Swans Commentary » swans.com June 15, 2009  



The Sputtering Volume
The irreversible fade of pop music


by Raju Peddada





Roll over, Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news
—"Roll Over Beethoven," sung by Chuck Berry, 1956
Mothers from every culture sing to their infants.
—Sarah Blaffer Hrdy


(Swans - June 15, 2009)   I never play any music in my car, yet my car rocked perceptibly and my head throbbed at the traffic light, Bhoop, Bhop, Bhop! Many a time I have come back home from a short errand, either from the bank or the post office, with a killer migraine, wondering what it was that caused it. Then the "aha" moment. It was that bastard in his car with that music -- music?!? Migraines without sinus problems?!? Sometimes I have given in to my rage:

"Hey asshole, turn that fucking thing down...I can't hear myself think."

"Fuck you man...it's all good." Flicking his middle finger at me, he screams off.

Art is the one activity that separates us from all other animals. Antiquity and ubiquity unequivocally distinguish music from all other human endeavors. Every society from the past to the present has been known to have music at its cultural core. Daniel J. Levitin in his insightful book The World in Six Songs sagaciously expounds that "in the comprehension of human nature, with the intercourse between brain and culture, the society must take a close look at the role music had played in our lives, how music and people evolved in a parallel way." Great music transcends language hurdles, walls of religions and politics, and impacts our soul in mysterious ways. These mysteries are being slowly unraveled by relentless researchers who want to find answers about music and its affect on us. In the ancient world, the Greeks used the melodious harp music to calm the nerves of people with various illnesses. Music therapies have existed since antiquity, but only recently did we come to understand that melatonin, a neurochemical, causes the output of proteins called cytokines to increase, which in turn trigger T cells to respond to infection. This research was attributed to a "Study of Modulatory Role of Melatonin" in immune responsiveness. Elastic and adaptive strength are the hallmark of our mental contrivances, bestowed by nature.

I believe music is something cerebral, it is something revelatory at an elemental level, and something convivial that brings people together instead of pitting them against each other. Several researchers in the neurological sciences have observed that when people sing together, oxytocin, a neurochemical now known to be involved in establishing bonds of trust between people, is released. It does not have to be anything as passionate as Puccini's "Nessun Dorma" or "O Mio Babbino Caro" that makes listeners swoon with longing. Unfortunately, today's popular music culture is veritably violent, pornographically persuasive, and depressing, perhaps what the musically doltish fandom deserves. Here are some scientific findings that substantiate why contemporary music is in the doldrums: While serotonin levels rose in real time listening to pleasant music, mostly classical, techno-pop music increased levels of plasma norepinephrine, a growth hormone, triggering restlessness and aggression. Rock music was shown to decrease prolactin, a hormone associated with feeling good. I really think there are irrefutable connections between the character of the music and its sales; regrettably, as to the near demise of popular music, while robust sales of classics and oldies continue. This industry is dominated by desiccated performers, like the vaudeville actors of the past who capitalized by selling ribaldry in the name of music. This agglutinative contagion called pop music pervades not just our culture here in the U.S., but the entire global music scene with the export of the "great" American culture.

The Rappers interpret and articulate the fears, pleasures and promises of young black women whose voices have been relegated to the margins of public discourse.
—Rose Tricia

Then there is Rap, a lexical anomaly, which is an original concept but has transmogrified into a language for the Gangsta Rappers, the promulgators of hatred and violence, lust, scandal, misogyny, and crass consumption. I get involuntarily subjected to the latest black-white-Hispanic-Asian Rap despite my rolled up windows. Driving represents my personal space and peace, but often that personal space is pierced and my peace is obfuscated and confiscated in exchange for the cranium-bludgeoning bass. I have often fantasized about mounting a robotic arm to my car, attached and wired with 400-decibel air horns like the ones on diesel locomotives. And whenever I am being involuntarily dragged into someone else's four-wheeled boom box, I flick a switch and position that robotic arm next to the driver who is forcing his entertainment on me, giving him a dose of his own medicine. I gleefully visualize the scene from the movie The Mask when a driver's head turns into a head of quills under the shattered glass of the windshield, after being blasted by the horn wielded by Jim Carrey's character. I smile to myself at this prospect and escape from his reach and from that of those lascivious lyrics. From those lascivious lyrics I can imagine...

My motherfuckin package is fruity,
Dawg, it's good for Yaw sister's booty
I'm the godfather of doggie thrills,
Sister, git yaw booty ready for my drill
Musicologist David Huron notes that "Americans spend more money on music than they do on prescription drugs or sex, and hear at least four hours of music per day." What, then, is wrong with the music industry? I truly believe this: music did not die with Buddy Holly in that elegiac eulogy -- it literally died with the release of the Thriller album by Michael Jackson. Yes, contrary to the popular belief, the demise of pure musical innovation metastasized with the advent of this particular "musical act" from Michael Jackson. It introduced a whole new incestuous genre that paid attention only to synchronized performance rather than musical invention. Jackson's Thriller album sucker-punched good music by posing as good music, when in fact it was only synthesized beat and inadequate vocals for the infant dance video business. This album did not increase your serotonin levels, as it did not have one melody that you can hum in the shower. This album is the farthest from a diacritical creation -- it actually is the epitome of banality.

Since 1984, creativity, originality, and musical inventiveness have been usurped by "concert stage acts." These energetic gyrating groups led by the leader do synchronized performances with electronic bands in the background, creating music that slips out of your mind faster than a one-night stand. There is no dynamic new music to fuel growth. Too many segments and niches have fractured the industry into discrete unprofitable zones that are crumbling like a stale cookie. Disappeared like the mist in time are the prodigious and virtuoso performers who had mastered instruments and vocals to become paradigms for the ages -- Chuck Berry, Santana, B.B. King, and Jimmy Hendricks on guitar; Ian Anderson with vocals and flute for Jethro Tull; John Bonham's asymmetrical drumming for Led Zeppelin and Nick Mason's psychedelic beat for Pink Floyd; or the esoteric vocals of Robert Plant. Today the landscape of popular music is polluted by the crotch-grabbing acolytes of Jackson, the transsexual gyrations of Madonna, boob bloopers by the Jackson sister, belly dancing by Brittany Spears, and the non-descript Aguilera, who has to change her looks frequently just to keep the juvenile fans interested. And the music they produce, a mish-mash of soul-R&B-techno-pop imbued with the personality of room lint, staring up at the preponderance of a six-year-old Mozart or the falling ash from Jim Morrison's stogie. Morrison -- now here is an electric poet with a voice that opened our "Doors."

I opened the door for a lot of people,
and they just ran through and left me holding the knob
—Bo Diddley

The best music was created from the 14th through the 19th century, and then in the forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies decades of the 20th century. Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Presley of the '50s were inspired by the voluminous gospel rockers of the various southern Baptist choirs in the '40s. The Beatles hungrily copied the originals of the '50s in their Liverpool clubs, in the process creating their own authentic melodies that have since become inimitable, trans-generational, and everlasting. Their undisputed benchmark album for rock and roll is Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Frank Sinatra also had once claimed that the best love song ever was George Harrison's "Something" and I cannot disagree. Time melts away fluidly when listening to this music from memory's lair.

Many entertainment executives believe that the music industry is dying. It has been perishing slowly for the last decade and especially from 2002-06, an irreversible decline of 11.6%. They also attribute all kinds of factors for the "lower volume" in this business, but they, the industry executives, never seem to realize or admit the real want of great musical talent with some radical output in the pipeline, someone who could make a difference. In fact, they should investigate how they can create criteria for popular music based on all the research now available, as aforementioned. Other proxies for the music industry decline include young consumers shying away from buying pricey albums with one song as a hit, instead downloading that one track they like. Albums with multiple hits hardly ever materialize these days. Albums like the Beatles' Revolver and Abbey Road, and Pink Floyd's The Wall and Dark Side of the Moon, which still holds the Guinness world record for the number of months on the top of charts. All of the Beatles albums, never on discount, are money magnets even today for the industry. If you delineated old music from today's sales, the industry has been dead for a while.

Radio, which for decades was a medium of choice for the dissemination of music, is now reduced to serving niches with questionable profitability and a low margin of error. The radio is still a powerful medium, but has become the seedy-weedy domain of talk shows and paid programming. James Parker's timely article in The Atlantic this March addressed a nascent idea for the survival of rock and roll. Harmonix Music Systems from Cambridge, Massachusetts, created and released a simulation program called "Guitar Hero" in 2005 after ten years of research. It was inspired by a Japanese arcade game in which players jiggle excitedly and rapidly with colored buttons on the neck of a guitar-contoured controller to match colored notes flashing on the screen. Guitar Hero's brilliance was in the retaining at its core this mimicking act, the buttons, the hues, the high-speed "beat matching" while creating around it with the help of the black arts of the virtual a floating sensation of rock and roll performance. And the better a gamer played this gadget, the more things manifested, like appreciative lightening snaking across his jiggle-board and the adulation of the fans rising to a crescendo.

Parker says: "To a senescent music industry, this downloadable content has worked like Ponce de Leon's fountain of youth: a band whose song appears on either Rock Band or Guitar Hero is almost guaranteed an instant and enormous commercial boost." Similar ideas made gold in the video game business, as popular creations like The Transformers, Grand Theft Auto, Dungeons & Dragons, and Mortal Kombat became huge franchises in the movie industry with that captured gamer fandom. In the music business similar piggybacks can be realized with programs if they are able to build popular franchises with simulation games/concerts tie-ins. Great obscure music can be rediscovered and built into matrixes like Rock Band and Guitar Hero for downloading, eventually resurrecting commercial sales of CDs for scores of talented artists languishing in oblivion. The product Rock Band offers a library of 500 songs since it initiation and there have been 28 million downloads -- this could be just the tip of an iceberg.

We are all inclined to think that piracy is a problem; on the contrary, it is an indirect compliment for the artist and his blockbuster sales, it begets more fans. An industry and emerging technology expert, Mr. Tim O'Reilly, states that "Piracy is progressive taxation." He also says that shoplifting is a bigger threat than piracy. The big labels are all operating in losses, and some EMI executives and other big labels fear that the day of reckoning is not far. It is indeed a desperate state, if the largest sellers are not real musicians or bands producing sustainable music. In fact Mozart, Presley, The Beatles, and Sinatra outsell all the current performers put together. That infers and refers to the pitiful quality of the current musical talent. I am also convinced that file sharing does not threaten the industry, nor does the free downloading except that specific publisher. What I think threatens the industry is the quality, quality, and quality of the artists and their output.

Industry analysts state that technology and competing business models have permanently altered the old terrain of music. Merger aspirants Live Nation Inc. and Ticketmaster Entertainment Inc. CEOs Michael Rapino and Irving Azoff explained to the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Antitrust Competition and Consumer Rights that the old business model of record labels signing up talent and going about selling music from box stores is almost dead. They also asserted that under the current model the fans are being poorly served. Rick Rubin, newly installed boss of Columbia Records, went on the record saying:

The music business has been wrong about how much it can dictate to its audience. David Geffen told me that Steve Jobs understood Napster better than the record business did. IPods made it easy for people to share music and Apple took a big percentage of the business that once belonged to the record companies. The subscription model is the only way to save the music business. If music is easily available at a price of five to six dollars a month, then nobody will steal it.

Some industry prognosticators visualize that labels will downsize and morph back into boutique labels. What then? Will we see another Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, or Billie Holiday? Obscurity is a major obstacle for talented artists who crave that ubiquity, but the big labels give out very few contracts to the proven and predictable performers that pull crowds, supported by big promo budgets. Nowadays, most contemporary music connoisseurs search for and listen to new talent on Napster and Kazaa, bypassing the major labels, in effect atrophying the major record labels.

Recently, after a Q&A focus group with youngsters and young adults held at EMI, the executives offered the participants a table piled with free new music on CDs. None of these participants even as much wandered to the table for a free CD, prompting several executives to exasperatedly admit that the "game was up for them." Elvis Presley once said: "I don't know anything about music, in my line you don't have to." It also reminds me of two poignant and prescient songs co-written and sung by Paul McCartney -- "Fool on the Hill" and "The Long and Winding Road," both songs which I think will serve aptly as the epitaph and epilogue for this "deaf" industry. And here is my version:

I wrote the motherfuckin' lyrics
And sang it for the executive pricks
They rocked to my kick-ass pyrrhic
No contract from the exploiting pricks

Dawg, I put my songs on Napster
I'm now a famous motherfuckin rapper
Fuck the labels and give me Kazaa
Suck my pyrrhic dick in a free bazaar




"The Modulatory Role of Melatonin on Immune Responsiveness." A. Carrillo-Vico, R. J. Reiter, P. J. Lardone, J. L. Herrera. R. Fernandez-Montesinos, J. M. Guerrero, Current Opinion in Investigating Drugs, 2006.

Societies of Brains: A study in the neuroscience of love and hate. W. J. Freeman, 1995.


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About the Author

Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines.



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/rajup16.html
Published June 15, 2009