Saturday, March 26, 2011
Here's an even more informal, opinion-based collection of thoughts about music-making and music-evaluating. I'm not sure I really have a specific argument to make--rather, I think it'll be more of an exploration of what's meant by the word "idea" when it comes to music, how ideas fit into my evaluation of and preferences for certain types of music (remember, it's only my opinion), and some of the ways ideas figure into the challenge of remaining vital as a musical artist across time.
For a word that everyone knows, "idea" can have quite a multitude of meanings when it comes to music. Ostensibly, a musical idea is the same as any other type of idea--a thought or concept that is unique, novel, interesting, or in some way memorable. When it comes to music, though, there are myriad different ways an idea can take shape and affect the final product. For starters, I propose that, in the context of a pop song, an "idea" and a "hook" are roughly the same thing. A hook, as you likely know, is the elusive jewel that all pop songsmiths are constantly in search of. A hook is that catchy riff (like Keith Richards' "Satisfaction" guitar riff)
or bassline (think Michael Jackson's "Billy Jean") or vocal melody (like the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows") that sticks out on first listen, you remember after the song's over, and you want to hear again--as soon as possible (that's why they're called hooks, right?). Of course, hooks go deeper than purely musical elements, like the recognizable jingling coin intro to Pink Floyd's "Money," or the lyrics of a song like "Yellow Submarine." The beauty of the pop single format is its conciseness and simplicity--gather a few catchy ideas, fit them together just right and it's all tied up in a neat two- to three-minute, easy-to-consume package. The great thing about ideas, though, is that they reach considerably further than a simple matter of chord progressions, melodies and catchy novelties. For instance, I'd consider it a musical idea when Bob Dylan released "Like A Rolling Stone" as a single--the song's six minute length was utterly ridiculous for 1965 standards. And yet, the unorthodox move paid off.
Ideas can be incredibly small--a good jazz soloist's creative currency is also ideas, which come across spontaneously in the improvisational moment. A rudimentary soloist plays scales in the key of the song--sounds that are familiar both to the ears of the audience and technically banal to other jazz musicians. Someone like Miles Davis, however, was capable of weaving an unbelievably melodic line in the moment--tossing out melodic or expressionistic ideas without composing them beforehand. One of the great things about jazz music (as well as some other types of soloing and improvisation) is the lack of repetitiousness--if you're good, you're tossing out short melodic ideas, perhaps developing them or simply implying their potential. Pop music tends to prize hooks for their repeatability--it's clear what the ideas are, but sometimes they're fewer and farther between and they're usually much more blatant.
Ideas get much bigger than simple note choice for a song, though. This is where it gets a little more difficult to try and explain every possible angle a musician can apply an idea, but I'll try to provide a few examples to illustrate the breadth of potential. Robbie Robertson's decision to defy convention and avoid recording any guitar solos on The Band's Music from Big Pink is an idea that plays with the expected role of a lead guitarist, while Robertson's (and the rest of The Band's) decision to lead the album off with the dirge-like "Tears of Rage" is an idea that plays with the custom of leading an album with an upbeat track. To continue discussing The Band, Robertson and company's decision to create a second album full of songs that connoted 19th century America represents an idea that arches over an entire album. John Fahey's reimagination of the steel string acoustic guitar as an instrument which could be played melodically by a solo performer is an example of a sweeping idea which pertains to the fundamental treatment of a whole instrument. Other ideas can relate to production--certain studio effects like panning, phasing and flanging became quite popular in the late '60's--they represent ideas which affect not necessarily the songs or music that make them up, but instead the timbre of the sounds and the way they are presented to the listener.
Sometimes an entire band is based on an idea--take, for example, Devo, a band whose early material and stage persona were founded on the concept of modern man's devolution. Likewise, it can be said that other bands center on novel concepts like featuring a singer who doesn't really sing in the traditional sense (Frank Black of the Pixies) or attempting a power trio sound without a guitar (Emerson, Lake and Palmer, ugh). Some of the broadest-reaching and most historically-lauded ideas have to do with the fusion and evolution of genres. Bob Dylan's transition from acoustic folk to electric rock, Gram Parsons' early experiments with country rock, Miles Davis' fusion of jazz and rock, or even the genre blending accomplished by Merle Haggard's Bakersfield sound can be considered grand, far-reaching ideas that affect not only the sound of the music made by those specific performers but also that of generations of followers. I could go on cataloging various great historical ideas but the list would likely go on forever--for the purposes of the rest of this essay, I hope I've given a solid representation of the multitudinous aspects of music that can be determined and highlighted by a good idea.
When it comes to evaluating, seeking out, and making music myself, ideas are paramount. First off, my criteria never demands, for an artist to be considered "good," that he/she/they be doing something musically that has never been done before. In a world that has more people making, recording and sharing music than ever before, to expect revolutionary leaps is unrealistic--especially considering how radically the bounds of music theory were explored during the 1900's. However, just because an artist hasn't created an entirely fresh style of music doesn't mean they are incapable of imbuing their music with interesting ideas and playing with the established ideas associated with their chosen style of music. To return to The Band, there have been innumerable groups (especially since the early 2000's) who have emulated the Americana aesthetic that The Band arguably exhibited first in the late 60's. I don't begrudge these groups their decision to create music in the Americana vein, but simply singing about old-timey subject matter and having sepia-toned album art is neither novel nor justification in and of itself that the music is good or interesting--especially considering just how packed the field of middling Americana artists is in today's musical marketplace. In this case, the conventions of what was once a fresh, novel idea can become confining or at the very least an unhelpful crutch. In my curmudgeonly view, for a firmly "Americana" artist to be "good" in 2011 requires either an uncommon writing ability (either lyrics, songs or both), the best damn singing and playing that anyone is doing in 2011, or the ability to stretch, experiment with, or otherwise subvert the trappings of the genre--this activity, in turn, is the creation of new ideas.
The difference between a great idea and a cliché is only a matter of repetition. The more music I listen to, the more important to me it is to find music with interesting ideas (a matter of taste, of course), and the more I attempt to create music the more important it is to try and fill it with ideas and artistic statements that haven't already been made thousands of times by as many different artists, or dozens of times by myself! The other criterion of my personal taste that has become more important to me with the passage of time is the density of ideas presented by an album or artist. A lot of my favorite music is the kind that's packed with different ideas--be they melodic ideas, lots of interesting full band arrangements, shifting tempos and styles, or numerous thwarted expectations. Music that has been described to me by friends as "chaotic" sounds, to me, simply more interesting, with so many ideas that it takes numerous close listens before they unfold and the full picture becomes apparent. Pop songs don't bother me, but sometimes they're awfully repetitive--a song can be upbeat and loud, but if it's just repeating a couple of riffs over and over with nothing else going on I can get bored pretty easily.
This brings me to my final collection of thoughts on the subject, and that's the matter of artists maintaining a fresh supply of ideas across an entire career. Some, like Neil Young, have walked a fine line between continued inspiration (including a fair bit of change with regards to overarching style) and self-plagiarism. Radiohead, for instance, initially made a career out of radically changing style (some would say innovatively) from album to album. Eventually, though, it seems they ran out of new concepts in which to wrap their entire band and have had to subsist--with considerably less success, in my view--on less flashy (but ultimately more crucial) types of ideas. A fair number of my favorite albums are one-offs; that is, the artist only seemed to have a single album's worth of ideas (but they were great ones) or had some great ideas and simply repeated them in diluted form (more often the case) on later albums. Unfortunately creativity isn't limitless, but I think the key lies in the constant search for inspiration and continuous self-evaluation--once you start doing something simply because it's "what you do," maybe it's time for a new take on the fundamental idea. In my opinion, if you don't have something to say it's permissible to say nothing until you actually do have something to say. It's almost always the case that quality rules over quantity when it comes to ideas.