You don’t have to be a musician to effectively critique the music industry. But it’s helped me gain a little insight into the process of songwriting, which has shaped my opinions on the subject. I’m obsessed with music and I’m picky about what I listen to. I listen every chance I get, even on the subway while I’m reading; although this is partially to block out annoying sounds, it also adds to my experience (e.g., the story of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell really came to life for me with PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake playing in the background). No matter what mood I’m in, there’s something out there that will complement it. I was in my early teens when the grunge scene exploded, featuring bands like Pearl Jam whose anti-pop esthetic and anti-corporate sentiments formed a striking juxtaposition to the positive, carefree pop/dance music that previously dominated the charts. Sadly, it wasn’t until after Kurt Cobain died and I saw Nirvana performing About a Girl on MTV Unplugged that I realized how refreshing the gritty, raw rock crafted by bands like Sonic Youth and Red Hot Chili Peppers was. That’s when I started to pilfer my mom’s acoustic guitar. Eventually, it just stayed in my room where I wrote ravenously, channeling all of my frustrations and dreams into a creative black hole that magically transformed negative energy into something constructive. Since high school I haven’t played publicly and these days I pick up my guitar only once in a while. I own an acoustic whose strings are ancient (because I can’t remember how to change them without poking my eye out) and I’m even more clueless about electrics. Yikes.
So here we are in 2011, and the music industry is far more vacuous and contrived than we could have ever predicted in the 90s. What prompted me to write this is an interview I stumbled upon in which former 4 Non Blondes front-woman Linda Perry said that she never really liked her band because Bigger, Better, Faster, More! (the only album they ever released) had a “fluffy polished bullshit” sound. How she went from the indignation of having her music mutilated to writing songs for Christina Aguilera (guess who’s responsible for Beautiful!) and Pink I’m at a loss to comprehend. After whoring out her musical creativity all these years, she has the nerve to say,”If I hear another label tell me that they need a song for the radio I’m going to poke out their eyeballs with a fork. Nobody I work with wants anything out of left field. They just want to keep following the same game plan”. Really, Linda? I think she’d find she has something in common with the object of Ani DiFranco’s song Napoleon (lyrics here).
The thing I don’t get is, is it really that hard to write your own music? I get collaborations. But are there any artists on the top of the charts who actually sit down with an instrument and write a song by themselves without leaching off someone else’s creativity or pandering to some suit’s idea of what it means to be cool? In music, the label of ‘artist’ is broadly applied, but what’s so artful about plopping your ass down and thinking, ‘Hm… let me see if I can write a ditty that will fit into a preconceived notion of what’s popular and sell lots of albums’. This is basically what the ‘songwriters’ competing on Platinum Hit are doing – it makes me want to barf. And that joke of a judge Jewel? What has she actually accomplished in the last 10 years? The last time I remember hearing about her was when she released an obligatory Christmas album – and that was in 1999.
I know, I know… the self-righteous have complained to the point of exhaustion and yet assholes like Nickelback still manage to attract fans. It’s just unfathomable that so many of these ‘professionals’ make an awful lot of money peddling ‘their’ music but don’t have the talent to write their own damn songs. Really, it’s your job. I work as part of a team but I don’t have someone else sitting at my desk telling me what and how to write. If I was getting someone else to do the thinking for me, my employer wouldn’t bother paying me. But before I become bitter with indignation over the proportion of people putting out crap and getting rich compared to the multitude of starving but genuine artists out there, I remind myself that the real value and joy of music are found in those moments when performer and audience become one unbroken field of consciousness. The beauty of music is that regardless of language, culture, etc. we’re connected no matter what we’re experiencing; there’s always someone out there who knows exactly how we feel and conveys it brilliantly through music. So let the posers have their shallow tripe. You get what you play for.