October 3, 2014

NEEDELL| Oh! Sweet Nuthin’, Don’t Mean Nuthin’ At All

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If you ask me, no night out with friends is complete with at least one sing-a-long oldie. Maybe I’m lame, but nothing is better than wailing along to one of your dad’s favorite songs with your buddies, belting out lyrics about dried up levies, lives supported by prayers, or a bar pianist and his regulars. You may not know all the words, but so what? You know the story, and that’s what really counts.

What ever happened to that? The story, that is.

When you look back at the history of both music and storytelling, it is obvious that the two are closely intertwined. In Ancient Greece, stories relayed orally often had a lyrical rhythm that made them easier to remember and thus pass on.

It is difficult to imagine the history of music without the existence of storytelling and vice versa. However, it seems to me that we are going through a shift — nowadays, it is increasingly rare to hear a song on the charts that really crafts a tale lyrically.

Similarly, simple nursery rhymes and songs have been used for centuries for pedagogical purposes. The little jingles we learned in our youth are often used as mnemonic devices (I’m not ashamed to admit that I still sing “30 days have September…” when figuring out how many  days are in the month).

The early days of popular music continued this trend. From the emergence of blues to the heyday of rock and roll, the most popular acts were practically equal parts musician and poet.

It is difficult to imagine the history of music without the existence of storytelling and vice versa. However, it seems to me that we are going through a shift — nowadays, it is increasingly rare to hear a song on the charts that really crafts a tale lyrically.

To an extent, storytelling is becoming lost in our popular culture.

When people hear a song on the radio, they barely listen. Nobody asks what the song is about, what it’s preaching, what inspired it. Rather, we are concerned with more superficial questions:

How is addictive is that hook? How dope is that beat? How huge is that drop?

Have you heard this line yet? Oh man, you have to hear this line.

Insert double-meaning, play on words, metaphor, simile, hyperbole, onomatopoeia or some other lyrical flex here

Popular music is no longer about a lyrical story. When people tune in to the radio, or go to a party, they don’t care about the message or the inspiration. The message is lost to other activities, as the music just plays in the background. Everybody hears, but few really listen.

People used to use music as an escape. But most popular songs today rarely immerse their audience in a story. The only things we are losing ourselves in when we make a pass through the chart-toppers are butts (at the risk of losing my audience, I recommend you go check out Julia Moser ’15’s column from Wednesday if you want to read more about butts).

Perhaps musical storytelling is a skill that has began to wane in our generation of musicians, however, with the sheer amount of music out there today, I find it difficult to put the blame on a lack of talented musical artists.

It seems to me that this death of storytelling holds most of its blame in our generation of listeners. After all, the charts reflect what we want. And what we want is sex, bragging and clever one-liners.

And this makes sense, when you think about our generation.

Our generation’s trademark overstimulation is reflected in our music tastes. Most people do not want to listen to a song that demands their full attention for its entirety – or at least they do not want that all the time. There are so many other things that you can pay attention to during that three and half minutes (albeit, each for just about 15 seconds at a time).

Hell, I do most of my listening through my phone or laptop — both fully equipped distraction machines.

The role of music in society has fallen back from storytelling because entertainment has become more and more accessible and gratification more and more instantaneous. No longer do people need to commit time or effort for entertainment. All we have to do is open up a browser or an app.

There is no waiting to see what comes on the radio, listening to see if it’s any good. Just plug in your phone, and pick whatever beautiful noise you want in the background.

Accordingly, music’s role has transformed. When people listen to music now, it is rarely the music that is really the primary focus or entertainment. People listen while reading, while driving, while surfing the web, while socializing.

It is sad to say, but a lot of music — especially that which is fed to us in the mainstream media — has devolved to nothing more than glorified background noise. A way to fill in the sporadic gaps of boredom in our otherwise fully stimulated lives. Unchallenging, there when you want to focus on it, gone when you don’t.

We don’t want stories to distract us from our other very important activities. We would rather listen to sweet nothings about money, cars, drugs, parties, etc. These songs may not be the most emotionally or intellectually stimulating, but damn, they’re catchy.

Sure, these have always existed. I am not going to pretend that these have not been common themes in music over the past century. Countless of artists over the decades have built their success on it.

But more and more, it seems that artists, ghost-writers, producers, the all-encompassing “they” have been tailoring their lyrics around these themes. They have expertly analyzed their market, and lunged at their throats. The distraction generation doesn’t want to focus, they want nothing else but more distractions.

All we need are those hypnotic choruses and clever one-liners. Because, unless we are really committed to listening — rather than just hearing the music — these little attention grabbers are all we need to fill in the gaps of our blessed, over-stimulated lives.

Well, those and butts.