“If anyone wants to start an epidemic…he or she has to find some person or some means to translate the message of the Innovators into something the rest of us can understand” – Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point
“The status quo always sucks” – George Carlin, Braindroppings
I know this is going to come off as elitist, but fuck it. When it comes to music (and beer and movies and books), I’m an elitist. You can like music I hate and I’ll still have a beer with you, though. Let’s not confuse elitist with fascist.
Anyway, I’m reading this book, The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. A lot of you have probably read it or heard of it. I’m not really endorsing it much – a lot of it is pseudo-scientific stuff that celebrates gifted, rich white people (although his sections on context and why anti-smoking campaigns are about as effective as Swiss-cheese condoms are honestly quite good) and oversimplifies… well, pretty much everything.
Gladwell’s idea is that ideas – the ones you hear about, the big ones, the ones that seem to make reams and reams of white people rich – spread in much the same way as epidemics of disease. Not a completely revolutionary idea, but not without its merits. The reason I’m talking about this book on my music blog is because it occurred to me, while reading it today (I’m cruising through this book, too. Had four hours to kill at the mechanic’s this morning), that the quote I’ve cited above explains something that always annoys me about music. Namely, the fact that almost every genre of music that I love has some sort of watered down version of itself that people who think about music a lot less than I do (I’m being charitable here) love, even though it’s reduced to practically a parody of the actual music.
Examples? Oh, I’ve got examples. Just the other night, I was in a situation where I was playing some electric guitar at work and this kid (he’s a nice enough kid, just young) asked me if I knew any songs he would know. I said I probably didn’t. I mentioned that I knew a lot of old punk songs and he got this kinda hopeful look in his eyes and suggested, “Sum-41? Linkin Park?” Now, as I said, the kid is young and a pretty nice dude, so I wasn’t gonna Hulk out on him or anything (I’m really a non-violent guy; I just have really violent thoughts sometimes), but I just realized today that what happened was, by the time punk got “translated” to the mainstream, it was way watered down. And this has only gotten worse. Here are my Big Three for early punk: the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Ramones. Love it or hate it, that shit was undoubtedly punk. Now what’ve you got? Kids who think Sum-41 and Green Day are punk bands.
Same thing for jazz music. “Translate” the amazing art of Mingus, Miles Davis, and Coltrane so that Baby Booming crackers can say they like jazz and it becomes, sadly, Kenny G. So you can see why Gladwell’s quote is juxtaposed with George Carlin’s quote, yeah? By the time the raw, beautiful music you love is fit for consumption by everyone, it fucking sucks. Always.
I used to think I hated country music. Then I heard Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Hank Williams, Sr. But not first. The first “country” music I heard was country-pop shit, so-called “crossover” success stories like Shania Twain and Billy Ray Cyrus. Here’s a hint: if they can make a dance-club remix of your music, it ain’t country. So fuck it.
You might be inclined to point out that hip-hop is still replete with swear words and edginess and stuff. And you’re right. Hip-hop didn’t get watered down so much as it got dumbed down; listen to what Public Enemy was rapping about on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and compare it to the shit that 50 Cent talks about. Hip-hop went from agitating for equality and social change to just a bunch of macho asshole bullshit (to borrow another phrase from Mr. Carlin, who knew the value of never watering down your art. Although great comedy also gets watered/dumbed down for people. Proof: Dane Cook sells out shows around the world).
So what’s to be done? There’s still plenty of great music out there (plenty of hope for punk, as I’ve pointed out many times: look to the Future of the Left, Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, and Titus Andronicus), so it’s not like the good stuff is getting watered down before your very eyes. I see a lot of hope in niche markets in the future, especially once the major labels finally bite the fucking dust. Perhaps good ol’ word of mouth (or word of internet) will help people find the real shit. In the meantime, don’t be afraid to dig deeper when someone tells you about a great new artist. Maybe that “great new artist” is ripping off someone who was a really great artist (looking at you, John Mayer) that deserves more of your attention.
Gladwell contends that having a great message isn’t enough if you want your message to “stick” (the book is full of bullshit capitalized phrases that smack of self-help jargon and pop science), but when it comes to music, he is absolutely wrong. Fuck the masses – make great music first, water it down for no one, and there is bound to be someone who likes it. In a world where Nickelback sells millions of albums, your band can generate a large enough audience to sustain you, no matter how shitty you are. If you’re in a rock band, please, for the love all that is awesome, make it your mission to unwater-down the music and fuck that translation right up – I want some Tower of Babel shit happening in here. And if you’re a music fan, don’t be part of “the rest of us.” Don’t let anyone translate anything for you. If you genuinely love smooth jazz, so be it (you fucking pervert)! Gladwell implies that most of us are complacent morons, waiting around for someone (who he, tellingly, labels a “Salesman”) to tell us what’s cool. So please, whoever you are and whatever you love, don’t take for granted that something is cool just because some other jackhole (even me; hell, especially me) tells you it is. Dig into it, see for yourself. Because if Malcolm Gladwell is right about you (and me and “the rest of us”), we’re fucked.