Thursday, May 1, 2008

Music is our soma

I make no secret of the fact that I don't like the direction music's been taking the last couple decades. Modern music is repetitive and shallow, and even the simplest sonata would eclipse it in complexity. But what really scares me is that music isn't just meaningless, it's mind-numbing — and purposely so.

Not to sound like a fanboy, but just try and compare a rock song to a symphony. Tchaikovsky's 5th is just over 45 minutes long, and any given 30 seconds have more development than, say, Smells Like Teen Spirit has in its 5-minute entirety. That's not an exaggeration.

Don't get me wrong. I love rock. It's fun to listen to, and it often moves me emotionally. But in terms of musical sophistication, it doesn't hold a candle to jazz or classical music. It's not meant to; it's is an intellectual escape, and the same is true of pop, hip-hop, country and most other modern genres.

The problem is that people listen to this music all the time. Next time you're walking in the park, taking the subway or just sitting in a cafe, take a look around at all the people drowning out the world with the same 8 bars of "THUNK chss THUNK THUNK chss" blasting over, and over, and over, and over, and over.

For those who don't remember or never read Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, one of the more jarring elements of his dystopia is the legal, socially acceptable drug soma. Soma helps people go on "holiday" for a few minutes whenever they want, and it's one of the strongest symbols of Huxley's fear for our world: that society would brainwash itself. In contrast to Orwell's 1984, Huxley saw that the greatest danger we face isn't that a privileged few would subjugate the masses, but that the masses would subjugate themselves. If there's no inner party, there's nobody to overthrow.

We're there yet, and I'm certainly not saying that iPods have destroyed civilization. But the path to the Brave New World is traversed with baby steps. We should take a look to see how far we've gone in just the last century.


Joel said...

Hey man, nice rant. While for the most part I tend to agree with the lack of sophistication in modern music, I think you're generalizing a bit too much. Especially when one starts to look at entire albums as opposed to just a single song. Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" was meant to go together and must be looked at in its entirety. The same is true for even more modern bands like Green Day. "American Idiot" is supposed to be a rock opera and also should be looked at as a whole, not just individual songs. Once you start to look at these bands like this you'll realize modern music can be (but often isn't) just as complicated as older classical music

Yuval Shavit said...

I did overgeneralize, but not a whole lot. You're right that there are a few (far, far from the majority) bands that create cohesive albums. That's a good step, but the individual pieces within those albums are usually very repetitive. So you have an arc on the macro level, but the same soma at a granularity of five minutes.

There are exceptions to that, too. Wish You Were Here doesn't have much repetition (although other Pink Floyd albums have internally repetitive songs -- Dark Side, for instance).

I think an example of a really great track is Radiohead's Paranoid Android. The whole OK Computer album is cohesive and has an arc (it's one of my favorite albums because of it), and that specific track is refreshingly un-repetitive and has has great internal development. I don't know if it's as sophisticated as Beethoven, but it's definitely on the right track.