02 December 2013

I'm a music snob (and you should be one, too!)

This past July, Vanessa and I visited my brother and his wife in lovely Pasadena, CA. We spent an afternoon in the Norton Simon Museum, a fantastic art museum just a short drive from my brother's house. The museum houses ancient Asian art, European art from the 14th to 19th centuries, and modern art. We were quite amazed by the primitive but beautiful sculptures from ancient India and Asia, often religious in nature and impressive in their detail. The huge tapestries and paintings of Europe dazzled us with their complexity and beauty.

Then, there was a modern art exhibit. I forget the name of it, but it was a temporary exhibit celebrating a few modern artists. One of the items on display was a roughly square-shaped piece of smooth marble with a cylindrical hole drilled through it. That's it. The description detailed the artist's epiphany over her celebration of 'space' or 'emptiness' or some such nonsense. We saw a few such exhibits, rolled our eyes, and moved on to more exiting things.

Now, there are some people who swear that art like that really is art. It's just as powerful and relevant and amazing as all that fancy European art... you know, those paintings that took a lifetime of practice and months or even years of work to produce. I'm reminded of an old issue of Smithsonian in which it celebrated a modern artist who (I swear I'm not making this up) placed a large canvas on his floor, threw three buckets of paint (red, orange and yellow if memory serves), and smeared them around with a broom. Art! Who needs years of training and dedication when you can have a broom or a drill?

Those who defend such, ahem, "art", will say that art does not have to be about complex technical details or some such thing. Art can be simple, and sometimes it should be simple. And you know what? I agree! There is beauty in simplicity. But somehow, I doubt that too many people would care about Michelangelo's David 500 years later if it were just a block of marble with a hole drilled in it.


Enter Kanye West. I think Kanye West embodies everything that is wrong with popular music. He's a talentless hack who writes terrible beat poems with derivative, disorganized lyrics and raps them over digital grooves contrived in a computer program which are then layered with samples from songs by actual musicians. Any idiot with a Mac Pro can slap together some digital beats and samples, and Kanye's lyrics are often pointlessly vulgar, topically juvenile, and are so poorly written that he strings nonsensical lines together in service of a poorly conceived rhyme, like this gem from his latest atrocious single:
I wanna fuck you hard on the sink
After that, give you something to drink
Step back, can't get spunk on the mink
I mean damn, what would Jeromey Romey Romey Rome think?
And please, don't try to convince me that rapping takes an iota of the talent it takes to sing or even do heavy metal screams and growls. You know why people don't go to Berklee to hone their rapping skills? Because any idiot with an urban accent and a little charisma can do it, that's why. And yet, the man thinks himself a creative genius and the voice of a generation, and there are plenty of fans who will rally to his defense.

Kanye is not alone, nor is rap as a genre (though I think it's possibly the worst offender). Much of mainstream rock these days is the same simple chords, mundane topics and cliched song structures that have populated rock radio for decades. Even someone with the extraordinary vocal talent of Beyonce Knowles can all but sing her way out of relevance with derivative melodies and lyrics that are simplistic to an absurd degree. Country music often takes exceptionally talented singers and melds them with simplistic compositions and lyrics whose topics have been beaten to death for ages.


Much of popular music is the musical equivalent of that marble statue with the hole drilled in it. Boy bands pop up every so often precisely because they're easily replicated. So let's take someone else who is not easily replicated. I'm going to go with someone who, personally, I am not a fan of at all: Prince.

Prince, like Kayne West, is a delusional egomaniac. Recently, while performing on the Jimmy Fallon show, he trashed a vintage Epiphone on loan to him from the Roots' guitarist. I have no idea what world he lives in where that would be remotely okay. But as a musician, Prince commands respect even if, like me, his style is not your cup of tea. Prince is a terrific singer and a phenomenal guitarist. He redefined pop music by fusing an eclectic mix of influences ranging from Jimmy Hendrix to the Beatles to Marvin Gaye. He fused rock, funk, R&B, and pop as no one else has before or since. Unlike Kanye West, Price truly is a creative genius.


Me, I'm a metal head. I listen to a lot of extreme music. It's complex, it's difficult both to play and to comprehend, and it's layered with nuances waiting to be found. Most people, if they were to watch the following video, probably wouldn't guess that these piano compositions are from death metal songs:



This band, Fleshgod Apocalypse, produces some incredibly powerful, beautiful, and complex compositions that display musical virtuosity, were recorded with a full symphony and choir, and show lyrical creativity all but absent in pop music. The latest album, Labyrinth, is a concept album inspired by the Greek tale of Theseus and the Minotaur, using the characters and their struggles as metaphors for the human condition. Not a theme you hear too much on top 40 radio.



I remember getting into a debate with someone who insisted that rap was 'real' music and that Dream Theater (who apparently serve as the quintessential example of modern prog rock) is technically obsessed, emotionless garbage. Bands like Dream Theater, so this person said, are just about complexity, and something important gets lost in all that mathematical precision and virtuosity. I'd say that just shows a naivety about Dream Theater and progressive rock.

As a guitarist, I hear similar arguments all the time about the virtues of "shred" guitar versus soulful, blues-style playing. Some insist that technical wizards like Ynwie Malmsteen write dry, boring compositions that are the equivalent of stringing atonal technique exercises together at mind-blowing speeds. Again, I think such statements just display naivety – technique exists to facilitate emotional expression, and the two do not exist exclusively.

So here's the thing though, and this is where I think most music snobs go wrong: just as art can be simple sometimes, and that's okay, music does not have to be about complexity, nuance, or lyrical depth. Lyrics can be trite, and compositions can be simplistic, and we can still enjoy them. There's absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying Kanye West, Nickelback, Taylor Swift, or whatever other tired pop artist you can think of. Simplicity is not, in itself, a bad thing.

The bad thing is when people try to hold that kind of simplistic art side-by-side with complex, nuanced art. It's when people try to hold the guy who smears three cans of paint around with a broom with the same kind of esteem and artistic virtue as painters who dedicated their lives to mastering a difficult skill to facilitate their creative expression. I mean hell, listen to pop music and enjoy it. But don't stop there – listen to classical, to opera, to jazz, to metal, to progressive rock, to R&B. Much of what you hear will likely not be to your taste, but every so often something clicks with you that changes your perception about what "your" style really is.

Listen to music that challenges you as a listener. The kind of music that begs to be studied, where it demands your full attention to discover the nuances that make it gel as a cohesive whole. The vast majority of pop music simply does not do that. It's not necessarily that there isn't talent involved... I mean, I can admit that Miley Cyrus is a perfectly respectable singer. But pop music is designed for casual listening. It's dependent on melodically simple hooks and repetition – song structure that facilitates ingraining the music into your memory even when you're not really paying attention (you know how it is – you hate that song, but you can't get it out of your head!).

There's nothing wrong with musical simplicity. Technicality is just a means to an end. But the best music, for me, wants the layers of musical precision to be appreciated for what they contribute to the melodic whole. Some people find it surprising that I love classical and opera when I have a reputation as a metal head, but the genres aren't as disparate as they might first appear. They all challenge you to appreciate their technical precision and the nuances of instrumentation and vocalization, not just the whole.
To really love great music, and to understand what makes it great, you have to pay attention. The marble slab with the hole in it was interesting for a few fleeting moments, but the richly detailed art of the European masters challenged me to discover its nuances and left a lasting impression. Music, too, should be appreciated for the evocative depth it has to offer and the skill required to realize it.


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