Music Contemplations (1994)

By Wil Forbis

One subject I've been thinking about lately is the little wars that seem to occur between different musical styles. Everyone wants to convince everyone else that whatever kind of music they're into is the only thing to listen to and whatever anyone else is listening to is pure garbage. There are a lot of issues intertwined in these little battles, issues of race, of culture or just different ideas as to what music is about and what it should be used for. And when you came down to it, it's all pretty silly. After all, if you don't like a song or style of music, turn it off, right? But a lot of people (including myself) get pretty upset and vocal about these issues and make fools of ourselves by writing articles like this one.

A lot of it comes down to the fact that people respond to music in different ways. If you examine people's views on music, I think you will find there are essentially two different categories that you can place their attitudes in. One way people appreciate music is to do so on purely an aesthetic level. They respond to it in an emotional way, it's either a "pretty" song or it isn't. I think this is how a lot of people look at Pop or Dance music. They like the groove, they like the melody, they're not that interested in the intellectual side of things. The music appeals to the human id, not the ego. It's the kind of experience you can just sit back and enjoy.

Another way to look at music is on a conceptual level. What is the music saying, either lyrically or musically? For example, remember WAR's old hit "War, What Is It Good For?" Whether or not you like the music, a lot of people, especially in the sixties Viet Nam era, appreciated the lyrical message. The same could be said of Bob Dylan's material. I personally have always been under the impression that Dylan fans were more into his lyrical wordplay than the actual melodies and harmonies of his songs. This is not to say Dylan didn't write good songs, but his forte was always more apparent in his lyrics. He appealed on an intellectual basis. To really understand Dylan, you had to understand the culture and era in which he lived. A Pygmy tribesman might not get much out of "The Death of Emmett Till," at least not as much as a stoned hippie.

Music, sans lyrics, can also appeal to the intellect. As an illustration, I don't think the Sex Pistols were really that revolutionary via their "unique" chord progressions and melodies. They captivated more on the basis that they were a slap in the face to the musical establishment. In an era of slow Eagles ballads and overproduced Supertramp records, the Sex Pistols were the opposite of everything that was happening. Fast, raw, and angry. The actual riffs the Sex Pistols were playing weren't that important (though they did come up with some good ones) as much as they energy they put behind them. The Sex Pistols were dependent on attitude the way the Beatles were dependent on catchy songs.

One thing I've been realizing lately is that different groups listen to the same songs in different ways. For example, one of my guilty pleasures from the realm of Pop has always been the Whitney Houston song "How Will I Know?" This is a song that appealed to me on an aesthetic basis. Basically I think it's a catchy song with a good melody. The lyrics, however, are pretty unimportant to me. If, instead of singing "How Will I Know?", Whitney sang "My Master Is Satan" I'd still like the song. (In fact, I'd probably like it even more.)

However, it's important that I realize I have no cultural ties to the music. I'm a young white guy, Whitney is a young black woman. Other than being young, we probably don't have much in common (which is a rich statement on the racial/gender division of our society). Whitney Houston is not what most people would assume I'd listen to, it just happened that particular song caught my ear. But If I were a black woman I'd probably have a different view of the song and Whitney's music in general. I think that for a lot of black women (Not all! This is a key point.) Whitney is symbolic of more than just a good singer with catchy material. To them, Whitney Houston is a representation of a black woman who has managed to become fairly successful while maintaining her integrity. To black women, Whitney is attractive on more than just an aesthetic level, she appeals to a black woman's sense of pride and empowerment. She is a symbol of the heights that a black woman can achieve in this society, heights they could not achieve 50 years ago. (Or, if they did, it was a path laden with self destruction, a la Billie Holiday.)

In that sense a song like "How Will I Know?" will appeal in different ways to different people. To me, I see it as essentially a "pretty" song. I might have a certain deal of respect for Whitney's success, but that is not my main concern. But I think a lot of black women would support Whitney, even if she started doing lousy songs (which, in my opinion, she has) because they want to see one of their own make it. There's certainly nothing wrong with that, hell, who supported Nirvana? White, middle class, disenfranchised youth. The same types of people who were in the band. Who supported Selena? The Latinos. Most successful acts are more than just good songwriters or musicians, they are celebrators of their particular culture. And the really good ones managed to appeal across cultural lines.

But I don't think race is the only cultural divider of music. Though we're not supposed to say it, we all know there are a lot of lesbians that support Melissa Etheridge and the Indigo Girls. I'm not saying that's their only fan base, but lesbians are probably more prominent at an Etheridge show than Guns-n-Roses. Boy George probably has a lot of gay fans. And, as I said before, there are probably a lot of Black woman who weren't into Whitney Houston. Perhaps, they come from an older generation and prefer Aretha Franklin. Maybe they are more streetwise and like rap stars like Queen Latifa, Yo-Yo or the host of underground rap artists I nnow nothing about. Some might look at Whitney as a sell-out and can't get past the concessions (real or imagined) they think she has made. We certainly can't explain a person's music taste solely on race as we then ignore the issues of gender, sexual orientation, age and economic class that also affect opinions.

One of the things that's always annoyed me about the punk and alternative press is its inability to look past its own culture. Let's be honest. We all know the alternative scene dismisses most black R&B (i.e. Sisters With Voices) and Pop (i.e. Prince, Michael Jackson) with a wave of its hand. And most Blacks do the same in reverse. After Kurt Cobain turned his face into Spaghetti O's, Time magazine interviewed a Black youth you basically said (I'm paraphrasing here), "I don't know what all the fuss is about. The guy didn't speak for me." When magazines like Spin and Rolling Stone crowned Cobain as the voice for of this generation they missed the point. Cobain spoke (unwillingly) for a SEGMENT of this generation. (Mostly, the white, middle class segment.) Cobain had about as much appeal to blacks and Latinos as Selena had towards grunge youth (in fact, she had to die before they ((and I)) took any notice of her.) Hell, the alternative revolution went past quite a lot of WHITE people, who bought up country music in record numbers.

The various clashes and arguments between people over different musical styles are really exemplary of the clashes and arguments people have over different cultures. To really understand and appreciate a form of music, you must have some understanding of the culture from which it is derived. The iconography and nomenclature of one form of music is usually lost on those who approach it from a foreign position. The urban rap crowd and underground punk scene often focus on this division, claiming that the mainstream either refuses to recognize the symbolism of their cultures or steals and perverts that symbolism for it's own need. By making this claim, they try to render the mainstream's critique of themselves impotent, by arguing that the mainstream is too far removed from their culture to properly understand it. But I think the reverse is also true. Extreme cultures like rap and punk go to such lengths to distance themselves from the mainstream, they render their critiques ineffectual as well. Whereas the mainstream may not make any attempt to recognize them, they are guilty of the same crime in reverse. In short, for a punk or street rapper to dismiss Whitney Houston as a sellout on the basis of her iconography, shows he is refusing to examine her culture, refusing to look at the viewpoint of the people she represents and refusing to examine the reasons she might appeal to them (reasons I discussed earlier).

Now, I'm not saying there is no legitimate reason to dislike Whitney Houston. Personally, I think on an aesthetic level there are a lot of reasons to dislike her. I really don't think she's been singing good songs lately. Granted, that is purely a matter of taste, and I must allow that some people might think differently. But, I think if you are going to criticize a musician on a more conceptual level, if you are going to criticize what they are saying, either musically or lyrically, you must have some idea of the culture that person is coming from. For example for a country music fan to condemn a rap album for failing to achieve the goals of a good country music song (A memorable melody, tradition oriented lyrics) and ignore the goals of rap (rhythm, a certain degree of politicizing) is a pretty incomplete review. As would it be if a rap fan did the same in reverse (and they do.)

It is this lack of any attempt to understand music from the culture from which it was birthed that I feel is the great failing of a lot of modern Rock music criticism. (Classical music criticism, on the other hand, tends to overstress this point.) Granted, I think it's pretty one sided to only review music you are culturally familiar with, but I think it's equally one sided to review music you are unfamiliar with only from the point of view of your background. However, that seems to be the prominent style of music critiquing everywhere from PEOPLE magazine to more obscure publications like THE SOURCE or A.P. (The Alternative Press.) Some defenders of rap tend to overstress the artist's background (often to make excuses for attitudes or lyrics the reviewer would normally find offensive) but that luxury is seldom granted to more mainstream artists like Michael Bolton or Hammer who are usually just accused of being sell-outs. Now, they very well could be sell outs but little effort is put into logically quantifying that claim.

Obviously, this is a very complicated subject (I'm not totally clear what the subject is), but it's one that should be examined. Rock Music is sort of like Europe right now, it is made up of various little sections all competing, all fighting for supremacy. This can't be healthy, not only does it limit the music it may eventually kill it.

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