TRYING TO RESTORe THE VALUE OF SOCIETY’S FAVORITE ART FORM
Anyone who’s been paying attention since the new year began can clearly see that it has been a tough time for musicians. We’ve lost Lemmy, Natalie Cole, David Bowie, and Glenn Frey within a few weeks. This is, of course, very sad, and it’s truly a series of great losses for music and its fans.
What has caught my attention in the midst of this; however, is the response to these events on social media. Being a (ahem…) mature adult, I only have accounts on Facebook and Twitter, but I have found it rather astonishing what a wide variety of people have seen fit to respond to the deaths of these iconic figures. I have to say, the one thing I cannot help but wonder is how much the music of these artists figured into the daily lives of all of the people who felt compelled to join in the collective mourning experiences that their deaths inspired.
I can say, for myself, that the passing that hit me the hardest was that of Bowie. I would not have considered myself a huge fan, though I’ve always enjoyed his music. Truthfully, I’m not sure why I was so taken aback by his passing, but nonetheless, I was. I was inspired by his passing to reintroduce myself to his music, and I saved all of his albums on my phone and systematically listened to them during my daily commute. I found myself re-struck (or newly realizing – I’m not sure which) by what a brilliant lyricist he was and admiring the broad range of styles he slipped in an out of, not unlike one of his lycra costumes. He was truly a remarkable artist (we’ll just ignore the “Blue Jean” phase…).
Although it would smack of adhering to a fad to go on about how the death of David Bowie had changed my life, and that would ultimately prove to be untrue, I will say that I was strangely preoccupied by it for several days. I suppose I had never considered what an important figure he posed for young people in the 1970s struggling to come to term with questions about their sexual identities. I found it really heartwarming to see so many people publicly thanking him for easing their coming out. I cannot imagine what that process must have been like, especially in the 1970s and 80s, but that anyone could make that process easier is clearly a good thing. I also found myself noticing Bowie’s influence in contemporary music. The Killers, Panic at the Disco, Muse, Coldplay… lots of modern bands owe a considerable debt of gratitude to Bowie’s sound.
Nonetheless, it was the social media response that I didn’t quite understand. I am still perplexed by society’s incessant urge to jump on a bandwagon and add their two cents to a topic that probably would not warrant more than a moment of conversation in real life. I keep finding myself reminded of a stand up comedian named Anthony Jeselnik, who in his show “Thoughts and Prayers,” discussed the typical American modern-day response to tragedy.
That said, I have also seen some fascinating positive things emerge from David Bowie’s death. Some friends of mine who have a blog dedicated to cultural studies and popular society have been listening to all of Bowie’s albums in chronological order and writing about each one. I’ve loved seeing their ideas about the music and meaning behind it, and I really hope they continue through the entire catalog. See http://schenkeriangangsigns.blogspot.com.
Another up side to the tragedy was seeing the huge variety of music clips and videos people posted on social media in tribute to the fallen icon. I will admit that I didn’t watch them all, but I did partake of any clips I saw of songs I didn’t know or live performances. I was fascinated by the different songs that people chose to share. I found it intriguing to see what resonated with friends from different backgrounds and tastes. I found myself wondering whether those clips had more to say about the artist who created the music or the people who posted them as a symbol of their grief. Ultimately, I decided the truth was likely a little of both. While I didn’t post a clip, I did find myself walking around the the chorus to “Starman” running through my head for several days (I even used it as an example in my newly begun classes to explain earworms and how a melody can stick with you for days on end).
When all was said and done, I think the deaths of David Bowie and the other rock legends we have lost in the past few weeks have opened a fascinating window into popular culture. Not only do these moments inspire a shock, followed by mourning and nostalgia, but also an almost reflexive response of self indulgence, as we reflect on what this music has meant to us and partake in the communal process of sharing our musical memories. In fact, it has allowed me to learn more about a figure I always knew to be profoundly influential but never took the time to fully appreciate. If nothing else, that has been the true upside.
Thank you to all those who have dedicated their lives to expressing themselves for the entertainment of the masses. You bring us together in ways beyond our own understanding. You music lives on in us, as it should be…
Obviously, the appropriate example for today would be to select one of the artists who has recently passed away and to take some time to enjoy their music. My recommendations:
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust – David Bowie
Hunky Dory – David Bowie
Hotel California – The Eagles
Desperado – The Eagles
Unforgettable: With Love – Natalie Cole
Unfortunately, I don’t know the music of Motorhead well enough to even offer a suggestion, but if you have one for me, please let me know!
I’ve have ambivalently been pondering my dedication to streaming audio since we began our subscription to Tidal at the end of last year. While I truly love having practically all of the music I could imagine available with the press of a button, there is a tiny part of me that feels like I’ve lost something by bidding farewell to the CD. I guess as a product of a material age rather than a digital one, I feel as though something is missing when I no longer have that trophy-like object to place proudly on my shelf.
That said, my unease was finally put to the test at Christmas when something quite unexpected took place. I got a CD as a gift. And not just any CD, but the latest release from one of my all-time favorite bands. At last, I had to make a choice. Since I’d already been listening to the album in full resolution on Tidal, did I actually need to hold on to this artifact? What purpose would it serve? I found myself to be really torn.
The question becomes one of values. Is it better to be able to simply listen to the music, or is there something inherently valuable in owning a physical copy of that music? Where does the object of ownership begin and end? I imagine this is a question innately tied to one’s age. For someone of my age, who came of age in a physical, analog culture, the musical object possesses meaning. I can look at it. I can show it to others. I can touch it. The digital object provides all of the audio satisfaction, but is that enough?
Am I setting too much value on the physical object? Possibly. Certainly I would not feel this conflicted if I had simply received two identical copies of the same disc. I’d be returning the extra copy in a heartbeat. And, yet, that is more or less what actually happened. I already had the music and access to all of the cover art, all I lacked was a piece of plastic and some cardboard that boldly made the claim that “I own this.” And, given that all of my CDs are sitting in boxes in a spare bedroom, the pride associated with such a statement would go unheard anyway. So, what’s the big deal?
Somehow, this silly decision of whether or not to return a CD has become deeply symbolic of the state of people’s listening habits in a world that is changing perhaps a bit too rapidly. For me in particular, as a person who has, in one way or another, always defined herself with and through music, the evolution to an invisible medium for presenting that identity feels strange.
That said, one pleasant side effect that I’ve observed since the primary mode of listening for many people has evolved from that physical object to the digital one is that young people tend to identify with a wider variety of music. For example, today is the first day of a new semester, and I just had my first meeting with a new Music Appreciation class. After introducing myself and my expectations for the term, I had them write down a few things to get a feeling of who my students are. First, I asked about their musical experience. Second, I asked about their listening preferences. Third, I had them define music. I’ve done this same exercise for years, but more recently, I’ve begun to notice a change in responses to the second question. Whereas, five to ten years ago, most students self identified as being frequent listeners to one or maybe two styles of music, now they tend to list several. Any these styles are a lot more varied, as well. I suspect, the lack of a financial investment has encouraged young people to experiment with new and different sounds and allowed them to expose their ears and minds to a much wider musical palette than they would have when music had to be hand selected and individually purchased in order to be “owned.” I can’t help but see this change as anything other than positive, if only because it makes my job easier.
So, in the end, I guess the most important aspect of music is the listening experience, and anything else that comes along with that is nice, but ultimately distracts us from the music itself. With that in mind, I returned the CD that I got for Christmas. I can still listen to the music whenever I want, and that is the important thing.
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.