(*a nod to Talking Heads’ album of the same name)
When chatting with a bandmate the other day, I rhetorically questioned why certain musicians end up becoming darlings of the hipsterverse and media while other musicians of equal or greater talent can’t get arrested. His two-word response: “fashion sense.” He then further elaborated by saying, “Most people don’t even really hear music – what they’re really looking for is ‘lifestyle packaged in sound.'”
I found this an arresting and perhaps profound observation that echoed similar remarks I’ve heard over the years, notably the late Frank Zappa’s claim that “Americans really hate music – but love entertainment.” While both statements are no doubt overly sweeping, as a longtime purveyor of original – and yes, unfashionable – instrumental music, it can be difficult not to draw similar conclusions. (Disclosure: I’m not young, photogenic, or a flashy dresser; my music isn’t topical, provocative, or imbued with sex appeal; and I have about as much stage presence as a chess player – but I truly believe the music stands on its own merits.)
I’m reminded of the time when I went to see a film by the stop-motion animator siblings the Brothers Quay. In keeping with the imagery on screen, the soundtrack music was rather dark and weird, yet the sizable audience was evidently raptly absorbed in the experience – that is, until the projector bulb burned out, leaving us all in a dark theater with only the music playing. After a few minutes of this, one could sense the palpable discomfort of the audience as they shuffled and whispered uneasily in the naked presence of the strange music. Some actually got up and left. When combined with moving images, the music hadn’t bothered them a bit, but they clearly couldn’t handle it in the absence of visuals.
So what is it about pure, unadulterated music that makes so many people uncomfortable? Why do people evidently need a plot line, a pretty face, outrageous behavior, or a pyrotechnic stage spectacle to hold their attention? Isn’t it satisfying enough to give oneself over to the sublime mysteries of sound and musical interplay in all their ineffable wonder without someone having to tell you how to interpret it, or flash pots or explosions, or a troupe of scantily clad, synchronized dancers?
Evidently not – or not anymore. Consider the case of Western classical music, which in the pre-TV and digital era attracted large audiences, but which has famously struggled to survive in an age of multiplying visual and other distractions. It’s extremely disheartening to see today’s symphony orchestras pandering to the attention-deficit crowd with inanities like the “Super Mario Suite,” or by explicitly sexualizing their star performers, in order to remain relevant. For that matter, musical instruments themselves are rapidly falling out of favor as a new generation evidently prefers antiseptic machine-generated sounds to the warmth, richness, and immediacy of wood and brass.
Perhaps listeners are put off by undiluted instrumental music, with its absence of comforting signposts, verbal cues, and extra-musical distractions, because it represents all that is challenging and uncertain about life – for at its most meaningful, instrumental music reflects the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. Instead, a majority of today’s listeners seem increasingly drawn to music that, as my bandmate suggested, constructs a fantasy reality that reinforces their own self-image; that is, the way they want to view themselves. Indeed, the music of most of today’s top performers, wrapped in a nonstop barrage of visual and sexual eye candy, can be seen as a perfect reflection of the smartphone-hypnotized ‘selfie generation.’
Some say a picture is worth a thousand words, but to my mind, a sound is worth a thousand pictures. Think I’ll go put on a favorite record and close my eyes.
Dennis Rea is the author of Live at the Forbidden City: Musical Encounters in China and Taiwan, published by Blue Ear Books.