Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Devolution of Music Part 2: Monkey See, Monkey Do

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? You find
someone who's been there and then you copy him or her!

In this, the second part of the Devolution of Music, we discuss the proliferation of copying. If you haven't yet read Part 1, then you can find it here!

   When the first music was actually recorded (i.e. not written down on paper, but an actual single performance recorded onto a disc) it quickly became apparent that the 'copying' part of music became much easier (a process which is still becoming easier now) and just like the printing press, musical information spreads faster in copy form than in it's original state.
 The content of the first such recording by Edison was a recitation of the simple poem Mary had a little Lamb.

Just about everyone who's ever heard the poem can probably repeat it. It's easy to learn and remember and a great guitar player named Buddy Guy learned the poem and then put the poem together with a whole lot of cool blues music that he likely learned from his upbringing and from recordings and performances of blues artists that came before him. Furthermore, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and numerous other guitar-legends  learned quite a few things from Buddy Guy. They copied him. Perhaps not exactly, but they did.
The truth is that everyone imitates, copies and mimics. It's how we learn things. Someone shows you something and then you repeat it. You might not pick it up the first time, so you try again. If you keep trying and keep trying, then you get better at it. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? The real answer is: Practice! And practice is essentially repetition, imitation, mimicking and yes even copying.
  Then, having learned what he or she needs to know, the artist ventures out on their own, like a bird from it's nest....
  Or at least, that's what's supposed to happen. Sometimes it doesn't. Whether it's for the sake of record executives who want to hit sales projections, or for the idea of pleasing the audience that an artist has already attained, or perhaps just to play it safe, sometimes artists don't venture forth. They just keep copying...they copy their peers, their competition, the past, or even themselves.
The problem with all this repetition is that, just like a groove in a vinyl record or a walking path through the park, the wear and tear eventually takes it's toll and you may find yourself stuck in a deepening rut, with less and less chance of getting out of it with each passing day.
 Perhaps it's only those over the age of 40 that see Lady Gaga as an imitation of Madonna. If they were between the age of 10 and 15, they might say Lady Gaga is Lady Gaga and who the heck is Madonna? Maybe the elders have trouble differentiating one song from another because they're just not listening closely or are nostalgic and not learning about new and modern music. Or maybe they really do sound similar or predictable. Certainly the one that the older person thinks is an imitation probably listened to the other that I think is the original. Right? Maybe. And this is why likely repetition-music is usually aimed at a young audience and not their elders. It's because their elders were fooled into thinking old was new about 20 yrs before.
  Sometimes the copy just seems a tamer version. Avril Lavigne, for all her punk attitude and swagger, seems cute and cuddly when compared to her predecessor Pat Benatar, who cut her soprano vocals during the first punk era. Sometimes the copy attempts to a be more extreme version when compared to the original. Marilyn Manson seems to have taken what Alice Cooper did and gone a step further, trying to be 'more Alice than Alice' some might say. I've yet to see a truly worthy imitator of Michael Jackson, but perhaps his dance moves were just too difficult. Most R&B and pop males usually land somewhere between a skinny Barry White without the piano skills, or a Luther Vandross with more jewellery. But nostalgia always paints the predecessor as the innovator. It's always likely that the previous bunch of stars got their ideas from someone even further back, like Janis Joplin or Screaming Jay Hawkins or James Brown.
  Strangely, like I said earlier, the copy usually travels better than the original. Remember; practice is what gets you to Carnegie Hall, so the second person in the line may actually be more prepared than the original. Just like Stevie Ray Vaughan learned from Buddy Guy, it was Buddy Guy who cut the path for rock and blues to crossover one to the other and back, and it was Stevie Ray Vaughan who benefits from seeing and hearing what Buddy Guy did.  Similarly, Lady Gaga is not cutting the path, she's following it, and has the added benefit of having watched Madonna, and others, for years, along with other young Madonna imitators. So Lady Gaga, could, conceivably be much better than Madonna...that is...if she, like the birds, dares to venture from the nest.... to strike her own path.
  The problem is that probably isn't going to happen. At least, the odds are against it. The truth is that copying and repetition is on the rise, while experimentation and art is on the decline. A proven band (i.e. Dad Rock)  like Bon Jovi or AC/DC, for example, don't change their sound much from album to album. And generally speaking, an artist that does changes their sound, doesn't really change their music, they 'update' it, usually by copying someone else that is supposedly 'more current'.
   So what's the problem? Why isn't everyone trying to venture out on their own? Why are we letting music devolve into a bunch of copying monkeys?
   I think there's 3 reasons.
   The first reason is that it's easier to change an artist's image than their music. If some artist isn't sexy enough, you can put him or her in sexier clothes and do a makeover. If they are too sexy, or perhaps rough-looking, you put them in nice-guy clothes like the Beatles. If they are too normal, you dress them up funky. If they're too weird, you take off the pimp hat, but let him keep the suit. Basically, it's easier to change image and so that's what is usually done. It doesn't solve anything but to the 'public' there appears to be some difference, so that distracts from the music which is the same imitative stuff that you've heard before.
   The second reason is that most rock/pop music is based on a basic structure of a three or four chord progression, about three minutes long, with or without a bridge or solo. This basic structure has been used over and over again and again until you really can't stand it anymore. And how do you get over getting sick of it? Well, usually you go back into your record collection and find some song that uses those same three or four chords, but did it in a much different and better way than the more recent copy-version. You look for the original...which, in fact, is probably just another copy.
  The third reason is that both artists and the music industry usually try to appeal to as large an audience as they can. They want to give us, the consuming public, what we like....and what we like, is what we already know we like. It seems bizarre, but the only way you can know if you like music is if you've already heard it before. And having heard it before, the familiar is comforting. Frankly, it's easier to follow that way, too. When you know the singer is going to sing that part you like, you anticipate it. And when you hear that certain drum roll to start the song, you get all excited. Predictability makes for a good concert, too. Bands and musicians of all types know which songs to play right at the beginning and what songs to make the audience wait for. The audience loves knowing that their favourite band started with the one they like, but they like it even better when they save that other one they like for the encore. The unfamiliar stuff, or the ballad, or the too-long-for-radio-song generally goes somewhere in the middle.
   There's also a hidden fourth reason, which ties back into my statement off the top. Practice has proven these three things work. Pop music has been around a very long time now. Over seventy years if you include the pre-rock era. Get an artist with the right image, the catchy three or four chord hit single and then give people what you best estimate is what they want and bang, your artist and his or her record company is successful. Copying and repeating what has come before keeps working, and so there really isn't any reason to stop. And if something really new comes along.... well, you can just copy it!

   There's only one really serious problem to this whole system. Nothing new is coming along! And what's new is not necessarily different or un-copied. Like I suggested, we've cut this path for seventy years, and now we find ourselves in a trench. The basic structure of a pop-song is failing to excite people anymore and no one knows what or who to copy or learn from, because there are fewer and fewer people that have ventured out far enough on their own in music to actually have anything to teach. The pop-song system is breaking down, and yet we just keep copying...and copying....and copying....and copying...

Continued in Part 3: Real Innovation is Difficult....