Thursday, April 21, 2011

Music For All Tastes

I went to a performing arts high school when I was growing up, the result of being a Baskir Musician and minimally proficient on a musical instrument. I could blow air into a flute in such a way that a sound was produced, thus allowing me to be mistaken for Ian Anderson (of Jethro Tull, for any of you Miley Cyrus fans reading this). That ability gave me an appreciation for classical music - as long as I didn't hear it on a classical music radio station. Today, there is a wonderful broadcast medium called the Internet and a source called YouTube that are able to bring the sound and sight of all kinds of music to anyone who desires it (and who doesn't desire to hear a mash-up of Tuvan throat-humming with Lady GaGa's "Born This Way" over the Finale of Tchaikowsky's Fifth Symphony played backwards?). This veritable feast for the ears was not available when I was growing up. In my day, which was the '70s, music was only available on phonograph records or magnetic tape, and there was only one source for broadcast music - radio. The divide was pretty stark - all the pop music and rock and roll, the stuff that played on 45 RPM records known as "singles" - was broadcast on the AM radio band, while the really esoteric stuff that the hippies liked was broadcast on progressive rock stations on the FM band.
AM radio was great because the sound bounced off the ionosphere, and if the station had a powerful transmitter, you could hear it for hundreds of miles. The drawback was that the sound was kind of staticky, especially whenever there were thunderstorms nearby. FM radio, by contrast, had no static and was clean, clear and crisp, but the broadcast waves only traveled in a straight line, so the signal would peter out if you got more than 75 miles away from the transmission tower. Therefore AM radio tended to be noisy music, noisy advertisements and noisy disc jockeys, while FM was either delicate music or spacy art rock, presented in hushed tones by announcers who felt compelled to tell you vague little details about what you were listening to - either because they had gotten a PhD in 17th Century Baroque Music or because the brownie they had just consumed had opened their eyes to a heretofore hidden and unknown world that everyone in the listening audience just had to be told about, man.

What I was unaware of at the time was that the '70s were the opening salvo in a battle for supremacy between the AM and FM formats. The tinny, blaring Top 40 stations on the AM band had been king in the '50s and '60s, but as stereo equipment became more sophisticated and more powerful, FM began to take over, and by the '80s, the music stations had largely abandoned the AM band in favor of the cleaner sound on  the FM band. That left an opening for the likes of Rush Limbaugh to find himself a constituency to talk crap to. Today, the choices have expanded even further. Into the mix have come satellite and Internet broadcasters, and it is even possible for listeners to go completely "off the grid" by plugging an iPod into a dock outfitted with speakers, programming it to play a thousand or so of your favorite tunes and setting it on "shuffle" mode, essentially creating your own radio station - only without the DJ's and the commercials. In a way, this has put all the power back into the hands of the listener (as opposed to the music director who programs the radio station and picks out the 40 or so tunes that will play in rotation that week). But it also has made the life of the musician much harder, because there are no mass groupings of individuals who can be reached from one radio station in each city, and therefore no sales of records in the millions. "Thriller", which sold 35 million copies (mostly in vinyl, which is really impressive) for Michael Jackson in 1983, would not have the same success today.

Along with radio, musical genres have evolved over the decades. New wave did not exist in 1975, but by 1995, it had driven out most of the other formats that existed in the '70s and morphed into alternative rock. Then by 2005, alt rock had largely succumbed to the influence of 'Tweens - those 12 and under who tended to like the boy bands and girl singers plucked from obscurity by Disney Studios. Oldies music used refer to songs that were hits in the '50s; now it refers to songs that were hits in the '70s and '80s. And "beautiful music" became "easy listening" became MOR became New Age, but never ceased to be boring.
Music has changed since the early days of rock and roll, but the appreciation for a nice, slow love song in those romantic late night hours has never faded.
Incidentally, "Tear the Roof Off the Mother..." was a big hit for George Clinton and his band, Parliament-Funkadelics, back in early 1976 (and that line could have been "We're Gonna Turn This Mother On"). The classic funky style of that record would eventually find its way into other P-Funk hits in the '70s and '80s such as "Atomic Dog", whose signature line, "Bow-wow-wow, yippie-yo, yippie-yay" would get borrowed by Snoop Doggy Dog when he hit the rap scene in 1993. His drummer had a townhouse in Alexandria, Virginia; I found myself there one Sunday afternoon when I was looking to buy a residence close to my office. The giveaway was the Gold Record for "Flashlight" (a P-Funk hit from 1977) that was hanging on the wall.
I could not sign off without acknowledging a certain debt I owe to country music. The sound may have been cotton-pickin' awful, but the lyrics have always been pure genius. In fact, I collected a whole page of my favorite lyrics and submitted them to The Last Word, which was thursday's immensely popular back page of familiar and often amusing quotations. Many of them ended up gracing the walls of the MIT dormitories, including this popular lament, heard often on the old variety show Hee-Haw:

Where, o where are you tonight
Why did you leave me here all alone?
I searched the world over and thought I found true love.
You met another and -pfft!- you was gone.

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