The notorious proto-punk philosopher Sky Saxon put it nicely: “Music was and always will be the great escape from when there is too much reality.” On the one hand, we live in a world that fits the definition of too much “reality.” The President elect is after all a “reality” television icon. The most famous Americans are those who cater to the public’s insatiable voyeuristic tendencies (think of the Kardashians for instance) to peek inside their “real” lives.
One could counter, however, that we have too little reality. Citizens can barely glimpse the world around them because they are too fixated on their “smart” phones. How can they gauge what’s real? News media, journalism, and critical thinking have been transformed into a universe of “preaching to the converted” and “catering to the gullible” rather than vivid depictions of facts about the world we live in.
I prefer to think of these times – overflowing with too many tidbits of mostly useless information – as unreal, illusory, and ones in which it is frustratingly difficult to acquire reliable data. Investigation of facts isn’t some kind of magic or indoctrination, it’s the basis of knowledge, also known as science. It depends on simple observation and verification. For that you need to open yourself to all kinds of sensory input, not close yourself off, as one does when he consults his iPhone instead of stepping outside to see what the weather is.
Maybe that’s what hampers so much music today. Recently I was at a party for one of my sons. He married an Ethiopian woman and the party was filled with pulsating music that sounded part middle eastern, part Indian, and was undoubtedly all Ethiopian. I couldn’t even begin to identify the genre. But one thing was clear, we all came from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds and still reacted similarly to these sounds. I’m sure there are underground “scenes” in music today that are producing all kinds of great works that I’m unaware of. But what I am sure of is that the music comes from an honest emotional reaction to the real world around them.
Music suffers when it no longer comes from an emotional or authentic place. It hardly qualifies as valid if it is “created” from a calculated agenda to build up more followers and “likes” on social media. Masters of this new universe can boast millions of “followers” and “friends” and yet rest on a foundation of talents, skills, and knowledge that is so fragile it topples with the faintest breeze.
It’s not just music that suffers under such conditions. Our President elect was brought to power by the same forces that made the Kardashians famous: experts at popularity, but exhibiting no comprehension nor care for the challenges that face our population. Perhaps, instead of self-absorbed narcissism, they could spend time studying about the natural world we live in, or the evolution and coexistence of human populations, with a goal of sharing that knowledge and using it to guide their “real” lives. Gathering empirical data and discussing it might usher in a back-to-reality movement that could drive new musical directions.
Like the very worst aspects of mainstream music, politics has now become an escape from too complicated reality and legions of voters are buying into it. Millions of starving refugees? Too much reality. Vast disparity in privilege? Too much reality. Global warming? Too much reality. Cyber warfare? Too much reality. Let’s call all this complicated stuff “fake news” so no one has to think about it. Maybe I’ll just write a little song with a catchy hook (Make America Great Again) and appear presidential while employing geeky television producers and nerdy social media experts to ramp up my popularity. That’s all you need to become a President nowadays.
There is no easy way to reverse these trends. but I would suggest you expect more from your political leaders than occasional tweets of deliberately distracting information. Be well read and well informed so you can qualify their approach to complicated issues. This isn’t rocket science, nor is it a hopeless agenda. And for music to remain vital, just listen intently, see how it moves you, does it seem authentic? Even, if, like those Ethiopian sounds, it takes some initial effort to get used to. And who cares how popular it is?
Greg Graffin’s solo album, Millport, is released on Mar 10 2017.