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Music: What Happened?

By Michael J. Nelson

Don’t get me wrong—music’s great. If you’re sanding a wall or, say, driving in your car to go buy a piece of fish and some Boston lettuce, there’s nothing better than a little music to pass the time. But as a form that can excite or surprise, it seems like music has pretty much run its course.

There are diversions that can momentarily trick one into thinking otherwise—chant or Tuvan throat singing come to mind. But then after a few days you realize that the chant is more fun for the chant-er or that the throat singer’s tune sounds a lot like "Norwegian Wood." This is not to say that there are no talented musicians out there—there are probably dozens of them—it’s just that the medium itself seems tired out. Like whittling, for example. Sure, there are probably whittlers who could take a log, go after it with a knife for a couple of days and come back with a fair representation of a bobcat or Jefferson Davis. And yet, it’s still whittling.

Similarly, a talented songwriter could take a guitar, go into a room for a couple of hours and write a song about how his girl friend is emotionally unavailable to him. He might even come up with some clever analogies like "it’s hard to start a fire with an icicle" and perhaps he’ll muster some surprising chord changes, or a pretty melody in the Mixolydian mode. Even if he does, it won’t be able to shake its stifling kinship with Cher’s "Believe" or that annoying "Breakfast at Tiffany’s" song.

Is there any hope? Most experts agree that no, there isn’t. Though people are buying recorded music in greater volumes than ever before, studies indicate that consumers are simply trying to find the perfect song to dislodge the Bryan Adams melody they’ve got stuck in their heads. Even if civilization were able to wipe the slate clean, spend hundreds of years and reinvent the form, turning it into something new and glorious, there still wouldn’t be enough distance between this theoretical "new music" and Kim Carnes' "Betty Davis Eyes."

Pop music isn’t solely to blame for ruining music (although "Mambo No. 5" certainly makes a convincing case for just that). Classical music produced "The Four Seasons" and had pretty much been resting on its laurels until Arnold Schoenberg, the bellicose Austrian, killed classical music with his accursed twelve-tone scale. Schoenberg’s innovation was that you could take the bright promise of tonal music, with its potential to move the human heart with its haunting beauty, and by removing its tonal center and replacing soul and inspiration with rigid, mathematical principles, turn it into a prickly, Euro-weapon for the senses. Something resembling a ball of two-sided tape rolled in razor blades, foot-long glass shards and sharp bits of broken Bauhaus furniture. Other Austrians, and many people who should have known better, bought Schoenberg’s bill of goods and soon were turning their lovely meditations on nature and truth into pieces that suggested stainless-steel spiders crawling across your eyes while robotic devils shoot at you with blow-guns. Though the popularity of twelve-tone has waned to the point that the only known fan is an extremely anti-social mathematician in a suburb of Berlin, it’s too late—the damage has been done. Orchestras can play the "Pastoral" symphony till they’re blue in the face: the public stays away for fear that they might try to sneak in something by an Austrian that makes them want to die.

I suggest we hang it up for a while, give the entire medium a chance to rejuvenate. Let Ricky Martin take the year off, give him another crack at it down the road (though let’s not promise anything). String quartets—why don’t you go ahead and book a flight home from Prague or Skopje? And certainly let’s give marching bands an extended leave. Screechy angst-ridden young women with guitars—go home to your boyfriends, and try not to mess it up this time.

For the next year we’re going to be advancing the beautiful art of signal flags.

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