OK, They Are Terrible. But Why?
The song that Glenn Reynolds referenced during his interview with Brian Lamb had the line, “they were terrible; I wanted to be terrible too?” But — and you knew this question was coming eventually, right? – if it’s so easy to get started on an instrument and advance your knowledge of music, then why is so much contemporary music so terrible? Where are the Beatles of today, using all of this technology to produce great popular music?
Well, here’s my theory; see if this makes any sense. A counterculture can’t exist in a vacuum — it needs an overculture both to push against and to draw techniques from. This isn’t a development that occurred in the wake of the 1960s; the pioneering modernist artists of the first decades of the 20th century were also very much a counterculture; the best of them also had plenty of training and knowledge acquired from the overculture of the period. As the late Hilton Kramer once wrote about those early modernists:
As for the avant-garde itself, its own history is anything but a single-minded tale of revolt against bourgeois values. Cocteau may have been exaggerating when he claimed that “The ‘bourgeoisie’ is the bed-rock of France from which all our artists emerge. They may possibly get clear of it, but it allows them to build dangerously on substantial foundations.” (“With us,” he wrote in Cock and Harlequin, “there is a house, a lamp, a plate of soup, a fire, wine and pipes at the back of every important work of art.”) But he was only exaggerating an essential part of the truth. The history of the avant-garde actually harbors a complex agenda of internal conflict and debate, not only about aesthetic matters but about the social values that govern them. If the bourgeois ethos may be said to have both a “progressive” and a “reactionary” side, the avant-garde is similarly divided. At one extreme, there is indeed an intransigent radicalism that categorically refuses to acknowledge the contingent and rather fragile character of the cultural enterprise, a radicalism that cancels all debts to the past in the pursuit of a new vision, however limited and fragmentary and circumscribed, and thus feels at liberty—in fact compelled—to sweep anything and everything in the path of its own immediate goals, whatever the consequences. It is from this radical extreme, of which Dada, I suppose, is the quintessential expression, that our romance of the avant-garde is largely derived. But the history of the avant-garde is by no means confined to these partisans of wholesale revolt. It also boasts its champions of harmony and tradition. It is actually among the latter that we are likely to find the most solid and enduring achievements of the modern era—among those tradition-haunted artists (Matisse and Picasso, Eliot and Yeats, Schoenberg and Stravinsky) who are mindful, above all, of the continuity of culture, and thus committed to the creative renewal of its deepest impulses.
This division between art conceived as a form of guerrilla warfare and art conceived as the reaffirmation of a vital tradition is by no means absolute. Many important artists—even such self-avowed Dadaists as Arp and Schwitters—identified their interests with the one camp while quietly enjoying the advantages of the other. And such a division is certainly no guide to the aesthetic quality of individual works of art. But it does describe the essential dialectic that governed the sensibilities of the avant-garde in the era of its greatest endeavors. That the custodians of bourgeois taste failed so miserably and for so long to distinguish between their genuine adversaries and their rightful allies is part of the historical tragedy of bourgeois culture. It is also part of its comedy. But neither the tragedy nor the comedy should mislead us about the actual course of the avant-garde enterprise, which in the 20th century—and even earlier—has been characterized by extreme dissensions in its own ranks.
Similarly, we tend to think of the early Beatles as wildmen rocking out in Hamburg, before being discovered by manager Brian Epstein, who ordered them to discard the leather jackets for tasteful matching Pierre Cardin suits. But as Reason’s Charles Paul Freund noted in June of 2001, the early Beatles had soaked up much more than Little Richard and Chuck Berry:
Sgt. Pepper’s (1967) may well have transformed the rock world, but it owes nothing to rock’s Romantic myth. It is built largely from the music and imagery of the Victorian and Edwardian pleasure palaces of the industrial working class. (Herman’s Hermits had already revived the Music Hall standard, “I’m Henry VIII, I Am,” but as a 1965 novelty song.) Though the Beatles approached the material with a literary sensibility, especially irony, songs like “When I’m 64″ and “Lovely Rita” are effective evocations of antique Music Hall style, while “Getting Better” and the melodramatic “She’s Leaving Home” make sympathetic use of antique emotion. Indeed, the corny, melodic sentimentalism of the Music Hall repertoire was a rich vein for the group, and they were never to abandon it.
A long list of later Beatles songs is drawn, directly or indirectly, from this tradition: “Martha, My Dear,” “Your Mother Should Know,” “Penny Lane,” “All You Need Is Love,” “All Together Now,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Honey Pie,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Magical Mystery Tour,” “Good Night,” and almost everything on the B side of Abbey Road, down to and including the inner-groove run-out, “Her Majesty.” While the Beatles continued to write and record rock songs such as “Revolution” and “Come Together,” and while they engaged in some entirely different musical experiments on the White Album, the influences that shaped their major, later output — most of the music for which they are best known — emerges from an antique pop style.
These two elements of the Beatles’ career — their development as narrators, and their exploitation of Music Hall content and style — lift the group’s music into a context of its own. It is these elements that are able to claim the attention of an audience that was born long after the group broke up. But what do either of these elements have to do with the mythology that the rock establishment embraces? Precious little. In the end, the rock world’s head was turned by music that was sweet, corny, artificial, and intensely sentimental. Rock has yet to come to grips with this.
The respectable middle class British citizens who inhabited those music halls would have understood the dismissive tone of Newsweek’s coverage of the Beatles when they arrived in the US in February of 1964 to play the Ed Sullivan Show, which in the post-Boomer world sounds like a news dispatch from another planet:
Visually they are a nightmare: tight, dandified, Edwardian-Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair. Musically they are a near-disaster: guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony, and melody. Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of “yeah, yeah, yeah!”) are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments.”
After the above quote from Newsweek, Bryce Zadel of the Instant History website wrote, “It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?” No, not at all. I know from conversations with my father that this is absolutely what he thought when the Beatles first appeared on American radar screens, and proceeded to utterly destroy the midcentury culture of Crosby, Sinatra, Armstrong and Basie that he adored. Fortunately, even after their breakup in 1970s, The Beatles left such a powerful creative wake that artists as disparate as Peter Gabriel, Stevie Wonder, The Who, and Led Zeppelin carried on the Beatles’ experimentation and willingness to destroy musical boundaries.
In sharp contradistinction today, it’s possible for a “musician” to make a very good living as a rap star grunting into a microphone accompanied by a drum machine; any additional accompaniment can be “sampled” from a recording from a previous era. The producers assembling the new recording probably think that the old music adds a layer of irony to their new effort, but in reality, the joke’s on them; it serves as a reminder of an era when musicians could still sit in the same room together, make music and learn from each other, all of which is increasingly a lost art. As Mark Steyn once wrote, “I think we can guess how Nat ‘King’ Cole would have felt about gangsta rap. Duke Ellington has more in common with Ravel than with Snoop Dogg.”
And if there’s no music made that advances popular culture, eventually that culture collapses — at least until something new comes along to revive it. It’s sort of like putting a reel of audio tape into a continuous loop — in theory it will play endlessly; in reality the contents will eventually degrade, wear out, and ultimately break.
At least that’s my theory as to why craftsmanship and taste seems to have vanished from today’s pop music. If you agree, leave your thoughts as to what happened in the comments.