Music as Art is Missing the Mark

If societal and cultural conditions didn't impact music, we wouldn't see so many homeless people on the street playing guitar to make a buck.

It’s my belief society and culture should impact music, not vice versa.

I was watching American Idol last night, which was really the first time I’ve ever done so for more than a few minutes since it premiered. It didn’t take me long to diagnose why the show isn’t for me: I hate karaoke. Idol is a karaoke contest where the winner is thrust into the spotlight, cuts an album of pre-prefabricated songs and gets thrown on tour after months of performer’s boot camp. It’s a sickening presentation from all angles and it’s diluting pop culture worse than anyone ever thought it would.

This post isn’t about Idol, per se, but that’s a good starting place because the show best represents pop music’s detachment from mainstream America. While it’s great to hear songs about love and breaking up and compromising the headlights of an unfaithful lover’s truck, ultimately, none of that stuff really matters.

No one’s saying anything substantive in music right now, which is mind-blowing considering the recession and two wars we’re fighting right now.

This post also isn’t about protest music. That’s been done. What I mean to say is pop music is flat missing the American experience in 2010. It may not result in the most uplifting music, but music (as art) should take the time to represent struggle, and not just on a personal level. (Hip-hop covers the personal struggle bit well.) I mean to say it should also provide a record of the highs and lows we face socially, culturally, economically, morally, etc.

Art was made to help us express feelings. Does the iTunes Top 10 Singles chart represent the pulse of Americans right now?

No more beating around the bush here. I can think of exactly one song that represents America from 2008-Now, and that’s “Guarantees” by Atmosphere. The album from which it came, If Life Gives You Lemons, Paint That Shit Gold, was released on April 22, 2008 — months before the first bailout was passed and the breadth of the recession was realized. This song came out before Barack Obama was elected president, before the job market fell apart and the banking industry was exposed for its shameless practices. But no song is more true to the American experience as history will remember it.

Here’s the track with the lyrics below:

[V1]
These warehouse wages kill the end’s introduction
Man, I shoulda’ shchooled it up when I was younger, shoulda’ stuck to plan
Always had the dreams of bein’ more self-assertive
And my kid’s a teenager now, he needs the health insurance
So break my body, break-break my soul down
Just another zombie walkin’ blindly through ya ghost town
Pull up to the bar to politic and tap the power
Ain’t nobody really all that jolly at your happy hour
But I don’t wanna go home yet
So I’ma talk to my cigarette and that television set
It doesn’t matter what brand or station
Anything to take away from the current situation
No overtime pay, no holiday
Months behind on everything but the lottery
Winter ’round the corner, guaranteein’ that my car dies
Wifey havin’ trouble tryna juggle both the part-times
My cup ain’t close to filled up
We tryna build up so we could have enough
And when I finally get the color, won’t be nothin’ else to paint on
A friend of mine tried to kill himself to the same song

[V2]
My better half is mad at makin’ magic outta can goods
My tax bracket status got her questionin’ my manhood
My shorty got caught smokin’ weed at a concert
And if I smack ’em everybody treats me like a monster
My neighbors ain’t doin’ much better
And we makin’ competition instead of stickin’ together
Can’t save no nest egg, in fact this nest is rented
In fact that rent is late, wait
The money ain’t here, the raise ain’t comin’
Just me and my son and that crazy woman
And those bartenders, this whole fuckin’ country
Got everybody swallowin’ that lunch meat
Maybe we could speed up the process
Kill me in my thirties in the name of progress
Put me in the dirt and then change the topic
Sometimes seems like the only way to stop it
Contemplate my departure date
Doesn’t take a lot to get a lot of us to talk this way
Take a shot at me, that’s all I’m obligated for
Apparently my only guarantee is a walk-away

[Outro x2]
The only guarantee in life
Is a life worth dyin’ for
Cause death don’t wait for no one
It’s sittin’ on yo front door

More than likely, this track strikes you as grim, hopeless, haunting, or even pessimistic. But the reality is this is a lot of people’s reality on Mar. 3, 2010.

I’m always looking for music that will remind me of a place and time, by which I don’t mean something that was playing in the background of a memory or hogged the airwaves for a month or so. I’m looking for music that captures the feeling and meaning of a time. And while no one likes to recall hard times, I think we, as a country, will eventually get to a place where the job market is bountiful, national debt is minimized, wars are finished and national morale is restored. And when we do, it’s important to remember how bad things were before they got better. Music gives us that opportunity.

If only more people were making that kind of music.

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2 thoughts on “Music as Art is Missing the Mark

  1. Well said! I thought I agreed with you until I thought about the music I use to get through the day… I need something that says I’ll get over this, this sucks right now but it will pass. When I’m feeling like crap I don’t want a song that’s going to make me feel worse. Yeah when I’m angry I want to hear angry songs but when I’m sad I want to hear something that’s going to change my mood. Maybe that’s just me and how my brain works.
    I am also torn b/c I agree there should be more out there that represents what’s going on, but maybe they don’t do it because they know what sells and what doesn’t…

    • I agree, Steph. A whole album about economic hardship would be a miserable listening experience. And I didn’t want to make it sound like artists are obligated to write/sing about these things; rather they have the opportunity and they continually pass. Forty years ago, blues would’ve taken these topics to task. Thirty-five years ago, Bob Dylan would’ve made it an entire album. I’m saying a song here and there might seem necessary.

      Thanks for commenting!

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