This past weekend, The Guardian featured a column by Barbara Ellen with the title, “What Does Your Music Taste Say About You? Nothing Actually.” The answer to the title’s question made it easier for readers to decide whether or not to plunge into the article itself. And it was an extremely honest answer. For any reader seriously interested in the vast universe known as music, “nothing” sums up the substance of the article. For anyone whose associations with the idea of music go beyond the knowledge of today’s popular songs, there isn’t much to learn here.


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Ellen develops a perfectly justified critique of an incredibly trivial study from the University of Cambridge that had the pretension of being comprehensive because it involved “350,000 participants, from 50 countries, across six continents.” (Oxford, this alumnus does not mind telling you, would never have conducted anything so misguided and brainless.) The study sought to analyze the personality traits of people who, according to its self-description, “are drawn to similar music genres.” Among the traits it studied were descriptors such as “extrovert,” “open,” “agreeable” and “neurotic.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Music:

1. Up until late in the 20th century: A form of individual and collective expression, the most refined of the arts, that uses diverse technologies, including the human voice, which are combined in ways that permit the production of complex combinations of sound employed for the widest variety of social, ritual, religious and artistic purposes

2. Since the later part of the 20th century: commercially available recorded songs

Contextual Note

Ellen feigns being unaware of the first definition above. She seems to accept the idea that music has been definitively redefined sometime in the recent past by Napster and Spotify. Musical creators no longer have to toil within their communities marked by evolving traditions with ancient roots, relying on the range of objects bequeathed to them for collective musical expression. They have been liberated, first by recording technologies that enabled wide distribution across the globe, then by the miracle of digital instantaneity. But also by the marketing geniuses who now decide what music must sound like.

Modern musicians no longer need to think about the music of the past, except when their producers point out the occasional value of nostalgia. Even then, nostalgia at best covers decades, not centuries. To thrive or even survive, musicians must simply focus on the music that sells today, the one their agents, publishers and marketers guide them to produce. 

Ellen’s ability to write off the entire history of humanity’s music is mind-boggling. I’m even left wondering whether she has ever even heard of the famous medieval English song whose title is nearly a homophone with her name: “The Ballad of Barbara Allen.” That can’t of course be true because artists as modern as Joan Baez and Art Garfunkel have recorded it. Ellen undoubtedly knows a lot about the musical traditions she pretends to ignore. She clearly believes she is writing for an audience blithely unaware of music’s past. She leaves the distinct impression that anything that isn’t a commercial song is not music

Ellen quite correctly objects to the premise of the Cambridge study that assumes the existence of a correlation between the preference for certain popular artists and personality traits. She is also correct when she notes that music “taste, like the humans who possess it, seems built from a dizzying array of variables.” Why is it then that she refuses to acknowledge the very real scope of that “dizzying array” as she reduces music to one narrowly defined type of musical genre: the professionally recorded popular song invented for monetization through radio and jukeboxes in the United States in the mid-20th century?

Perhaps the most revealing observation she makes concerns the circumstances in which people listen to music. “When you select a song,” she wonders, “are you happy, miserable, in love, heartbroken, angry? Or none of the above — just trying to chill while you make dinner, thanks. That’s pertinent, actually: where you are when you listen to music, what you’re doing. Working out. Driving. Strolling. Reading. Work. Leisure. In a pub or at a club. Lying in a darkened room, with AirPods in.”

What Ellen describes is the behavior of a music consumer, not a music lover. Music is reduced to the role of sound to correspond to a mood for an individual in an atomized world. The modern commercial song has systematically removed all the salient features of music as it has existed in every tradition, notably its harmonic structure, melodic freedom and rhythmic contrasts. But most glaringly of all, it stifles the creative relationships between the musicians who produce the music. When songs are efficiently packaged, the relationship between musicians becomes purely an industrial one. Even live performances become artificial shows.

Ellen makes a very valid point when, contradicting the authors of the study, she writes that music “can also take you out of yourself. It is an escape chute, a liberator, as much as it is a mirror.” It is certainly true for musicians. But for them, unlike consumers, the sense of liberation is tied to the idea of mastering the constraints that musical creation imposes. The musician lives the experience as something vibrant and real. For the music consumer, it is prepackaged and therefore hyperreal. There may be escape but it won’t be liberation.

Ellen has a curious idea of what the function of music is in modern society. “Some people don’t even like music,” she notes. “They don’t yearn for a soundtrack to their life.” What better illustration of the degree to which the average person’s musical experience has become hyperreal? Movies are constructed with soundtracks, not human lives. Yet that appears to be how people are invited to think about their own lives, as a movie of which they are presumably the star.

Historical Note

Archeologists date the first musical instruments as far back as 18,000 years. Of course, animals and especially birds may have instilled in the earliest humans the idea that music could have an important role to play in their individual and collective lives. 

Religions across the globe have associated music with the kinds of social rituals and spiritual quests they encourage. In other words, music has for many thousands of years functioned as a link between people and the natural world, societies and the universe. In traditional European cosmology before the 17th century’s scientific revolution, astronomers and philosophers posited the existence of mathematically perfect, heavenly harmonies called the “music of the spheres.”

Barbara Ellen is writing at a curious point in human history, as society begins to anticipate an as yet undefined cultural world order that will inevitably be imposed by the metaverse and artificial intelligence. For all we know, this may simply be the final stage of the commercial revolution that we call the consumer society. If Mark Zuckerberg’s and Elon Musk’s forecasts have any validity, we are headed for a hyper-commercial revolution in which we will end up being nothing more than the product Facebook and Google have already turned us into.

There are some natural and valid reasons to think that music itself may refuse to be sucked into the vortex of the metaverse. Music is too close to the core of human life to be absorbed by Big Data. All past and present civilizations have been built from their evolving traditions. These include language, cooking, architecture, graphic arts and music. These traditions combine to produce scientific and religious beliefs, urban organization, poetry, pottery, jewelry, social hierarchies, public institutions and much else.

Although everything people produce has the potential of being reduced to a commodity with a price tag, the cultural output of any civilization emerges from a wide range of spontaneously produced social activities. It is nevertheless true that the production and evolution of culture changed radically with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. This inevitably led to what we tend to think of as the ultimate avatar of civilization: the consumer society.

Ellen herself recognizes that “we have completely and irrevocably changed the way we consume and interact with music.” It’s all about money. She then shares with us a curious musing, that “perhaps there should be a global ‘cheapskate’ personality-category for those who don’t pay for music?” By making this suggestion, she clearly doubts that separating music from money will ever happen again. Sadly, she may be right.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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