overground scene

Popular music: The disinteresting art

The last few years it has been becoming increasingly evident to me that popular music, even its less mainstream strands, is 100% manufactured as a commodity. Let us assume that an artist actually loves music and is not getting into the music business for fame and money. For one thing, once an artist gets a contract with a record company she or he immediately looses control over their artistic expression. The latter includes the substantive part, i.e. the music, but also the art surrounding the product. There are cases where record executives have the nerve to actually push an artist towards a certain musical or lyrical direction. Testimonies supporting this claim exist even in genres were one would never expect things like this to happen, like Death metal (see Dismember’s live blasphemies dvd about their relationship with Nuclear Blast). Other times control is more subtle. Music producers interfere and make songs longer or shorter, mess with orchestrations, add or remove music, change melodies and so on.

And of course, the status music stars enjoy is attractive enough for musicians to compromise their creativity to enjoy success. In other words most people getting into the music business, make strategic choices so that the industry and the intended market will embrace them. I am not even going to start with the company manufactured pop stars, boy/girl bands, etc.

But more recently I came across certain attitudes from people I know that a whole new dimension of the issue was revealed to me. I have been writing my own songs for a while which I share with my friends. My attitude is anti-commercial, in the  sense that I do not want to earn money by making music. I do not promote my music and I primarily do it for myself. I write stuff that make me feel happy and enjoy listening to. Furthermore, I see the songs that I write as important moments of my life transformed and immortalised through art. It is therefore a very personal affair, many times impossible for others to understand and fully appreciate. And I think that this is perfectly normal! Art is a personal thing and if many people comprehend it then there must be something wrong with it. If a lot of people comprehend it it means that a more simple and shared language has been used to transcend the cognitive and affective distance between the creator and the members of an audience. A shared language means compromise for the artist.

But I should go back to explaining what I figured out by reactions of friends and family listening to my music. As I said, because I write music primarily for myself, I tend to use a language that is not entirely but to a large extent personal. This is translated to song structures that are not what one would expect to hear. A friend noticed “the introduction of this song is too long and the lyrics end to soon” and someone else suggested “you should repeat that melody one more time and make the song longer”. These attitudes suggest a cosiness with certain structures that plague popular music, shape it and steal away the creativity from it. Of course audiences feel comfortable with these norms because what we are looking for is entertainment and not to challenge ourselves. We need an introduction, a verse, a chorus and a verse again. We need to know what to expect, we are satisfied with that and when we get what we expect we feel happy. One of the saddest manifestations of this phenomenon is when we are thrilled with artists that stick to their successful formula, or “stick to their roots”, “respect their history” or “respect their fans” by giving them what they want! Entertainment is not bad but I think art should aim higher. Art should be mostly about the cultivation of the soul and mind.


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