Christopher Lee / The New York Times

April 24, 2017

SWAN | Conceptualizing Musical Dissent

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I used to be a lot cooler than I am now. Flashback to a while ago, about six years actually, right around the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012, when I was a freshmen in high school. I played considerably more guitar (mostly electric) than I do now, and at that time I found myself as the rhythm and occasional lead guitarist in a Rage Against the Machine cover band. The entire group consisted of five young high schoolers, and it was organized through a shop at which we all received lessons on our respective instruments. We ultimately booked two performances, a week apart from each other, at two different dive bars in central New Jersey.

It was a short-lived project, but what an exciting two shows we played! We always began with “Bombtrack,” a tune which starts with a quiet, foreboding guitar riff and suddenly explodes in sonic force. I always remember being shocked by this detonation and I could feel, with a curious intrigue, the irreparable damage being inflicted upon my hearing.

I think the best of our setlist really began in its second half, when we dropped our instruments to D tuning and played some of the band’s more grainy, dissonant tunes. We began this half with “Testify” and ended it with “Freedom” — an apt tune for a concluding remark. This was around the height of the Occupy movement, and in my younger naiveté I believed that we were making some honest contribution to this rebellious political climate. I remember arguing with my bandmates about not censoring the lyrics when we performed, or trying to entertain the idea of driving up to Zuccotti Park in Manhattan with our instruments and playing some of this music in solidarity with the protestors. Armed with the dual power of a 1994 Fender Stratocaster and someone else’s Marshall half-stack — a rather deafening pair — I thought I could actuate a real change in the world.

Now we have the American political climate of 2017. It is obviously marked by a greater degree of polarity and fervor than in 2011, for reasons that need no mentioning. No change is going to be actuated by playing twenty-year-old rock tunes in bars. It would seem that now, right at this moment, our salient musical culture is due for a new wave of dissenting artists in the development of some new, broader form or genre.

Where is our rock and roll? When is our folksy, drugged-out psychedelia set to arrive? Surely our hardcore punk and sample-packed hip hop are bound to thrash their way onto the scene sometime soon! When is our revolution going to occur, and more importantly, what the hell is it going to sound like?

Following World War II,  perhaps the last great crisis and a time when the viability of humanity was in doubt, artists sought to diverge from any previous notion of aesthetic expression, lest another catastrophe be inspired by the antiquated style. Thus, composers began to create music in new ways, seeking natural processes and the exploration of sounds that ultimately seek to strip away any old, romantic or nationalistic connotations. Jazz turned into bebop, becoming erratic, unpredictable and increasingly reliant upon chance improvisations. As we seem to approach international unrest and uncertainty, how are contemporary artists and composer going to react to all of the strife and wreckage in the aftermath? Are scientist-composers going use the processes of quantum mechanics or computer code to create pure, universal music that offends none, something that is truly avant-garde and virtually separated from any other human desire or social construct?

I doubt it. When all of those aforementioned western musical subcultures emerged, the world was far less connected than it is now. I do not mean to assume some notion of international hegemony, but through the extent of various media, cultural undergrounds rarely go unnoticed. I do not think it is worth speculating on the properties of a musical movement that may not even occur, and if it does, will not transpire in one place with one overarching aesthetic motif.

Rather, societies and individuals in all places need to become more spiritual and transcend the tangible nonsense. Not through organized, hierarchical institutions, but through art and music. There does not necessarily need to be some highly politicized, rebellious musical movement. Such a trend would likely wind up leaving many people out. Maybe those high school cover bands playing at dive bars are not so useless, but rather cogs in a bigger process of artistic democratization. If people would listen to artistic expression on a more serious and frequent basis, then maybe this next global catastrophe need not occur.


Nick Swan is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. His column Swan’s Song runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.