Issue 24: Music & Contemporary Culture
"The modern musical culture is one that surrenders subjugation to the listener
instead of rewarding creation of something beautiful."
Anonymous, Milton Academy
Jan 31, 2019
Through the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, music was a luxury. Musicians played in the courts of kings, concerts for the wealthy, and not much else. You sat, the musicians played a selection of artists and works of their choosing, and when it was over, you applauded. The end of the nineteenth century brought the invention of the wax cylinder and the phonograph, revolutionaries in the technology of music. Suddenly people (though still only the fairly wealthy) could listen to music in their own homes. But still, each cylinder only held a few songs curated by the artist, and the artifact itself broke down after about 100 uses. Wax discs, their replacement, were barely improvements-they still had most of the same limitations. Vinyl brought a massive revolution in that each record could hold considerably more music and broke down much slower, but the same constant applied. Each album was curated by the artist, skipping tracks was nearly impossible, and to actually play records, you needed a full stereo system with a good enough turntable that you wouldn't destroy your records after a few uses. Records were a physical form, each one cost roughly the equivalent of 25 modern USD, and they were hefty. But then, fortunately, came walkman, tape decks, boomboxes, and other mag-tape reading players. Rewind came into existence, and people started to make mix-tapes. These were the first real break from a musical standard that had existed for centuries before. They were the departure from artist-curated music and the level of experiential control artists possessed before.
Now, in the age of Apple Music and Spotify, listeners have taken control of the musical experience. Artists no longer have the constraint of creating a great album; all they need to do is create a hit single. As a result, music and its greater culture suffer. We have caused music to confine itself to 3-minute soundbites when it used to live on 45-minute albums. Thereby, we have forced artists to confine themselves as well. The modern musical culture is one that surrenders subjugation to the listener instead of rewarding creation of something beautiful--that is a reflection of our generation’s interaction with art on the whole. We don't want to experience art that challenges our perception of reality and our truths--we want art that is easily digestible. To illustrate this, I have selected three albums which demonstrate different aspects of the phenomenon: Berlin by Lou Reed, Divide by Ed Sheeran, and Reputation by Taylor Swift.
Berlin is one of the most bizarre albums ever recorded in mainstream music. One of the tracks even goes so far as to feature the sounds of a baby screaming over lyrics about the murder of a child (seriously, go listen to it), but everything about the record is unique. Lou Reed recorded Berlin as his second studio album. It was not received well whatsoever, almost nobody bought it because it was so different from anything they had ever heard. But it was uniquely his, and that was what mattered. Reed went on to have one of the most influential careers in the music industry and is respected even nowadays for his solo work as the lead singer of The Velvet Underground and for his absurd way of living life.
Divide is Ed Sheeran’s most recent studio album and a global favorite. It may seem easy to write the record off as pop music, but when you listen to Sheeran talk about the album, his care for the music is evident. Divide is incidentally successful in that it wasn't designed to be a crowd pleaser like much of his music--Sheeran just had a love for his work, and it yielded something fantastic. As a measure of this, the songs on the album are, while good on their own, immeasurably better when listened to in the album’s sequence. Divide is clearly intended to be one piece of art and not sixteen individual pop bites.
Reputation is Taylor Swift’s most recent studio album, and don't get me wrong, I love listening to it, but it's not the same kind of art that the world used to enable artists to produce. Each track is tangentially connected to the next, but the connection falls away with any particular analysis. The songs are very upfront about their subject being the artist’s own pettiness, often overproduced and petty in their own right. Reputation is an example of a class of music which seems to dominate the artistic landscape of the day: tracks that can be easily thrown into playlists and don't require effort to love or hate.
Music has always been a part of the human experience, however, in our modern culture, we have reduced it to a quick conversation piece. For the sake of the artists, and for the sake of ourselves, we as a society should dedicate ourselves to embracing music as more than easy entertainment, but as art--the loss of music as an influential artform would be an awful one.