Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Does this mean I've sold out?

Okay, for those non-music junkies out there, sorry, this is going to have some terminology that may not be understood to the general public, though I will try, because I can't rightly call myself a music junkie either. Now, today, I'm probably going to offend a number of Indie music fans, and for that, I apologize, but, hey, you're Indie fans, you're used to it. Have I sold out? Well, that's an interesting question. I can humorously answer "no" because frankly, I haven't sold anything. However, recently, I've been considering a couple of things, and they're all somewhat interestingly tie together. In his book How Now Shall We Live, Charles Colson writes that art ought to be a reflection of the beauty of creation. God was very intentional when he created sound, and that's why we have these nice mathematical ratios (which I won't talk about because I don't really get it entirely) for consonance (sounds that sound good together). Now, if that is the case, then there are a limited number of sounds that sound good together (chords) and therefore, a limited number of chord progressions that will work. Given 400 or so years of written musical history, I'm sure that it's understandable why we recycle some musical ideas. So, this idea of a sellout, well, what is it? This can be broken down into a number of questions, the first, who did we sell out to? The common answer may be, mainstream audiences, money, I suppose. The second question then is, who did we sell out from? The arguable answer is the abstract concept of "musical integrity". Which, I honestly find kind of funny. However, the general principle I think behind it is the motivation, do I write songs in a certain way because people will listen to it and therefore I will make lots of money because it'll sell? Yet, I would posit, despite perhaps insincere motivations, these "sellouts" (and "musicians") alike have stumbled upon something that we've lost over the years.

 Now Colson goes into this little tirade in his book about how pop culture has produced and influenced these things that may not be bad, but aren't necessarily good for us either. He pretty much equates it all with being "cultural junk food". I personally have a hard time swallowing that. While I would agree that classical composers were tremendously gifted in their grasp of music in general, I would also posit that a lot of them composed because they needed to make money (I believe Mozart at least early on was money motivated, at least his father was). While the medium of rock-and-roll may have been have been produced and refined in the morally questionable, drug-induced '80s, I don't necessarily think that other music doesn't have its follies as well. Certainly, classical music generally tends to be more complex, thereby requiring us to think harder to appreciate it, and I do agree there is some merit to working to understand what you are listening to, but inherently, I hold more that content is kind of the deal-breaker. As much as the argument of "God gave us brains for a reason" is used, likewise the argument "God gave us hearts for a reason" is equally valid. Okay, so this is a big tangent, but I felt I needed to clear that up.

Recently, I revisited a couple of old musical comedy bits, the first by Rob Paravonian who remarks how the Pachabel Canon in D chord progression (FYI: D A Bm F#m G D G A) is found in every song (and the piece itself makes for a crappy cello part), the second is by a group called Axis of Awesome (who, because they are Australian, can be humorously introduced as Destiny's Child, if they were white... and men) talking about how all pop hits have the same 4 chord progression (FYI: I-V-vi-IV, which incidentally, essentially can function as the first four chords of Pachabel's Canon). As a brief warning to those who actually finish reading before they click on a link, there may be a little bit of crass language in this, in case you have sensitive ears, but overall it's pretty clean. While we find it funny at these people ridiculing all these songs, it inherently remains true that anyone that has listened to the radio in the past decade or two will probably have heard a lot of these songs on the radio somewhere at some point in time. Of the most popular songs, for example, U2's hit With or Without You (which is mentioned in both comedy pieces) literally uses the Axis of Awesome's 4-chord pop song formula the ENTIRE song. Another of U2's popular songs, Where the Streets Have No Name, additionally pretty much use the same 4 chords (perhaps not in that exact order) and throw in a flat-VII chord at the end before resolving each chorus, but the basic structure is the same. Yet we still listen to these songs. Sure we can agree that nobody likes Justin Bieber's music, or that U2 is awesome, but they're still flooding the charts. Why?

Frankly, I think it's because that is the fundamental nature of music. From the Beatles to Green Day, they've stumbled across something that inherently "works". As much as the musician in me chafes at boiling it down to something this simple, it really is the foundation of music. Sure there will be good music not based on this, but generally speaking, I find most music is. When I've tried to compose songs, I've always tried to do something "original" but in the end always end up coming back to the four basic chords of music (I-V-vi-IV, not necessarily in that order), frankly, because they sound good. God made those four chords sound good together in a progression, now how do we use that to glorify Him?

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