Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Eclectic Music

I often have reason to recall the time I went to a music store in California and bought Billie Holiday, Judas Priest, and Leonard Cohen CDs. The clerk smiled something about me buying gifts, and I said no, these are all for me - pretty sure I got a gleam of respect for the breadth.

It may be a reasonable sample to illustrate just how wide-ranging my tastes are. When I was younger, I'd say, "I grew up in a house with a dad who loved classical, original Broadway musicals (circa 1940s and 50s), and used to wake us up with Switched-On Bach at top volume. My mom was into country and church music. My brother was a punk rocker."

I mean, yeah - of course the elastic broke on whatever bag it was that should have contained my musical tastes.

But I think there's a lot more to it than that. I am intensely easy to bore. Always was. But ...

I'm also easy to interest, if the right odd thing comes along. I still recall the ease with which I could become utterly absorbed in staring down the pattern of the pebbles and mica flecks in the asphalt on the playground, when they had me playing the outfield in kickball. You can get a LOT of absorption-time in when you're not the popular kid, and just what falls in front of your eyeballs (when your eyeballs are perfect and young and can focus or defocus with alacrity).

There was a time in my life I spent almost entirely with musicians. I was still in college, but dating a TOWNIE (gasp - but then, an awful lot of the frat boys were entitled, molest-y jerks), and he was in a band. The music scene where we lived in the Midwest was pretty tight, and very talented, and it was a big interbreeding soup of interesting people I still miss and think of often.

But as dynamic a crowd as we were, we were predominantly white, and pretty much centered on a certain docket of Acceptable Music. Oh sure, they felt it was varied - and I did too, as far as I had forgotten my dalliances with the Dead and disco and the soundtrack from Breakin'. But I can recall the extreme prejudice with which, say, Beloved Ex regarded rap.

Rap and hip-hop (a term we really didn't know, honestly - rap was a blanket for an awful lot of Black music) were NOT music, he felt. All he/we saw was guys posing with their arms crossed. Maybe the unfortunate white-suburban perspective on Flava Flav. Scratching.

Scratching, and sampling, were just STEALING. That wasn't music - it certainly wasn't creation.

And this from a man who was a musician himself. His feeling sprung from a common theme amongst our friends - that "music" involves playing instruments.

Last night, I was struck (not for the first time) by the thought that ... not all instruments have strings, keys, or sticks ...

PBS has been running a series - as so often is the case, excellently researched and peopled, with one hell of a soundtrack - called Soundbreaking. For almost anyone who cares about where music comes from creatively and practically, how it is actually made, its history and impact and the impulses that lead to new music and the ones that come from hearing it, Soundbreaking is immensely, essentially, worthwhile. And I'm not big on the whole "you HAVE to read this/hear this/see this" as a rule.

Last night's episode centered on hip-hop and rap quite a lot, and I was reminded of my periodic obsessions with Rakim, or Tupac, or Nas - of the enjoyment I got as a kid out of Run DMC - of an awful lot of music that wasn't supposed to be interesting to me.

And I realize, one of the million reasons I have never quite been able to lay claim to being a punk, or a goth, or a classic rocker or any one subcultural or pop-cultural thing that strongly associates with any music is that there is no music I'd be happy LIMITING myself to. Sure, I'm not the only person in the world who LOVES combinations like Grandmaster Flash and Warren Zevon and Southern Culture on the Skids (I once dated a guy who was both a huge KISS fan and also Color Me Badd - at the turn of the Millennium, no less, talk about past the sell-by date). But I'm actively, constitutionally incapable of committing to any one music above all others, because I have this stupid fear it'll define me, or I'll lose everything else.

Blame my family for raising me not only eclectic, but literalist. Bastards! :)

So last night, some old white woman bounces around her bedroom thinking, good gravy I am so wrong for this particular bouncing, and just incapable of caring.

I'm like Michael Bolton (not. that. one.).

There is something important, to me, in not accepting the music I'm supposed to be into - not limiting myself to the role of bland, frankly-past-middle-age (I do *not* wish to live to be 100, so I'm not in any sort of middle anymore) suburban woman. And I think, right now, reaching beyond boundaries is perhaps the best thing any American can do.

Where do you cross the lines, or blur them? Where can you bleed out of expectations, and understand a perspective that's not supposed to be yours?

Watch Soundbreaking and realize - or remember - one or two of the places you push your own envelope, break the bubble your everyday life leaves you in.

And maybe get a heck of a laugh at the bit with Sean Puffy Combs. Because that is a cackle-worthy damn DISS, y'all.


Jeff said...

You know, I'm inclined to agree with your ex that rap isn't music, but I don't say that to denigrate it, necessarily. It's a different sort of art entirely, an oral-formulaic popular (some might say "folk") declamatory poetry, and its musicality is pretty incidental. "Beowulf" was almost certainly performed, declaimed, to the accompaniment of a harp, and it's not music--but it's not nothing either.

As someone who never "fit in" to any musical scene, I appreciate anyone who has truly eclectic musical tastes! If art can't teach us something about other people's experiences and perspectives, if it can't foster empathy, then it's useless (he said with his best curmudgeon voice).

Happy Thanksgiving! Hope it's a good one for you and yours.

DLM said...

Been mulling your comment for a bit.

I'm not so sure it's reasonable for white men to decide that rap is not music - even not to denigrate it, necessarily. It probably IS an oral formulaic, and it's certainly declamatory poetry, but how does that preclude its musicality? I'd certainly argue against the notion that its musicality is incidental. Creation as innovative as rap and hip-hop is hard work; there's nothing incidental when people put that into anything.

Bob Dylan just won the Nobel prize for Literature. Is he not a musician? How does poetry preclude music?

The instrumentation rap in particular uses can be unique, but how is scratching or sampling and fading any less a musical skill than drumming, or any other traditional rhythm instrument? It takes a musical ear to find the right track, to spin it (literally) into a new form. And beatboxing is perhaps more elementally musical even than instrumentation; it is the use of the human instrument itself, what is more fundamental to our urge to create song?

Thanksgiving was good; hoping yours was too!

Jeff said...

Hi, Diane! I think that when someone puts art out there, everyone of any background is at liberty to react, respond, criticize, or judge. If the only responses someone with a different skin color is allowed are praise or silence, then we're insulting the artist and his art by taking neither seriously. If art can't engage us or connect us and let us express honest opinions across our differences, then it's worthless, even harmful. And the last thing I'm going to endorse is the idea of policing people's opinions about art based on their sex or the color of their skin.

I do think you've made a strong case for the musicality of rap, and for rap as music. I suppose my counter-argument would be that lots of things requiring strong musicality aren't necessarily music. Beautiful prose, for example, is often quite musical. But in the end, perhaps we're both right. Music and poetry have common, ancient, universally human sources and used to be one and the same. I prefer to emphasize rap as poetry because doing so plays to its strengths and puts its detractors on the defensive. Rap has reawoken people's understanding of the strengths of poetry, strengths that nearly a century of now-derivative postmodernist free verse tried to smother: that it's often best when it's spoken, performed, and heard; that it has rhythm rooted in physicality; that it's bound to tradition and rooted in form; and that everyone has innate poetic potential. Poets from medieval England to modern Iran would recognize their kinship with rappers immediately; I'm not positive that Mozart or Duke Ellington would. But the way rap has brought poetry back to its musical and popular roots is profound, and I don't think it gets enough (or, frankly, any) credit for that.

Not popular opinions, I know, but it's been quite a long time since I had any of those...

french sojourn said...

I remember Grand Master Flash, it was so cutting edge...but the genre developed...so many great artists. I mean really great growth. Ice Cube, Run DMC, NWA, Public Enemy, L.L.Cool J, Tone Loc, and one of the most prolific underappreciated guys, Biz Markie.
I lived in Boston in the 80's...1980's thank you. Most of my fellow loft dwellers were in bands. Such a magic time. Then off to California, but it never equaled the rawness of the 80's. Everything from Ska (my fav.) new wave, punk, and experimental...my friend were in the Bentmen. Surreal shows.
But the beauty of music is the diversity. I don't think there's a style of music I dislike, as with music and writing, it's the interpretation of that culture. I loved Elvis Costello, his lyrics and verbal acrobatics I always thought were legendary, but I wouldn't want to spend time with the guy he was in his heyday.

Just some quick thoughts, be well.

DLM said...

Hello, Hank! How nice to see you here - welcome, and thank you for coming by and commenting.

Elvis C. is a great one for me as a mental time capsule - take two tracks and call me in the morning. There are some New Wave artists who forcibly send me back; Adam Ant, Psychedelic Furs. If you like some of the grittier memories from that time, hit the PUNK Rocka tag and read a few vicarious memories (and see photos!) from my brother's mohawk and shaved-headed years.

Cheers and be well as well!