“Do You Hear What I Hear?”

During a discussion with a friend, who spent a career in the production side of popular music, ending up as the head of a fairly well known record label, the question came up as to what actually constituted a “standard” in popular music, that is, a song recorded and/or covered by a number of well-known performers. Our friend the former music industry executive immediately pointed out that each generation had its “standards,” to which I rejoined that not all “standards” were necessarily equal, because there can be a difference between standards, particularly given in the technical skill of the composer and performer of one generation’s standard, and that of another generation’s standards, and that there also can be a great difference between popularity and artistic excellence.

That brings up several questions. First, how can a listener tell the difference? Second, does it really matter? And third, assuming that one can tell the difference, why does it matter?

To begin with, most listeners can’t tell the difference, not really, because a listener can’t tell the difference if he or she hasn’t listened to a broad range of music, and the majority of listeners tend to listen in a narrow comfort range, both in terms of type of music and the time and style in which it is/was played or recorded. In addition, if someone doesn’t know something about the technical side of both instrumental and vocal music production, the distinctions are merely based on likeability or familiarity. That’s fine from a personal point of view, but it means that such a person really can’t see how music has changed.

Does being able to see the changes and what they indicate really matter? Again, on the level of whether one enjoys the current “standards,” it doesn’t. On a cultural and societal level, I’d submit that it does. When complex melodic patterns are replaced on a wide scale by short melodic repetitions, when repetitive rhythms and percussive effects overshadow melody and meaning, when lyrics become increasingly crude and simplistic in popular music, those all reflect a considerable societal change. But anyone who hasn’t listened to poplar music spanning decades or hasn’t studied it won’t even see the change, much less consider the implications.

Popular music is symptomatic of culture, and the issue goes well beyond music. The same issues apply to popular fiction, what art is popular, what movies and television shows earn the most or have the highest audience ratings, and even what theatre is most popular – or what entertainment form is dominant.

The majority of those immersed in a society/culture really don’t see, let alone question, what such changes mean… and what they foretell. Part of that is that most members of any culture don’t understand their own history, let alone the broader path of past history.

In the early days of Rome, gladiatorial contests were rare, and semi-religious. Chariot racing was small-time. By the time of the empire, particularly after Augustus, both had become popular blood sports. A century ago, football in the United States was a collegiate sport, and limited to comparatively few colleges at that, and baseball was the national sport. There was auto racing, but it was the habit of a few, generally wealthy, individuals.

Now, football has become the national blood sport; basketball has gone from being a generally non-contact sport to a contact sport, and NASCAR is a multi-billion dollar business. And, oh, yes, the most popular music is incredibly simplistic and linguistically almost unintelligible (while sounding pretty much all alike), and a greater percentage of movies now incorporate more and more sex and violence.

Do you see what I see?

8 thoughts on ““Do You Hear What I Hear?””

  1. darcherd says:

    There do tend to be periodic retrenchments in music fashion, where simple, melodic music with harmony arises in popular revolt against a music genre that has evolved into increasing complexity and specialization. These retrenchments tend to feature music with broader, popular appeal to the “masses”. For example, the music of what we now call the Classical era (e.g. Haydn, Mozart, early Beethoven) arose as a reaction to the increasingly arcane and complex music of the late Baroque. Similarly, the Folk Music craze of the 1950’s and 1960’s arose in part as a reaction against both the incomprehensible ramblings of Free Jazz and the polished, overproduced popular music of the time (Rock and Roll was another such reaction to the same stimuli).

    In all these examples, the resulting music was more approachable, i.e. it required less musical education to appreciate, and thus had broader common appeal. Certainly Hip-Hop/Rap music began with these same characteristics and could thus be seen as a reaction against highly produced pop and disco. But I think the jury is still out on whether we’re seeing a gradual evolving in urban music towards greater complexity and specialization (e.g. the trend of “mashing” in mixes of other music, running all vocals through Vocorder-type special effects) that will in its turn provoke some reaction and a new, simpler, more melodic type of music with broad common appeal will arise as the pendulum continues to swing.

    As to what makes a “standard”, the only real test is the test of time. Does the work inspire different interpretations? Do successive generations find new meaning in the work? The great majority of music in any given year will fade into obscurity. Only the truly great will survive…but what actually makes it ‘great’ will vary considerably.

  2. Frank says:

    I think it is relevant to remember that the “standards” of the past are those few works that have stood the test of time, both in a stylistic and physical/practical sense. So, directly related to the length of time in the past they were created, we get the “best of the best” as the past basis from which to compare. Then if these standards are compared to the whole spectrum of current (music), it often comes up “wanting.” But, wouldn’t a more proper comparison be either to compare standards to standards, which would require quite a wait, or to at least compare past standards to the “best of the best” of what’s out now? Determining that would be a whole other issue, but I hope you see my point.

  3. Tim says:

    Though I appreciate the argument, are we not in danger of locking the arts into a cage?

    Homer’s epics were told by storytellers for centuries until they were caged in print. Before that the storyteller had licence to tailor them to the audience.

    Shakespeare wrote his plays for popular masses, not to plague the curricula of English Literature courses where they are analysed to death.

    I think the arts must be allowed to evolve.

    1. darcherd says:

      I don’t think anyone is saying arts shouldn’t evolve. Rather, we’re saying that the real test of an art work’s “greatness” (or even whether or not it can be considered a “standard”) is the test of time. To call a current work of art ‘great’ is, at best, a prediction that the work may someday be properly regarded as great.

  4. John Prigent says:

    What about the graphic arts? There doesn’t seem to be quite so much of a division there. Yes, plenty of people dislike modern portraiture as ‘daubs’, but others manage to combine a love of, say, Rubens with an enjoyment of comic strips.

  5. Devildog says:

    Interesting analysis. The comparison of the evolution of today’s culture to the evolution of ancient Roman culture is one to ponder. Chariot Races and gladiatorial combat were the entertainment of the out of work masses who literally had nothing to do with their time. All menial work was done by slaves. Unemployment was staggeringly high. Every day, imperial Rome had to “dole” out grain to the masses. Consistent, dignified work gives meaning to people’s every day lives. it just keeps people sharper and maybe raises the development of our culture.

  6. Matthew Runyon says:

    How do current popular songs compare with tavern songs in previous centuries? Music that plays in the background at bars and such now is effectively the equivalent of that level of music, so I’d be more interested in that comparison. It’s not like dockworkers or farmers three hundred years ago were routinely listening to chamber music.

  7. Wine Guy says:

    I think devildog (oo-rah) has the right of it. They want their ‘bread and circuses’ and many politicians are willing to give it to them to maintain their power.

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