Thursday, October 12, 2006

WXPN (Philadelphia): Top 885 Artists

Take a look at this.

These staff and artists' lists are absolutely ridiculous (in general). I know it’s not the “official” list, but I’m still bothered. I’ve been unraveled all day. I've been trying to figure out why this type of thing bothers me so much, and, I realize, it's not because there are stupid people in this world, it's that they put stupid people in positions where they can influence others - meaning, the stupid make others stupid. "Stupid" may be a harsh word, but anyone who considers Los Lobos or Guster to be a greater artist than Beethoven or Bach is, well, stupid.

A programming director or a sales director at a radio station simply should not be this ignorant about music. They have direct influence over what people hear and buy, and people in those roles should take it upon themselves, if not already mandated by those higher up, to own up to that responsibility. It's because of these very people that Guster achieves the popularity that they do and furthermore that a band like that can sell out the new amphitheater at Chicago's Meigs Field (7500 capacity) while a remarkably talented band like The Secret Machines don't even sell out 2/3 of Park West (900 capacity). Now don't get me wrong, to a certain degree, I was happy it didn't sell out because I got a chance to go without having to pay through the roof, but this ignorance directly affects the state of music out there, and I think that's what bothers me. I believe it to be one of the key factors for the prevailing idea that "today's radio sucks."

Furthermore, I take classical music very seriously. I have studied it my entire life, as a performer and as an appreciator. It's one thing to say I'm bothered that classical composers don't get respect in today's times - there's little that can be done about that, short of education. What does bother me, however, is the general patronization of the genre and its participants - that people today think because they can sing the first 4 notes of Beethoven's 5th, they are suddenly fans. If you're going to put a list together of the top N music artists of all time, you better get people who know what they're talking about together, and actually have classical music afficianados in the same room as rock critics. Don't just have someone who says "I've seen Amadeus, and it was a good movie, so Mozart must've been a genius! Best ever!" Maybe this particular list doesn't do that (most people just left classical composers out altogether), but I see it and hear it so often these days - educated people who don't realize how pretentious that type of behavior is. It's okay to admit you don't know a lot about the genre, but you do enjoy a few of the more popular works. Just don't pretend that you're some sort of expert because you saw a movie, or took Classical Music Appreciation 101 for a semester back at college. You waste others' time and only make yourself look like more of an ass.

However, why do I think that this list, or the idea of it, isn't as ridiculous as it sounds? Well, I do agree that it's difficult, if not impossible, to compare artists across genres. Is Tool's "Aenima" even comparable to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue"? It might sound futile, but I my whole thesis in music is that I do believe that they are comparable. I believe that music over the last 300 years has followed from a common, describable, music language, and that you can put Beethoven, Gershwin, Dylan, and the Sex Pistols in the same sentence and have a meaningful discussion. Remember that music fundamentally comes down to the same building blocks: melody, harmony, rhythm, tone, lyrics, form, improvisation, etc. Such that the same technique that allows us to translate English to French allows us to understand music across generations. Not only do I think you can compare artists and works across genre, I think it's important you do so, in order to better understand music and discover new forms of music for the future. As an example, Bach perfected the use of the I-IV-V chord cadence almost 300 years ago, and still today it's one of the most common chord progressions in rock music. I once read an article with a jazz bassist (Charlie Haden) who said "...Bach was my main influence, because the bass lines he wrote were so deep and moving. Bach was the best bass player ever." I agree. The strongest musicians of today are the ones who are in touch with those of yesterday, who understand the theory and styles invented by their fathers, and extend from that base set. The best way to explain why Beethoven was so great was to look at how he took the music before him and changed it forever for those who follow. To say that comparing Beethoven to Bach is futile is to forget that fact. Likewise, to say that you can't compare rock to jazz or classical is to say that rock doesn't have a relationship to classical, which is not true at its deepest levels.

As a result, I don't mind the idea of putting together this list. I think about these things all the time to help me understand music deeper. Furthermore, the reason I am so adamant about Bach or Beethoven at the top of the list is that they invented or mastered so much of what we know of in even today's music - melodies, harmonies, rhythms, etc. They were the fathers. Almost everything we know and hear today derives from their work; today's music owes everything to them. Therefore, it is insane to ignore them from the top 2.

And if you're in any sort of influential position in the music industry, you know better than that. Go ahead and put together the list. But get the right people in the room and put together an intelligent list. You owe your audience more. You owe yourself more.


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