Sunday, November 25, 2007

In Praise of Segmentation

I'll resist a complete dissection David Brooks' opinion piece decrying the loss of "mega-groups" with mass cultural following and the decay of "all-purpose rock." But I will comment on a handful of his statements. I don't follow Brooks columns and can't comment on how knowledgeable he is in other areas - but I can say he knows very little about music. Perhaps he was attempting something light hearted for the holiday weekend.

This statement was particularly perplexing:
People who have built up cultural capital and pride themselves on their superior discernment are naturally going to cultivate ever more obscure musical tastes. I’m not sure they enjoy music more than the throngs who sat around listening to Led Zeppelin, but they can certainly feel more individualistic and special.
Why does a lack of curiosity pass for virtue with the conservative crowd? Speaking as one who cultivates "obscure" musical tastes, I don't think feeling "individualistic" or "special" has ever been a motivation or even an end result. Led Zeppelin is fine for those who like music. For those who love music their appetite can never be satisfied by just one flavor. It's not about "superior discernment." It's about passion and curiosity.

In an earlier passage:
Technology drives some of the fragmentation. Computers allow musicians to produce a broader range of sounds. Top 40 radio no longer serves as the gateway for the listening public. Music industry executives can use market research to divide consumers into narrower and narrower slices.
This vastly overstates the influence and abilities of the dinosaur class known as "music industry executive." Computers have had a democratizing effect on music creation and consumption. The executive class has shrinking influence over consumer behavior and can niche-market themselves into oblivion for all anyone cares. This is a vast improvement over the narrow gateways of corporate record labels and tightly controlled Top 40 radio. Again, Top 40 is fine for people who like music. For those who love music it's merely a single strain within a vast ecosystem. Fragmentation is a sign of a healthy, creative environment with plenty of species diversity. Limiting one's listening to Top 40 is a little like subsisting on a diet of marshmallows.
...if the Rolling Stones came along now, they wouldn’t be able to get mass airtime because there is no broadcast vehicle for all-purpose rock.
If the need arises for another Rolling Stones then it will happen. Until that time they will not be missed. Moving away from the questionable acoustics of big arena shows can only be a good thing. Past cultural phenomena such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were a product of a less cynical time and less tech-savvy consumer base.
Van Zandt has a way to counter all this, at least where music is concerned. He’s drawn up a high school music curriculum that tells American history through music. It would introduce students to Muddy Waters, the Mississippi Sheiks, Bob Dylan and the Allman Brothers. He’s trying to use music to motivate and engage students, but most of all, he is trying to establish a canon, a common tradition that reminds students that they are inheritors of a long conversation.
A music curriculum that exposes young ears to music traditions is a positive step. Though this list is suspiciously narrow in its scope. My sense of American music history includes Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Duke Ellington, Pauline Oliveros, John Cage, Albert Ayler, Terry Riley, Carl Ruggles, Edgard Varese, Anthony Braxton, John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Art Tatum, Kenny Dorham, Billy Strayhorn, Irving Berlin, Robert Johnson, Ruth Crawford-Seeger, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Bill Frisell, Carl Stalling, Raymond Scott, Carla Bley, Louis Armstrong and many others with equal claim to that "common tradition" over the past century and a half. The true goal of such a music education should be to stimulate and encourage students to seek out and discover the experience of hearing such a rich musical heritage. I'm concerned that the curriculum Brooks alludes to simply hands down a narrow subset without encouraging deeper thought and exploration. I'm suspicious of any canon that doesn't cultivate curiosity - the lack of which is not a virtue.

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