Friday, February 17, 2012

Folk Music Existential Crisis

There is an existential crisis within what has come to be called folk music in America.

We, as an artistic community, seem to not know why we make the music we do and if we do know why, we can't understand why it is the cultural ghetto that it is. There is an almost willful refusal to
consider the function or purpose of what we are creating. On the one hand, it feels as though the creative vision of the artist is held unimpeachably sacred. Compromise to meet popular taste or commercial success is not only distasteful but morally wrong. On the other hand is a sense of anger at the lack of support from the mainstream music infrastructure and the general population who only understand music as a thing to be consumed. There is a contradiction here. We cannot refuse to make art that meets others needs and expect to be relevant to more than a handful of people.

I think the refusal to have a conversation internally and amongst ourselves about what
function our music serves is caused by the friction created when personal moral
exceptionalism meets the perceived shortcomings of hyper-individualism programed into most of
us. Our culture praises the individual above all else. I think "folkies" are under the
impression that they are immune to the trappings of this hyper-individualism and the consumer
landscape it exists in. We want to be genuine and more altruistic than the unhealthy society
we see around us. This idea is bolstered by the fact that we peruse something that is
decidedly not popular.

However, we are not immune from hyper-individualism.

As best as I can tell, the main function of modern folk is almost solely self expression.
This is how hyper-individualism manifests itself in folk music and American acoustic music
in general. There is nothing objectively wrong with self expression. But unless you are
uniquely apt at expressing a broad range of the human experience, an individuals self
expression is not useless to the broader population. This may sound judgmental, but the
proof is in the pudding. Folk music is struggling in the cultural market. In other words,
I'm not saying that folk music is not useful to others; the consuming population is. We want
people to consume what we produce but refuse to produce what they want to consume.

I have been chastised by some in the folk community for saying that self expression is the
main function of folk but no one can tell me what else it does. This would be fine if our
music didn't need to compete in the marketplace, but it does. I'm saying we need to make
music that panders because the industry will always do a better job that we can at that.
What I saying is we need to find what function we can have in peoples lives.

Popular music seems to be mono-chromatic in subject, aesthetic and function. It tells one
story; the story of consumption. It is produced to be palatable to the broadest possible
population and reinforces the demise of regionalism.

I think we can start to find our function by examining our own communities and purposefully
exploring what needs are being neglected by mainstream music. We may have to sacrifice some
of our voice to meet the needs of our communities and become relevant. That's o.k. By
investing on others, they have a reason to invest in us. I have an unwavering faith that in
our increasingly mechanized and consumerist society that there is a role for independent
acoustic music. We just need to find what it is.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The State of Music in the Age of Culture as Commodity

I want the world to be a better place and the best way for this to happen is to have societies organized in systems that allows people to have access to the resources they need to humanize themselves and their communities.  I don’t have a destination in mind.  A dogmatic approach to social change fails to take into account the rapid trans-formative effect that technology has on society and how localized many problems are.  Rather I try to think of thing in a more generalized direction.  The creative class has a role and an obligation to participate in this process of moving humanity towards a more humanizing system.

I cannot give a complete or holistic description of what the process of humanization looks like. I'm sure it is personal and unique to every person. That is where to start. A more coherent process of humanization could only take place within a system where people were given access to the resources needed to figure out what that path looks like. Food, security(physical, mental and emotional), education, shelter, health care, access to genuine community based culture and time are the basic resources people need to to maximize their emotional and personal development. A process of humanization would help us determine what makes us individuals, how we relate to our fellow human beings and how to reconcile the interplay between the two in a healthy and consistent fashion. The direction would point to an generalized rejection of conflict in favor of cooperation both between the disparate aspects of each individual and between individuals in society.

It seems as though the young artist in America rejected the idea that there is any responsibility in being an artist.  I know far more musicians and have a much deeper grasp of music than other artistic disciplines, so my critique is localized and myopic for sure.  However, from my admittedly small range of experience, I have seen a decided and virulent rejection by people in their 20’s and 30’s of anything in music which is openly political or progressive.  

The apparent causes of this sentiment are dynamic and important but that does not take away the fact that this trend is dangerous and corrosive.  Artists do, and have always had, a responsibility as arbiters of social change and social criticism.  I have no doubt that most 20-30 somethings would voice a vehement opposition to this notion, but my generation is good at nothing if not the deflection of mandated responsibility.  

We all have a responsibility to make society better because it is what provides the systemic framework , not only to survive to to be human in the first place. Without society none of us would be here in any semblance of our current form and indeed the concept of being human would not exist. We all own this so we all have a responsibility to it; if nothing else out of a sense of self-preservation.

The primary reason musicians, and all Artist, have an extra responsibility to act as agents of positive social motion is because Art is powerful. Music has a unique ability to replicate the the material conditions of peoples lives in a concrete, yet nonverbal fashion. It reinforces truths that cannot be communicated in words or pictures. Music can take the parts of life that are the most dissonant and show us that they make us coherent and human. It can serve a vital function in how we organize our lives. Cultural expression, more than anything else makes us human, both in its production and reception.

Because art can effect people on such a visceral level, it contains a great potential to change the consciousness of receptive parties. The proof of Art's power lies most obviously and most ironically in the most dehumanizing cultures. The Nazi's would not have had Albert Speer construct massive concrete infrastructure to serve as a backdrop to Leni Riefenstahl epic movies if art wasn't powerful. The Soviets would not have hired Sergei Eisenstein to make his epic Alexander Nevsky, scored by Sergei Prokofiev, if art wasn't powerful. The Catholic church would not have controlled art in Europe for the better part of an eon if art wasn't powerful.

The ruling class never forgets that art is powerful. Only the dis-empowered seem to waver in their understanding of this resource's unique potency. We abdicate control, by design, to the very people who exploit and dehumanize us. I would never posit that art is ever the sole activator of social movements. It, does however, occupy a double helical relationship with societies overall direction in regards to whether people allow themselves to grow and humanize or be exploited and dehumanized. It is this inherent power that obligates artists and musicians to at act as agents of social critique and social change. By refusing to fulfill this obligation we do not remain neutral.

If we lived in a landscape of politically neutral culture I wouldn’t feel as thought there was the same urgency.  We don’t.  The gate keepers of music are obscenely wealthy with an agenda that supports their class interests.  Corporate music is functional, but its function has degenerated to act as a non-localized opiate.  As my peers have noted, people want escapism.  Sedation is not humanizing.  This is a fundamental perversion of what music is and can be.  Music shouldn't be a tool to shut people down, but rather it should help bring vibrancy to their lives.  

On tour this summer I  was struck by a song called “Sounds Like Life to Me” by Darryl Worley.  I was going to link a youtube of the song but I don’t want to help his Internet presence.  The story of the song is of one man talking to another at a bar about the hardships of trying to support a family in modern  America.  Here is the chorus:

Sounds like life to me it ain’t no fantasy
It’s just a common case of everyday reality
Man I know it’s tough but you gotta suck it up
To hear you talk you’re caught up in some tragedy
It sounds like life to me

The narrative of the song is this:  Life is hard, you should toil everyday for someone else and expect nothing better than what your boss gives you.  The song also endorses pro-life ethics and the use of alcoholism as a practical means of escape from real problems in its verses:

Three kids and a wife depend on me
And I’m just one man
To top it off I just found out
That Sarah’s 2 months late
I said hey bartender set us up a round
We need to celebrate

This implies a sense of inevitability.  It refuses to acknowledge that there are options at that point in the pregnancy and encourages a man with a drinking problem to deal celebrate the hardships another child will bring by drinking.  In country music this underlying theme of inevitability is projected onto every aspect of working people lives.  We are chided for thinking we could expect more from our lives, even in the richest country in the world.  “Suck it up.”

This sentiment is being replicated in modern country at all points.  Country used to be a vehicle for the empowerment of poor, rural Americans.  Now it preached the glory short sight goals and basks in the virtue of ignorance.  

Pop music takes a different tack.  Almost ubiquitously, American popular music of the last 25 years has, in form and content, praised and endorsed the opulence of the of the elites who profit from it and the  unattainable aspirations of those who consume it.  This is most apparent in the overwhelming dominance of “love” as a topic.  Love is a theme that is universally accessible and thus exceptionally marketable.  I’m not against the composition of sentimental music but I do think that its dominance has detrimental effect on society.  

In many was the hyper-idealization of the individual has led to the notion that our country and the global society we are part of  were built by people each operating independent of each other, forged by sheer will in the face of human competition and nature.  This is false.  All advancement, culture and infrastructure have sprung from the collective consciousness that has been built on.  The cult of the individual has led to our current system where the vast majority of people think they are of immense importance or at lest could become important,  while all the evidence shows the agency of the majority, acting as individuals is eroding rapidly.  

Romantic love is such a personal experience that by nature it draws us inward.  It highlights some of the most powerful internal narratives we have.  It does not accentuate our common material interests. The exaggerated importance of romantic love that is presented to us by our major cultural outlets, film and music, reflects the perceived material conditions of our society.  Only a people who believe themselves comfortable have the luxury to spend as much time as we do on this one aspect of the human experience.  When we look at the art of people whose material conditions are less affluent, we see a much broader range of subjects that point to what makes us similar.  We get art that demands the realization of humanity of the arts practitioners and the cultures they come from in the face of systems whose sole function id to exploit them.  

This focus on love would be fine if it wasn’t being used as a smoke screen and a narcotic in the process of global and national dis-empowerment.  We are feel increasingly isolated and therefore powerless to effect change.  This, while we feel a disproportionate sense of individual worth.  By only producing and consuming art of a seemingly benign nature, we allowing art to be used as a weapon against our communal interests as opposed to a vehicle for humanization and consciousness raising.  What appears to be “non-political” music is profoundly political because it has helped us sleep through urgent times.

We are not as well off as we would like to think and it is worse everyday.  Everything we do have has come from the exploitation of poor people, domestically and abroad.  Even if our, meaning middle-class consuming Europe and America, material position was secure, we don’t have the moral ground to sit idle.

Artists have a responsibility because art is always political.  By creating and consuming “apolitical” art we are participating in a system that uses cultural works against us.  Art can either effect positive change, or reinforce the current socioeconomic dynamic.  We are being political in our refusal to acknowledge the innately political nature of art in our society.  

Write love songs.  Listen to whatever you want.  But start having conversations.  Think about how the cultural products you are involved with reflect your ethics.  At least consider that we make a lot of assumptions about art and culture, and many of them may be false or manufactured.  How can art made and shaped by a system based on exploitation not support and replicate an exploitative ethic?

Love will be better in a world where people are given the chance to be as humanized as possible.