The late sixties where a horrendous time for music, although things stated getting a little better in the early seventies. Van Halen arrived on the scene in the late seventies and remains one of my own personal favorite sources of bad but highly entertaining music. I have stated on many occasions that I enjoy quite a bit of Bad Music. Some of it is just sheer fun and wild entertainment. However, I never lose sight of the Hard And Unmistakable Fact that it is nevertheless still Bad Music.
The early eighties saw many pop outfits trying to be a bit more melodic. They rarely succeeded but it was an effort towards good writing in this one isolated area. One unique phenomenon is this time period was the proliferation of the Metal Artist in one form or another. The best of these had little melodic sense, but harmonically and structurally they resembled Classical Music much more than pop/rock/R&B influences. Many of them reached an incredible level of technical excellence I find quite commendable.
The nineties are over now and for the most part good riddance. The only attempts at melodic and harmonic integration were by artists that insisted on using the worst sounding equipment they could find and use to record.
There has also been a massive increase in the use of technological devices to create Audio Entertainment that is not necessarily music. Such genres include: Rap, Rave, Hip-Hop, Techno, etc. The people involved in the creation of these styles are frequently clever, imaginative manipulators of digital samples of others songs, pieces of songs and/or repeated sound samples but they are primarily interested in Rhythmic and Sectional Structure. They use the simplest of melodic devices (if at all) and harmonic content is of no serious value at all to them. Perhaps a better name for this type of thing is Poetry Set To An Audio Soundscape. I am not denigrating this stylistic approach, I am merely saying that it is not music. I am trying to deal with very strict standards and definitions here, I am not some idiot handing out awards on television.
Which brings me to another topic: Commercialism in Music. Many a friend, acquaintance or colleague has bemoaned to me that music is “too commercial these days” and only the most “trite and unoriginal things seem be financially successful”. Welcome to the world of the Lowest Common Denominator. It is sometimes difficult for musicians and artists (that aren’t hugely commercially successful) to cope with the spectacle of untalented, barely trained but well-leashed baboons that fill the radio and video stations with banal crap. It’s important to keep in mind that this is a whole separate issue. The majority of artist and entertainers that fall into this category are not specialists in Music, but rather Marketability. This is a special skill in and of itself. Learn to understand and appreciate the difference before you become disenchanted with the world at large. When I find the perfect way to end a phrase (after working long and hard on it) or finally discover the harmonic progression that I was groping for, I am in my element. I am elated, it is a revelation, I am glad to be alive. When a record industry executive sees the perfect sequence of numbers on his spreadsheet and learns that the artist he or she chose to back is turning a profit, they may very well experience the same thing. Or, when a pop singer figures out the perfect way to dance across the stage to a certain part of a song, or when a pop group sees their hit single climbing further up the charts. These people are being productive. They are alive in the world and hopefully, when they achieve some goal they are after, they are happy in the work in which they are engaged. The confusion starts when you forget that music is not the primary concern of these people. They are interested in spreadsheets, sale figures, dance moves, contracts, public appearances and so forth. Music simply happens, sometimes, to be a medium they work in and around. How many times have I heard or read about some musician that was upset about not having enough time for music because of all the other activities that a career in music entails? Too many, far too many. So, if you are fortunate enough to be able to play music at all, or even more fortunate in being able to make money or even a living at music, please, do yourself and everyone else a favor: Shut the hell up, already, about “commercialism in music”. Strict application of terminology will show that ANY music that is for sale is technically considered commercial. Are you against music in the context of free enterprise? I am not, even if it means that tons of bad music gets created, packaged, bought and handed pretentious, overblown awards.
There is also another distinction I want to make. Namely, when does music cross the threshold from Good to Great? All the previously mentioned elements must not only be in place, but be there in abundance and exceptional form. So, who has ever written not merely good but Great Music? Certainly no one from before the Classical Era. Later works by Mozart and Hadyn are possible candidates. Parts of Romantic Era works are definitely great, but it is hard to identify whole pieces for this exalted status. Possibly works by Tchaikovski and Liszt from this era are eligible. The Modern, Jazz and Pop/Rock periods are scattered here and there with good works but great works are even more scarce. The whole field of good music leads up to and then is influenced by the work of one composer that set Titan Standards of Excellence. And so, finally we arrive at the bottom line to my ponderous analysis: Ludwig van Beethoven is the only composer to have ever written Truly Great Music.
I suppose those of you that know me knew (or suspected) this would be my conclusion. Those of you that don’t know me very well may have been surprised by my conclusion and as a result feel angry, disappointed, confused, languid or possibly hungry. Perhaps you are even experiencing a unique sensation that a friend of mine used to describe hearing an orchestral piece I wrote, “You feel as if you about to fall off a cliff, but not sure in which direction: up or down.”
At any rate, don’t go handing me your complaints. Direct them elsewhere. It’s not my fault that your favorite pet composer (or more likely pop mangler of music) is not worthy of inclusion in my list. If you are looking for doorsteps on which to place your misguided blame, look no further than that favorite composer of yours. They are the ones that wrote their sub-standard music in the first place; they deserve the blame. It is Not My Fault they spent their time writing Pointless Drivel. Complaining to me is analogous to “shooting the messenger”. And I have no desire to be yelled at (or shot) because your favorite artist can’t figure out how to compose Good Music.
I’m going home now and listen to some Beethoven.