Thursday, May 17, 2007

Important Music

I wholeheartedly agree with everything Open Bar said in the previous post. Except the parts where he said I was wrong about stuff. I disagree with those parts. But the bulk of his post is spot on. His post raises some questions for me. I don't know if I have any sufficient answers.

First, is anyone making important music today? Important music can have a lot of meanings, I guess. It could make a social statment that people respond to. It could define or perfect a genre of music. It could be otherwise groundbreaking, I suppose, too. I guess instead of important, I really mean revolutionary. Or maybe I mean innovative. Maybe it has to do with drawing attention from society in a way that's not entirely related to music. Anyway, I'm just gonna say important. You take it to mean what you want.

For example, I think Rakim and Chuck D. are important figures in rap music for different reasons. Rakim is a lyrical master. He wasn't rhyming about different things than other MCs, he just did it fabulously. His best songs are just about how great he is, "My Melody" or "I Ain't No Joke" but what be brought was not only clever lyrics, but an entirely new approach to rapping. He thought about complex rhyme schemes and a more fluid technique. Listen to Kurtis Blow or even Run DMC, their rhymes are generally AA BB CC for the whole song. And with a huge emphasis on the rhyming words. "Number 33 is my man Kareem. He's the center on my starting team." is from "Basketball" by Kurtis Blow. Listening to that seems almost juvenille today. Rakim threw the whole shit down. He would come out with AB AB rhymes, or AA BA rhymes. Or (here's Joe's favorite) AAB CCB as in "When I'm gone no one gets on 'cause I won't let, nobody press up and mess up the scene I set". So Rakim was revolutionary. Literally every rapper today owes his style to Rakim, whether they know it or not (a bit like the theory that every pop song today is just a Beatles song).

Chuck D. didn't have a revolutionary style, he was just talking about things in a way that made people listen. On a side note, it astounds me to this day that Chuck D., clearly one of the most thoughtful and intelligent people in the entire music industry, would team up with Flavor Flav, who is almost a caricature of a real person. I like the way Open Bar put it by saying Chuck D. was letting people know that things were not really going all that well. And what made him important was the clarity with which he spoke about his problems. He was using his platform for a specific purpose, and doing it well. You can draw a comparison between what he was doing and what Martin Luther (the) King was doing, in that they were trying to make people aware of the plight of black America. I don't konw how far you can draw out that comparison, but I think they were rooted in the same issues.

Important music comes from other genres as well. Suffice it to say that there is no important new wave music...unless you want to stretch and call The Police a new wave band...but I don't think I'd put them in that category. Anyway, Nirvana is the obvious next step in our generation. Everything Open Bar said about them sums it up beautifully. I would also argue that Pearl Jam was up there in leading the "grunge" thing. If Nirvana was leading the revolution, Pearl Jam was a respectable second, while everyone else was a distant third and beyond. I don't think the music, from a musical standpoint, was revolutionary. (I just remembered something else I've been meaning to post about related to music. Basically that less is more when it comes to making great music. I'll expand on that in a future post.) Power chords, bass, John Bonham style energy in the drumming (Dave Grohl is fucking pimp, by the way. He was in two of the most influential bands of the '90s playing two different instruments.), it wasn't about the music, it was the message. And the whole package coming at a time when guys were doing the spandex, big hair, androgyny thing was basically a 180 from that. Guys on stage wearing clothes that the kids in the audience were wearing was a bigger deal than I think I realized at the time.

I can't really name you any other important bands from our generation. Unless you want to count U2, who I think we all agree is overrated in terms of importance. I mean, they're more important than most, but they're hardly Nirvana. And their songs all kinda sound the same to me. Am I the only one who's listened to a U2 song for more than a minute before realizing it was a different song than I thought it was?

The one guy who's definitely making important music is Eminem. From a lyrical standpoint he's the best rapper since Rakim. The fact that he's white is a coup of sorts for the hip-hop industry not to mention the crossover that comes from it. And, in his day, he got tons of media coverage unrelated to just his music. The coverage was stemming from his music, obviously, but lead to discussions about violence, misogyny, homophobia, rap music in general, and who knows what else. He says he's retired, though, and we haven't heard from him in a while.

I can't think of a rock band or any other group, for that matter, who's making important shit. John Mayer is a deep thinker and I like him, but I don't think he has much of a social impact. Sheryl Crow recently suggested we use only one square of toilet paper per sitting in order to be more ecologically friendly, but that's just dumb. And the thing about it is that these are some crazy times. The country is in a really divisive state right now. There's an unpopular war going on, terrorists threats, all kinds of stuff. There must be an important song in there somwhere. You know, something that wasn't written by Toby Keith. I guess the draft really had a lot to do with the Vietnam era protestism. It's just interesting to me that there isn't really anyone out there making music about this.

Assuming life as we know it started in the post WWII era, the '50s, '60s, and '70s were rife with important music, both for social and musical reasons. Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen, The Temptations, The Supremes, James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic, The Ramones, The Clash, The Who. Someone more well-versed than me can make a list that's probably infinitely longer. Rock from the 1980s was not groundbreaking in the least. New wave, as much as I love it, is correctly characterized by Open as derivative and wimpified. And new wave is Mozart next to arena rock. But the '80s had hip-hop and break dancing. Michael Jackson too, who was more influential than we remember given his recent ridiculousness. Even throw U2 into the '80s pot because that was when they were most relevant and militant as important bands go. The '90s had Nirvana and Dr. Dre. Pearl Jam and Wu Tang Clan. Tupac and Biggie. (Dave Matthews? Anyone? No?.....Yeah? No, ok no.) Metallica fits somewhere in the '80s '90s mix even though they turned into bitches and started suing their own fans.

My point is, who is making important music today? Other than Eminem, I can't name a single important musical act since the turn of the millenium.

Open Bar addresses this somewhat:
"Unfortunately, Kurt Cobain killed himself in 1994, which ended the return of good rock music that he reluctantly led. What Public Enemy started for Hip-Hop, very few followed."
I think hip-hop has had its leaders since Public Enemy. None who brought exactly what Chuck D. did to the table, but difference-makers nonetheless (triple compound word, awesome). Tupac, God love him, I think took a stab at doing the Chuck D. thing. Tupac was just a fascinating person. I worry that some of the smart kids I teach will turn into someone like him. Tupac seemed to me on the one hand to be a hyperintelligent guy who cared about larger issues that faced him and his people, but at the same time would revel in the things he was complaining about. How can the guy who released "Brenda's Got A Baby" and "Dear Momma" be the same guy who released "I Get Around"? He seemed to me to just be a walking contradiction. And let's remember that he was barely 26 years old when he was killed. Anyway, I guess that's kindof an aside.

So if we say that rap has had it's leaders, we should ask if anyone has taken the torch from Kurt Cobain. I don't think so. On a much smaller scale you can say that Dave Grohl has gone on to be a driving force in rock music. But it's not nearly the same. Bono is certainly to be commended for his altruism, but he's not doing that through his music. Is Eminem really the only socially important act of the new millenium? And on top of all of that, MTV, which used to be a bastion for acts making noise in America, has completely sold out. Doesn't anyone remember when MTV was relevant? (Does anybody remember laughter?)


The Notorious LJT said...

MTV isn't really as relevant anymore because they don't show music videos anymore, it's just reality tv shows.

Joe said...

An amendment to the above comment: "MTV isn't musically relevant any more".

Open Bar said...

I agree that Eminem is probably the only important musician out there today. While there are plenty of marginal bands making intelligent music about the world (blah), Eminem is the only artist who's broken through to the mainstream. Hopefully more will come, but it's hard to say who or from what genre. I'd probably guess hip-hop, just because it's the biggest force out there, but most "smart" rappers get shut out by people like fucking MIMS, whose big hit right now "This Is Why I'm Hot" contains the following Dylan-esque hook:

This is why I'm hot:
I'm hot 'cause I'm fly,
You ain't 'cause you not.

Kill me.