Feel good incorporated
Should our love end when our music does?
In these increasingly divided times, one can still find camaraderie in a common hatred towards ‘The Biebs.’ A couple of years ago it was the Jonas Brothers. Before that Miley Cyrus, Kelly Clarkson, N’Sync, New Kids on the Block… The point is, hating musicians is something we all do; but it’s not necessarily something we’ve always done.
Prior to the 20th century, music was obsessed with reflecting objective beauty rather than reaffirming the subjective human soul. But the turn of the century brought about decades of economic uncertainty and a grim realization of our own mortality. Here we were forced to reconsider what we held sacred—a painting of a cherub on a cathedral ceiling, or the life of a wounded brother in the muddy trenches. Of course we chose the latter and, in doing so, called for the art world to become increasingly personable.
The result? A soundtrack for making love, not war.
Music transitioned from demonstrating Western culture’s spiritual superiority to its citizens’ lonely and heartbreaking inferiority. That’s not to say there was no longer a spiritual element. Look no further than Bob Dylan to see a direct and dire longing for something greater. But it doesn’t take a music effeciandio to see that the focus of the medium is drastically different from two hundred years ago.
The transition further snowballed with the birth of the peace and anti-establishment movements of the 60’s. Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell now wrote the hymns of the generation, with the music being shaped by the people as it was shaping them.
But this phenomenon was not without abuse. As the middle class continued to grow, people had more disposable income and were looking to buy some “feel good” from whichever industry could supply (‘cause giving to charities just wasn’t a thing yet). So, no longer needing the Divine, artists looked to the dollar signs (or drugs)—moving towards a goal rather than from an inspiration.
Art was quickly becoming defined primarily by its entertainment quality. Or was entertainment just becoming more artistic? Suddenly music was no longer being created solely out of the stirring of human soul. The industry did not have time to wait for a stirring; art had to be created faster and faster to feed the insatiable appetite of the masses. Welcome to the 21st century breakdown. (Yes, that was an intentional Green Day reference.)
You could argue that this breakdown refers to a slow tearing of society’s moral fabric. One need only look to the grocery store checkout stands of the nation to understand that there has been a blasphemous trivialization of what is sacred and good. But the more important, and more beneficial, breakdown that I reference here is the breaking down of music’s reverence—the wall that separated it from the people.
For the first time, themes of love, pain, and pleasure flooded the airwaves, and audiences heard famous artists singing about their lives— famous artists like Justin Bieber. Starting off as a 14-year-old kid busking on a street corner, the tools of today’s industry enabled him to eventually share his passion with others. And they liked it...a lot—as in 3 billion views a lot.
Every musician, from Bieber to Bach, turns to their art as a way of expressing what they are experiencing in a moment. If we criticize their expression of that moment, are we not also criticizing the experience that gave birth to it, and those hoards who share in a similar experience?
Some of us don’t have the voices or rhythm to express our longings as a beautiful sound, let alone a sound that sells. That’s why we turn to others to help us negotiate those longings—the 15-year-old girl finds solace from her recent break up in the country twang of Taylor Swift; the 45-year-old man finds solace from his mid-life crisis and nostalgia in the thrashing electricity of Led Zeppelin.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and say that I like all types of music equally. I don’t. In fact I’m probably on the pretentious end of the musical appreciation spectrum. Few hipsters deny the mastery of The Beatles; but just as few of them realize that they made Owl City possible. If you criticize the offspring of the modern music movement, you inevitably criticize its parents as well. It may be capitalistic; it may be a machine; but it’s a piece of us.
You shouldn’t care about my piece. The 15-year-old girl doesn’t; she cares about hers. Music has become a personal experience that not only helps us get through life but facilitates our understanding of it. Modern music is a form of self-knowledge.
We can’t fully understand the weight of themes like love and death at a young age, so we negotiate simplified versions. Then, as we grow older, our appetite matures and we require richer content for nourishment. We move from Kesha to Cohen, Pitbull to Pearl Jam. Every part of this journey is critical, not just the end result.
And more importantly, each part of the journey is all we can know in that moment. The antsy child on a church pew picking his nose is not given two glances. The same cannot be said of his father. Likewise, to the 22-year-old student Taylor Swift is a guilty pleasure—you know there is more to life. But to a 15-year-old girl who has barely lived, that music is her life.
So blast your pop and scream your ballads. While I’m playing my “Satellite of Love” I promise I won’t scorn your “Love Games.” Enjoy the music that is your life, but don’t hate the music that isn’t, because we were all 15 once.