May 1, 2003

End The Trend?

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Throughout the course of the year this column had me scouring the Internet and browsing through innumerable magazines all to find some of the latest and noteworthy trends in the music world. And then there were those other columns where I just went off on pop-culture detours or general music related banter on topics from the lack of politics in music to the conflicts surrounding MP3s. Now, for my last column (a soft death knell) here are some parting thoughts on the one topic to which I have devoted so many hours, words, and thoughts — music that is.

The world of music is an infinite, amorphous realm that washes across time from unknown vintages to unimagined future mutations. There can be no point of origin or a final destination in all of this, yet at the same time, music had to begin somewhere, and won’t we eventually run out of new melodic combinations? Despite these potential limits, the amount of albums, songs, and artists already surpasses what one person could experience in a lifetime of listening. Essentially, the entirety of the music world already extends far beyond the human capability to perceive it all. Music is a vast and overwhelming array of diverse influences, interconnected styles, and evolving sound. This characterization realizes the nature of music as fundamentally conflicted. As much as we delve further into the musical world, experiencing a wide variety of artists and sounds, we are only futilely grasping at infinity. At times, it is much the same with a college education — the more we learn, the more we realize how little we actually know. It certainly is a frustration-wracked affair. Nevertheless, the uniquely beautiful sensation that music brings, or in the previous example, the utility of a college education propels us to overcome such difficulty.

We blindly march on through this mess. We all have music collections and MP3s that we rationally organize and can catalog like any of our other possessions. After all, it should be simple. We listen to what we like, buy an album our friend recommended, or download that one song the DJ played that sent us over the edge. We amass plentiful amounts of music throughout our lives, often times just taking everything at face value. But if you take a step back from it all, in an attempt to catch a glimpse at the grandeur and size of this realm of sound, how can you be anything but overwhelmed by music from all directions? For example, if we just take a popular hip-hop track, like the opener to Nas’s God’s Son (“Get Down”) you hear a sample steeped in the ’60s original soul of James Brown. From the Godfather of Soul, we can draw a line forward towards the ’70s funk of Herbie Hancock or Parliament-Funkadelic, or we could trace Brown’s influences to the jazz licks of Davis and Coltrane. We can follow this rough, scattered map along continually spouting branches of related artists and influential sound, until we have entangled ourselves in a web greater than our own comprehension.

Just take the recent garage rock explosion (i.e. The Strokes, The White Stripes), a retro movement that begs you to explore its influence. Hence, the recent interest in Iggy Pop and The Stooges, The Kinks, The Nuggets box set, and The Velvet Underground. Starting with these bands, you can then follow the web of influences through the experimentation of David Bowie, the raw energy of The Ramones’s punk rock, to the post-punk of The Fall and Joy Division, to gritty indie rock of Sonic Youth, through ’90s pop rock, and straight to the “modern age” where the retro has once again become en vogue.

My game of musical connect the dots is a rather unrefined exhibit of the complex process of musical evolution and artistic growth, but, it is demonstrative of the natural movement of music through time and space. This evershifting quality of the musical world allows it to continually adapt new forms of life at every turn. It’s just a brilliant, natural system. And through each song and album we buy, we are constructing our own webs of musical experience. Just think about the evolution of your music collection — from hearing your parent’s music, to buying your first album, to the most recent piece of music you acquired. Lose yourself in your music by remembering how and why you came to like what you like. Trace your favorite artists’ influences, and then find out who inspired those influences, and you’re bound to hit upon some of the most sensational trends in music, styles probably more powerful than the ones popular today. This infinite and evolving plain of artists compels me to continually search for new sounds of today and their roots in the past. And for me to describe the rewards of these various discoveries or my passion for music in general, I think I might need a lifetime. Yet with the time and space I have available, I just want to convey the impossibility of knowing all music and the simultaneous impetus to defy this realization by exploring the limitless nooks of a most cerebral and visceral universe. Thanks for reading.

Archived article by Andrew Gilman