serves us well to ignore the pop scene as any kind of standard to aspire to. But by that, am I saying that American Idol is a steaming pile of poo?

Well, yes. 

Just don't ask me how many times I've watched the Susan Boyle moment on youtube... ;)

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