; Tangled Up In Blue: A philosophical question

Thursday, October 06, 2005

A philosophical question

I have a philosophical question for all of you. I've always had eclectic tastes in music. And when I think about this, it makes perfect sense. Music seems to me to be universal. It's possible, after all, to enjoy music even though we're completely unfamiliar with the musical tradition behind it. I've enjoyed listening to an Indonesian Gamalan orchestra, for example, although I have absolutely no background and am competely unfamiliar with the scale or arrangements being used.

At the same time, there's music I can't bring myself to like. Although I enjoy some Johnny Cash and other "classical" country singers, most country music leaves me cold. I feel like I'm listening to something completely over-produced that is meant to conjure up some caricature. In short, I find the entire genre artificial. There are several reasons for this. Consider, for example, the fact that country music must be virtually the only music genre that must be sung with a specific regional accent to sound authentic. Of course, country music isn't unique in this respect. A lot of music probably appeals to us solely because of its ideological or cultural associations. Into this category, we could place, in addition to professionally-produced country music, things like protest songs, national anthems, or L'Internationale.

So my question is what part of music is universal and what isn't? Is it possible for anyone with enough time on their hands to enjoy pretty much any type of music? Are some types of music more universal than others? Ten-thousand years from now, is there any music from our century that people might still enjoy?


Blogger Sharon Cobb said...

Those are some pretty hard questions. I have noticed that Bob Marley is the most universal music I know of. When I traveled a lot in the 80s, I could be in a remote area of a communist country, to a disco in Europe, and Marley was there. He is ubiqutious.
I don't think 10 thousand years from now we can possibly predict anything musically. I'm more inclined to predict planet earth won't be here then.
But 100-200 years from now? Music historians will have The Beatles and Elvis and many others.
BTW...Talk to Raizor's Edge about country. She worked at the country music hall of fame, and is a music historian.

4:03 PM  
Blogger Raizor's Edge said...

RE I feel like I'm listening to something completely over-produced that is meant to conjure up some caricature. In short, I find the entire genre artificial. There are several reasons for this. Consider, for example, the fact that country music must be virtually the only music genre that must be sung with a specific regional accent to sound authentic.

Modern country, absolutely. No question, no argument. You have people from freaking New Jersey singing with Alabama accents! But the older stuff is different. And, honestly, given that Stonewall Jackson is from Georgia, I don't know why he shouldn't sing with a southern accent! LOL

The problem -- which is not unique to country, as you pointed out -- is that there are two types of people in the music business. There are people who are in it for a buck. They'll sing punk today if it's popular and denounce it for Donny Osmond tunes tomorrow if it becomes fashionable to do so.

On the other side, there are artists, the people who simply must sing because they have this gift inside of them that they have to share, even if it's only with a few. I think Webb Wilder (who has been heard by maybe 42 people) said it best in "Tough It Out": "I might not sell, but I can't be bought." The former are all over the place; the latter are getting harder and harder to find.

Music is the universal language, but a particular genre or performer? I don't know. Nothing is universally loved. No album has ever sold 270 million copies in America (just as no TV show has been watched by everyone or no movie has been viewed by everyone). But it is interesting: it seems that the genre that has more songs covered in other genres is country. The Byrds did Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the Beatles covered a Buck Owens song, there was The The's album of Hank Williams songs, Elvis Costello's Almost Blue (which is far too country for modern country music fans), and the Replacements doing the Sons of the Pioneers' "Cool Water". If you go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame you'll see a video clip that morphs Bill Monroe's "In the Pines" into the Nirvana rendition.

And, consider that one song that lots of people (dare I say "everybody") know is an old country number, "You Are My Sunshine," written by Country Music Hall of Fame member Jimmie Davis.

7:31 PM  
Blogger Christi S. King said...

I love the symphony and I love Joe Cocker. I think the part of music that is universal is the part that speaks to you. If I had to guess, I would say that classical would speak to people many generations from now. Disco, rap, rock and others usually have a shorter lifetime although I would love to think that my great great grandkids would still like Joe. :)
Just my opinion.
BTW, I love your new site. I’ve been here a couple of times and your questions are great!

8:24 PM  
Blogger Glen Dean said...

I think that music genres are constantly changing because they are constantly being mixed with other forms. I don't know about ten thousand years, but I would bet that a hundred years from now, somebody is going to pull out an Elvis record or something by the Carter family and go "Wow, this stuff is really authentic. I like it". Everything seems to come back around again.

8:43 PM  
Anonymous Sarcastro said...

The music that will remain universal will be the annoying little tunes that the local tv stations blare at maximum volume to let you know that it is raining outside or that there is a tornado fifty miles away.

Channel 4's can also be used to communicate with the alien mothership when it lands at Devil's Tower, Wyoming.

6:09 AM  
Blogger Karlo said...

An interesting theory. Then again, perhaps the best earth music by alien standards will be fingernails across a blackboard.

7:45 AM  
Blogger mister anchovy said...

Interesting post. I too have eclectic tastes in music, from Johnny Cash to Chicago Push polka to Conjunto. The thing about country music is that the edges get fuzzy. There is a lot of authentic and very interesting roots music there, along with some of the ugliest schlock you can imagine - what happens when we try to make a business out of an art form - the inevitable bastardization happens. I think that part of the reason I have developed eclectic tastes is that we live in a world museum....so much stuff is available instantly....once you get past the idea that guitar-based pop music is really all that important, it becomes easier and easier to dig other material. The question about universality is difficult because you have to cope with context. It is really hard to take music out of the cultural context in which it was developed. We can dig it because we can try to understand that context and relate it to our own. Get a bunch of middle-class British guys in the 60s trying to play blues and what do you get? You get something else altogether. Not necessarily bad, just something else. I mean, they're apt to start doing weird things like guitar solos and drum solos....

The first record I ever owned was a country record. My dad brought me home a little shitter record player and one record. I guess it was a 78, but I don't remember for sure. It was Walkin the Floor over you, by Earnest Tubb. Weird, eh? That tune still turns my crank.

He used play all sorts of jazz around the house. For quite a while, he played a record called Mr. 5 X 5 all the time. It was by Jimmy Rushing, produced by John Hammond Sr. I hated that music so much, and he just kept playing it. Years later, I thought about those songs a lot. Finally, I had to seek out a copy for myself, and to this day, I totally love that music. There's a cut called Brussells Blues, with Benny Goodman on Clarinet. Wow.

OK, enough rambling.

7:26 PM  

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