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constellations

Cool 2007 mixtape lists, everyone. It’s inspiring and humbling to get glimpses into the myriad worlds of music out there. It’s as though each of us is looking up at a sky stuffed with stars, inventing our own constellations.

With that in mind, let’s get creative and sort of abstract here for a sec (I know y’all are up for this!).

If you had to pick your favorite songs or artists and relate them to each other, constellation-style, could you? (Bonus question: is that like what Pandora does?)

Constellations are grouped by the stars’ relative locations, but that seems too limiting. For this little brain exercise, let’s assume you can group them by any quality you can imagine.

What would be your first constellation? Which one would be the most necessary? Would you have an equivalent to Polaris, the North Star, to guide lost travelers etc? I would.

What names would you use?

Et cetera, et cetera. This week, the sky’s the limit.

curiously,
mz

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Hey listeners!

It’s so good to be back in misty and picturesque Oakland again! Now that I’m here again I’m starting to think about the holidays (I know, only 400 shopping days ’til xmas…).

Since I hear so much music during the year, I like to put together a holiday compilation for my friends: weird stuff, the unusual, and the songs that really grabbed me during the last year.

I have a pretty good idea of what I’ll be putting on this year’s comp to tell the story of my past year. I’m wondering how you listeners would tell the story of your year in songs.

Anyone care to share the songs that hit you in the past year? The songs that maybe resurfaced after years of dormancy in your life? Your 2007 mixtape? I would love to hear….

cheers,
mz

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Hello again,

I just re-read all the responses to last week’s post. Incredible. It’s fascinating for me to see first-hand the variety of relationships that each of you has with music.

If there’s one thing that’s clear from your comments, it’s that there are many valid ways of hearing and listening. You’ve reminded me that we encounter music in inter-penetrating, overlapping, simultaneous, independent, and personal ways, and that these ways do not negate each other. Thank you!

But… by now you know me better than to think that I’d leave it at that, right??

People have posted a lot lately about what it is in us that influences our experience of music (i.e., our moods, past experiences, what we’re doing at the moment). Do you think it’s possible to talk about something that in the music and outside ourselves as well?

How can it be that some music is simply (and mysteriously) better than other music? How can it be that certain artists are frequently great over long periods of time? Mustn’t they somehow be superior, more rare, dare I say better?

How can that be? What is “better”?

It’s a slippery one so good luck my buddies! Please help me understand this.

best,
mz

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Greetings listeners!

I was talking to our podcast maestro Kevin Seal yesterday about these posts, and about the great responses you have all been posting; and Kevin suggested this very cool topic.

It’s about repeat listening, and the effect it has on how you experience music.

In your experience, what’s the difference between listening to a song the first time and listening to it for the second, third, fourth, or fiftieth time?

More questions: have you ever heard something that completely failed to interest you on the first listen, which later ended up being a very important piece of music to you? Have you ever listened to a song so much that you got sick of it? What’s going on there?

And for this week’s bonus round (and a preview of next week’s topic): do you think that the way a song changes with repeated listening is in any way related to where that piece of music might fit into the spectrum that goes from entertainment to art?

My hat is off to you for your great replies. Thanks in advance for this week’s contributions!

best,
mz

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hey all,

The last several posts in this series have been great. I have been fascinated and often surprised by your descriptions of how you hear music and how it impacts you, and I want more…! So here’s a deceptively simple line of questions this time, if you please:

When you listen to music, do you mostly hear the lyrics or the music? Do you hear both? Do you hear the words first and then the music, or vice versa? Does it depend on the genre of music?

And here’s a question for a bonus point: to what extent are you interacting with the music as you listen, expecting/hoping for the words or melody or harmony etc to go someplace specific, or not to go to a predictable place, etc? Do you do that?

the floor is yours, and thank you!
mz

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Keeping the survey train rolling…

I found myself wondering, as I dimmed into sleep last night, about what music those of you who do not play music would make, if you could (I know that many of you DO make music. This week’s post isn’t really for you directly, though I’d think any musician would be curious about this).

As I started to drift, I became completely absorbed in trying to imagine how non-musicians dream about music. I’m so curious to hear what sorts of bands or records or music our non-musician friends would get into if they could.

So, non-musicians (I do wish I had a better term than that): can you describe it to me?

In what genre would you work? Would you try to innovate? How? What do you think it would be like, not just to be a musician, but to actually play music? How would it feel?

Those of us who make music professionally, who are immersed in it all the time, pride ourselves on our ability to listen. In fact, many of us believe that it’s the listening, and not the sound, that makes the music and the musician.

We’re listening now.

best,
mz

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Hey all,

Thanks for the voluminous replies to last week’s post! It’s good to know that we’re having an impact on peoples’ musical worlds, and it’s even better to see how varied that impact is. The music does something different to everyone, I suppose…

Last week’s post went so well that I thought I’d follow up with a slightly thornier survey this week.

When you’re listening to Pandora and a song comes up that doesn’t seem like it belongs (yes, it does happen!), can you describe in detail what’s happening, within your listening, that brings you to that evaluation?

I’m asking for your internal mental play-by-play. Is the music you reject amateurish? Is it not the style you expected? Is there some deeper “inner ear” that makes the judgement?

Please give me a window into your aesthetic worlds…

best,
mz

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Hello listeners,

OK, it’s a survey week this week, so stretch out those typing fingers…

As Pandora’s music curator, I’ve had my sense of musical taste modified, re-made and even destroyed so many times that I think it’s pretty much gone. I consider this to be, aesthetically speaking, a certain state of grace (although it does make it difficult to answer questions like “what kind of music do you like?”).

What interests me today is whether you out there are being influenced by listening to Pandora. Is the discovery-oriented dimension of Pandora changing your sense of your personal musical identity?

Sometimes I’ll have dreams where I realize that the place where I’m living has rooms that I never noticed before; and sometimes I’ll realize it has fewer. Along those lines, is there music that you like now that you didn’t like before? If so, what is it? Have you heard things you used to like that now no longer seem to hold the same magic?

I could go on, but I’d rather that you did.

do tell,
mz

Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost.
-Isak Dineson, ‘Babette’s Feast’

Everything is not enough.
-Townes Van Zandt, ‘To Live’s to Fly’

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I was saddened today to hear the news about Bottom of the Hudson, who blew out a tire on I-40 and rolled their van. According to the Fayetteville Observer, the band’s bass player (Trevor Butler) was killed and their drummer (Greg Lytle) severely injured in the accident.

First of all, endless compassion and empathy for the band’s families and friends and colleagues. This is a sad day for me, and for most people in bands. Those of you who are reading this, please give a moment’s thought to the band and their people.

I struggled with whether I should post about this, but the more I thought about it, the more relevant it began to seem. The best artistic work derives its urgency and life from an awareness, however subtle, of brutal truths. Fate’s horrifying lack of mercy; human fear, risk, and vulnerability; and the fact of loss itself, dark and troubling as they are, drive us to create, and elevate our communication with each other, giving it significance.

I have to confess that a part of me harbors a hollow, angry suspicion that Trevor Butler was not given leave to do his utmost. It seems cruel of fate to repay his creative urge with this, when he may have wanted to do so much more.

And even though I agree with Townes Van Zandt when he sings “everything is not enough,” this seems excessive to me. I usually take Townes’s meaning to be that human nature cannot get enough of what it loves, no matter how much it gets. Our desires will always outgrow our circumstances. Still, that’s small comfort here.

I’m left with the most threadbare insight to offer. I can bear some kind of witness to the limits, and to the partiality of the answers; and hope that it will suffice as the raw material for the empathy due to those who are suffering a much more primal loss.

In the meantime, and more importantly, here are links to the band’s websites, their label, and their Pandora station. There is also a PayPal link, to help the families of Trevor and Greg deal with the respective consequences of this. The best tribute we can give is to listen to their work, to send them support, and maybe to donate.

Bottom of the Hudson’s Website
Bottom of the Hudson’s Myspace Page
Bottom of the Hudson Pandora Radio
Absolutely Kosher Records

If anyone wants to donate to help the families of Trevor Butler and Greg Lytle, you can send donations via the absolutely kosher website, or directly at PayPal using the following address: both@absolutelykosher.com.

update – here’s a direct link to donate via PayPal, if you are so inclined:

best,
mz

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The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. . . As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves. – Abraham Lincoln, Dec. 1, 1862

Hey gang,

I happened to catch a bit of the Live Earth concert a few weeks ago, and it got me thinking.

I know that there are people who think that no one makes potent cultural music anymore, and that we lost music as a cultural weapon when the 60s ended. I usually hear this notion expressed when one of the old great lions produces a new album, and it usually says something about the supposed absence of political or social voices from any generation after the late 60s.

I thought it would be cool to officially “disenthrall” ourselves / debunk this notion by mentioning the bands, living or dead, that have made socially crucial and politically relevant records since the protest era. Were I to curate my ultimate concert to save the world, these bands would be on the bill for sure.

I’ll start with my top 36 (in no particular order). Please help me make the full list…

Minor Threat

Fugazi

Silver Jews

Black Sabbath

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings

Elliott Smith

Casey Dienel

Cornelius

Caetano Veloso

Wilco

Nellie McKay

Public Enemy

Joanna Newsom

Brian Eno

M.I.A.

Lee Scratch Perry

Fiery Furnaces

Soft Boys

Robyn Hitchcock

Townes Van Zandt

Bad Brains

Gang Starr

Os Mutantes

Gillian Welch

The National

John Fahey

Kraftwerk

Diane Cluck

Talking Heads

Mekons

Sleater-Kinney

Boris

Minutemen

Mark Hollis

Nina Nastasia

Gang of Four

Billy Bragg

The Clash

that’s a start, anyway.

onward and upward,
mz

Hello music people!

The Play Listen Repeat banner is back again, with more stimulating and generally “aesthetical” musings for our collective discussion. If anyone noticed this blog’s hiatus, then thank you!

I saw Os Mutantes play yesterday, and Sergio Dias (also sometimes known as Sergio Baptista), singer and guitarist, is not only a personal hero, but a figure who raises some cool artistic challenges for me. I’m curious to hear peoples’ thoughts….

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Live, Dias plays astounding, virtuosic guitar solos while exuding a kind of supernatural joyfulness. Looking for all the world like a cross between Paul McCartney and Bugs Bunny, he shreds and smiles. Meanwhile, the band is playing a fearless kind of psychedelic, omnivorous pop music which careens from a capella contrapuntal vocal choir sections to proggy riffs, to bossa ballads.

I’m fascinated by the image of the happy virtuoso, the happy genius that this band, and Sergio in particular, projects. Os Mutantes was formed in the late 60’s in Brazil, a few years after a military coup which instituted repressive censorship and even jailed artists like Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil.

Whatever your political leanings may be, it often seems that the world we live in is ever-darkening. I love the challenge presented by these artists, who show us a kind of triumph: human spirits in the form of artists, fighting the darkness with their joy and love, and not with anger or negativity.

Inspiring, don’t you think?
mz

Greetings!

Another excellent set of comments from last week’s post. Thanks to everyone for such thoughtful and stimulating notions…. We’ll definitely get back to lyrics sometime soon.

I’ve been reading Andy Summers‘ autobiography entitled One Train Later (which I love by the way), and hearing those early Police tracks again has brought up that mysterious question of what it is about certain tracks that makes them simply work.

What is the magic?

Why is it that a virtually exact replica of, say, Can’t Stand Losing You,” wouldn’t be as good as the original? That song in particular is maybe not a masterpiece, but it’s full of raw power and intensity which seems like it couldn’t be repeated or imitated.

Anyone care to take a shot at explaining what’s happening there and with other irrestistable hit songs?

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cheers,
mz

Hello all,

When it comes to song lyrics, there is a lot to discuss. I have some plans for future posts on the subject, but first, as a kind of warm-up for the later questions, I’m wondering what peoples’ favorite lyrics are. I have many, but here are a few that stand out:

From Downtown Train by Tom Waits:

“The downtown trains are full with all those Brooklyn girls. They try so hard to break out of their little worlds, but you wave your hand and they scatter like crows. They have nothing that will ever capture your heart. Theyr’e just thorns without the rose…”

And from Houses in Motion by Talking Heads:

“For a long time I felt without style or grace, wearing shoes with no socks in cold weather…”

I’d like to know peoples’ reasons, either intellectual or emotional, for remembering and loving the lyrics they do. Very curious…

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Tom Waits

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Talking Heads

best,
mz

Hey folks,

Amazing comments last week on the production post. Thanks for the ideas. I’m sure we’ll continue that discussion in the coming weeks.

So this week I’m wondering something else. My friend Jen owns a small vintage clothing and goodies store, where she also sells used vinyl. I just bought two records that I used to listen to all the time: St. Dominic’s Preview by Van Morrison, and Meat is Murder by The Smiths. So good.

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It got me thinking that it might be interesting to ask you listeners to share your most recent music purchases. Along with those two above, my most recent CD purchase was Paul McCartney‘s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.

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You?

best,
mz

Hey again, folks! Another week, time for another play listen repeat…

I’m in the studio for two weeks, making a new record. Since there have been tangential references to production and studio issues in some comments to the other play listen repeat posts, I’m curious to know where people are on these questions:

Do you like big production? Do you notice how something is recorded or is the music more of an overall experience that either works or doesn’t? Why are some things that are highly produced interesting and stimulating, and others just seem bloated and self-indulgent?

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cheers,
mz

ps. What a great set of comments from last week’s post! Thanks to everyone who posted.

Some good friends and I get together every few weeks to hang out, listen to songs and to talk about how we think they work. This past week we talked about several pairs of songs that sound similar but are still very different in mood or meaning. One of the examples was Good Old Desk by Harry Nilsson vs. Hummingbird by Wilco).

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After a while, the discussion about individual songs expanded into a general aesthetics nerd-off, and after reading up on the subject a bit (online – no book recommendations yet), I find myself wondering how you listeners evaluate the music you like.

What are the characteristics you look for in songs and artists? How many different ways can a song work for you? Do you distinguish between so-called “guilty pleasures” and music that is somehow “great”? If so, is the distinction a matter of taste, or a result of some kind of systematic philosophy?

Do tell…

best,
mz

ps – Wow, many new books for me to read now. Thanks to everyone for posting, even if it makes my bookshelf collapse…. I’m going to keep posting to that entry as I find more good music books, and I encourage everyone to do the same, if inspired.

Hello again everyone,

Thanks for all the great responses last week. It’s nice to have such a vibrant, participatory group!

On my desk right now, I have a bunch of books, including “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” by Jeff Chang, “Sound of the Beast – The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal” by Ian Christe, and “The Latin Beat” by Ed Morales. I have a very large stack of music books both here and at home, and I’m constantly nibbling away at them to find more great music for Pandora.

I thought it would be interesting to ask you folks what your favorite music books are. Do tell!

Meanwhile, to get things started, here are a few of mine:

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Emotion and Meaning in Music by Leonard Meyer

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Words and Music by Paul Morley

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Miles by Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe

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Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azarrad

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Can’t Stop Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang

cheers!
mz

nutrient.jpgIf music be the food of love, play on —Shakespeare

Harmony is meant to correct any discord which may have arisen in the courses of the soul… rhythm too was given for the same reason… —Plato

It is by the Odes that a man’s mind is aroused, by the rules of ritual that his character is established, and by music that he is perfected. . . . —Confucius

The Culinary Metaphor Pt. 1: Music and Nutrition

In my previous post I wrote about using food metaphors as a kind of oblique strategy for discussing music. Let’s get more specific, to explore the method to this madness. Today’s angle: nutrition.

Music: Nourishment and Poison

The American Heritage Dictionary defines nutrition as “the process of nourishing or being nourished, especially the process by which a living organism assimilates food and uses it for growth and for replacement of tissue.”

Plato and Confucius would have liked that. For them, music existed to guide and improve human beings, and the right and wrong musics created good and bad people, respectively. Medieval musical thinkers and composers avoided the tritone (the augmented fourth interval) because many thought it to be of Satanic and therefore dangerous origin. And in the 1980’s, Tipper Gore’s PMRC based their campaign to place parental warning labels on recordings on the idea that it is necessary to “protect” listeners from certain kinds of music.

In my own comings and goings I recently tried to play some music by an artist called Gnaw Their Tongues for some close friends, presenting it as one of the most interesting, disturbing and depraved recordings I’ve ever heard. With an introduction like that, it’s perhaps no surprise that they passed, but the vehemence with which they did, and their unwillingness to let even a few seconds of those threatening sounds enter their ears, seems to suggest, if only anecdotally, that music is something we consume at our own risk.

You Should Eat That

If music can be nourishment or poison, which music is which? How do we know? And who decides? And even if we can decide, does it follow that we should only listen to nourishing sounds?

These are all tough questions, to say the least, and I’m glad to say that I have no intention of answering any of them. I have my own views as to whether and how judgments of musical quality get made, but so do we all.

The questions I’m interested in are: can we tolerate the idea that some music is better for us than other music? And if not, why not? In other words, can we believe in musical nutrition?

You Can Lead a Horse to Broccoli, But You Can’t Make Him Eat

OK. Let’s do this, and let the culinary metaphors begin.

First off, let’s observe the obvious: to say that all music is equally good for you is to say that there’s no difference between what’s in different pieces of music. I think we’d all agree that that rings the crazy bells with vigor.

But hang on, let’s say to ourselves. No one would ever say that Help Me, Rhonda and Rock Around the Clock have exactly the same contents. Are you saying that one of those is better for someone than the other?

Good point, we congratulate ourselves. Suddenly it seems as though the whole idea is absurd (though at least Plato, Confucius and Tipper Gore disagree. That’s a lot of brain power – and a respectable political head of hair – thrown in for good measure).

But wait, we reply to ourselves again, just because it’s hard to see differences in musical nutrition (mutrition?) between similar music doesn’t mean the differences aren’t there.

It’s probably difficult to observe different health properties of two jelly donuts, but if we were to compare a jelly donut to a chocolate cake (or a song to a sonata), we’d have plenty of differences to discuss (ding ding, metaphor).

On the one hand, we definitely like certain kinds of music and don’t like others. Lollipops and licorice (ding ding). We are untroubled by this, even though these very preferences prove that the pieces of music we like and those we don’t like are in fact different in some way. If they weren’t, how would be be able to tell which was which?

If we say that all music is equally good for us, then we are saying that we only want those differences that serve our prejudices about music. We are saying that we want the music to have different flavors, but that we want taste to be the only nutritional value (ding ding).

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Intangible Nutrients

I find it somehow sublime to think that perhaps it is the same faith we have in real nutrition (this milk has calcium – that’s good for my bones) that allows us to dismiss Plato’s beliefs about music. We say: music cannot be healthy or unhealthy, because it does not have nutrients. It has no nutrients because it is intangible.

Such a belief is so absurd as to be almost charming, because although music’s lack of physicality prevents it from having actual nutrients, our vivid perceptions of the differences between pieces of music suggest clearly that music fashions real characteristics from the intangible, and therefore it is intangible nutrients that we should be looking for.

At the very least, we have to admit, until further investigation, that they might be there, and we have the culinary metaphor to thank for that.

Michael

(Music Curator)

Click here to listen to Balanced Diet Radio while you read

Picture 4.pngCompetitive Eating?

It’s hard to judge music, but I have to. It’s a necessary part of things for me. As those of you who have read my previous posts (here, here or here, for example) know, to be consistent when doing so may be impossible.

When I’m writing my own songs or making records, it’s at least possible to be definitive. I just have to do stuff that I believe in. Not easy, but possible. As Pandora’s music curator, though, it’s a whole different thing. I have to maintain a sense of aesthetics in general; a sense of musical quality that goes beyond my own opinions and tastes.

It’s a narrow path to walk.

On one side there is a kind of musical moralism which says: “this is good and that is bad; and therefore you should listen to this and not that.” On the other side is what you might call musical sociopathy, with its relativistic axiom: “there is no such thing as musical quality; everything is equally good.”

I don’t relate to either of those points of view at all, and I don’t want to.

Top Chef

Happily, though, I’ve found a strategy that is just imprecise enough to filter out esoteric pitfalls while allowing for some ideas to get through: I talk about music as if it’s food.

In my next post I’ll get into some of the specific ways I indulge in this intellectual costume party. Today it’s just about a mix tape and a general principle.

Food Groups and Pyramids

Some foods are high in sugar but probably won’t get you through a day in the mines. Other kinds of foods are not too tasty, but your internal organs really like them. And any kind of food is probably bad for you if it’s all you ever eat.

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Lots of the time, if people get mad and say that popular music is bad music, they are really upset by how much of that music people are listening to. I mean, everyone likes a piece of candy now and then, right? But there’s candy and then there’s candy. If you have some every so often, lovely. But if candy is all that’s available, then some people might get sick of it (there’d be some happy kids though, at least while they still had teeth).

All Things in Moderation, Including Moderation

I bet we can all agree that, food-wise, a balanced diet is a good thing. This week’s theory is that the same thing holds for music.

Like any balanced diet, the one I’m serving up contains meats, vegetables, tv dinners, cakes, chocolate-covered insects, wine, fast food, gourmet experiments, regional cuisine, ripple, crumpets, juice, astronaut food, water, vitamins, chemicals, delicacies, gross reality show eating-challenge food, and of course, candy.

I’ll look forward to hearing how the station strikes you, and writing about it next time.

—Michael
(music curator)

sid_v_my_way.jpgThe Best Music EVER

In the comments to my previous post, a commenter wrote (in a long and very well-reasoned comment) that the craft of popular music from Tin Pan Alley and the American songbook “remains unquestionably the model to which all future song writing must be compared.”

Believe it or not, this made me think about punk rock. Here’s how.

Let’s Not Talk About Forever

The idea that any kind of song writing will ever be “unquestionably the model to which all future song writing must be compared” is hyperbolic. Forever is a long time, and to say that people in 200 years, or 2,000 years, or 12,000 years will look ONLY to Tin Pan Alley for the ultimate in song writing standards is at best impossible to confirm.

At worst, it projects our beliefs onto the people of the future, presuming that they will not only understand everything better than we do, but that they will select what we value and confirm its ultimate superiority. In other words, it’s a fantasy.

Rowdy Grandkids

But never mind forever. It didn’t even take 40 years for the classic American Songbook to be lustily rejected, first by rock and roll artists, and then more completely by punk rockers like The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, and later by Minor Threat.

The clear musical differences between Tin Pan Alley songs and punk rock songs should not lead us to conclude that that there is no connection to be made. The story of how music went from Tin Pan Alley to CBGB’s is a story about the fundamental connection between peoples’ values and the music they admire, and between music and philosophy.

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There’s More to Music than the Music

When the punk rockers considered the world in which they came of age, they were appalled and angry; and, fairly or not, they blamed the bleakness of their world on the values that created it. As they took aim at the orthodoxy of Post-WWII American values, they did so in terms of the popular music of that time, believing that in attacking the values of the music (expertise, division of labor, graceful individual conformity to social mores and roles, and the fetishization of musicality itself), they would expose the failures of American values at large.

But punk’s attack didn’t use musical excellence as its main weapon, it did the opposite, using musical impoverishment to dramatize an idea: the idea that pretty music can cover up some pretty ugly things. The musical excellence of the American Songbook was never something that punk music questioned or even criticized.

Punk questioned the value of Tin Pan Alley’s embrace of form and beauty, in light of the world as it was in the mid-70’s. By doing so, punk music insisted that the most important dimensions of music were not its formal and expressive ones (the craft, so highly valued by Tin Pan Alley); they were the ethical and ritual ones.

My Way

Punk music’s emphasis on the ethical dimension of music and Tin Pan Alley’s expression of music as a craft are both valid as aspects of a musical style; but to exclusive fans of one genre or the other, both genres cannot be considered good music.

If you really believe, as the listener above does, that the American Songbook is the standard by which all future songs will be judged, then punk rock’s abandonment of musicality makes its excellence as music impossible. And yet, to many, punk rock is the real music, and American standards are fake, silly, elitist, authoritarian, and so on.

So it seems that to really like a style of music is to believe something, to make a philosophical claim, to make the unavoidable connection between a music’s characteristics, and the values which those characteristics represent.

As a listener and as someone who makes records, I can’t say that I know how this happens, or why, but I for one am glad it does. This is a part of the strange force that music, the mysterious art, brings to bear.

—Michael
(music curator)

ps – I love both of these kinds of music.