Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Emperor's New Clothes, Sixty Years Later

For hundreds of years, "instrumental music" was produced by assemblies of woodwinds, brass, percussion and string instruments played by people, in large groups (orchestras) and subsets (woodwind quintets, string quartets, brass choirs, etc.).  The option for large performances was the "band", without strings but with a greater role for the woodwinds -- you pretty much can't march with a cello or bass.

Singers could actually sing, whether in intimate rooms ("chambers") or on the grand stage in recital, oratorio or opera.  They had talent -- couldn't go very far otherwise -- as did the instrumentalists who rose in their field to accompany them.

Of that there is no shadow of doubt, no possible doubt whatever.

You have, of course, heard the story of the Emperor's New Clothes.  You've heard how a couple of con men convince an emperor that they have spun a cloth so exquisitely fine that only the noble could actually see it; how they claim to have made him elegant clothing out of that cloth, and how the emperor, not willing to admit it, says that he can see it and how wonderful it is.  You recall how all the people, hearing the same story, claim to see it when the emperor goes out in his "clothing", and ooh and aah over clothing not really there, lest they be thought ignoble -- the fairy tale version of "not cool."

And you recall how a little child, freed by his youth from the need to be thought hip and "with it", sees the unclothed emperor on parade and says for all to hear, what no one dare say, that "the emperor has no clothes."

We humans are so like those people lining the streets.  So fearful are we of not being cool, that we go along with hype passing as talent; with hubris passing as ability; with silliness passing as good ideas; with hope passing as strategy.

And in today's piece, with mediocrity passing as music.

What evil did music ever do to humanity to justify the evil that humanity has done to music?  For centuries, music brought beauty, shape, color, drama and emotion to the human being.  Somewhere along the line, however, contemporary con men brought the idea along that "music" is a guitar, electric bass, drum set and, maybe, an electronic keyboard.  That's it; nothing else need apply.

Somewhere along the line, sixty years or so, the children's music that was 1950s rock and roll crowded out everything else, and music slid quickly downhill from there.

Somewhere along the line, actual talent was pushed aside in favor of pap.

I think the end of it for me was a commercial for some product or other, where in one scene a fellow with an English accent says "If I got a guitar and a group, I could be something!", and no one thought a thing about it.  Well, not no one.  I remember seeing that ad so many years ago and thinking "A guitar and a group?  How about some talent, maybe a decade's worth of lessons first?"

"No one thought a thing about it", because by that time neither talent nor ability had anything to do with popularity, not composing talent nor performing talent.  Melody, a vital component of the beauty in music, had all but disappeared and, by the time "rap" happened, melody was lost for good.  Absent melody, harmony fled the scene with nothing to hang on to.

And yet, and yet -- there still are plenty of performers hawking their recordings on iTunes, and plenty of people in the industry without a shred of guilt.  They peddle something, call it the musical equivalent of that "art" we so often see that makes you think "my four-year-old could have drawn that."  Whiny pop tarts with auto-tuned voices and inarticulate lyrics.  There is no real musical value, and it takes no talent to perform it.  But boy, do they sell recordings.

Not because of the talent of the performer, but because no one wants to be uncool.  How sad.

Let me; yes, let me be that little innocent child on the path of the parade, listening to what has happened to music the past 60 years.  Let me be the one mourning for the loss of respect for the great composers, lyricists and performers, in favor of hyped celebrities.  Let me mourn that our children know of Taylor Swift but not Wynton Marsalis, of Eminem but not Yo-Yo Ma, of Snoop Dogg but not Katherine Jenkins.

And let me then, as did the little child in the fable, point out that the emperor, indeed, has no clothes.

Whatever, we must ask, drives us to be so conformist, so fearful of missing the fad, that we watch idly by as actual talented performers confront utter lack of demand for their ability ... that hacks with the right friends, the right manager or the right look make obscene money, while virtuoso performers languish in obscurity; with demand for their talent driven from the scene in favor of the hack, their abilities lay unappreciated.

The emperor has never been more naked, but it's really OK.  Nobody really cares.

Copyright 2015 by Robert Sutton
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  1. Bums me out too, so much that I need to play Bach's Art of Fugue performed by the Emerson String Quartet, or Vivaldi's The Four Seasons performed by the inimitable Julia Fischer to improve my mood. Or maybe just sing the Modern Major General to myself.

  2. Yes, and the Major-General's song is educational, too. I now know what a chassepôt rifle is, even if I've long-since forgotten what is meant by "mamelon" and "ravelin." Besides, I always played Frederic :)

  3. I don't see an option to post a photo, but you know what these guys look like.

    Next to a photo of Frank Sinatra we see the lyric
    With each word your
    tenderness grows.
    Tearing my fear apart.
    And that laugh that
    wrinkles your nose,
    It touches my foolish heart.

    And next to a photo of Justin Bieber the lyric
    And I was like
    Baby, baby, baby noo
    I'm like
    Baby, baby, baby noo
    I'm like
    Baby, baby, baby noo

  4. That pretty much says it all. I remember many years ago, when Arthur Treacher was the sidekick for Merv Griffin on his show, someone had the bright idea to get Merv to ask Treacher to read the lyrics to the Beatles' "Hello" song (you say goodbye, I say hello. Hello, hello, hello ...." With that English butler voice of his, reading the lyrics as dialogue, it just exposed the insipidity of what passed for poetry and has for decades, a perfect counterpart to what has passed for music over the same time.