...if we dig beneath [the] second, smiling mask of civilization--the belief that civilization's visual or musical arts, for example, are more developed than those of noncivilized peoples--we find a mirror image of civilization's other face, that of power. For example, it wouldn't be the whole truth to say that visual and musical arts have simply grown or become more highly advanced under this system; it's more true that they have long ago succumbed to the same division of labor that characterizes this culture's economics and politics. Where among traditional indigenous people--the "uncivilized"--songs are sung by everyone...within civilization songs are written and performed by experts, those with "talent," those whose lives are devoted to the production of these arts... I'm not certain I'd characterize the conversion of human beings from participants in the ongoing creation of communal arts to more passive consumers of artistic products manufactured by distant experts...as a good thing.There is much about Jensen's books that appeals to me, though I've been thinking a lot lately about the possibility of the inevitability of civilization in general, capitalism in particular. And I've been doing some reading that has deeply complicated my thinking on these matters, which I hope to write about relatively soon.
Anyway, Ethan posted this passage from Jensen about music and the arts just two days after Marcello Carlin posted what I think is one of his finest entries at his excellent Then Play Long blog (in which, recall, he has taken it upon himself to review every album to reach the top of the charts in the UK) and which I immediately connected with the Jensen. The post was about, of all things, Top of the Pops, Volume 18—as anonymous an album as one could hope to hear, it would seem, and one that I would not expect to want to read about. The Top of the Pops albums were not simply collections of hits, but rather generic re-recordings of hits by generally no-name or aspiring session musicians and the like. From the point of view of those of us who follow or have followed music closely, such a collection sounds utterly dreary and is likely anathema to our way of thinking. But they were hugely popular in Britain. And Carlin has some fascinating things to say about that. He writes:
Looking at the remarkable success of these records begs some key questions, not the least of which is: what, and who, is music for? Remember that in the days before the vinyl record took hold of the market – and some considerable way into those same days – the song, not the performer, was predominant, the thing which attracted us. Even when the singles chart commenced at the end of 1952, record sales were very much a minority; sheet music was dominant, a harking back to the time when every family’s parlour bore a piano, when a family would learn to play the piano, sing these songs in their own homes, or in the pub. Delving into the early days of the singles chart, the commonest phenomenon is that of several competing versions of the same song; everyone had their individual preferences, but the song was the common/unifying factor.I've provided an overly long quotation here because he says a few different things here, and I like how he moves through the ideas. But the things that stuck out at me are the importance of the song over the performer and the links back to when music was played by more people rather than being left to the experts. I thought of songs we all know, and songs I sing to my daughter. And I thought again about the tension between individuality and community, about what has been lost in our rush ahead, and whether it's possible to regain anything of it, when we've re-made the world and re-conceived of it as a place in which individuals move, on their own, independent, always striving, we are told, for independence. . .
People like Elvis and the Beatles detoured us. We grew to think that now the artist was the thing which mattered, the song secondary, the growth of individualism, the decline of familial and societal bonds (even if few artists did more than Elvis or the Beatles to unite the disparate strands of their multiple followings). And we decided that we had to take music seriously, to pin it down and analyse it, connect it to what else was occurring in the world, anybody’s and everybody’s world.
But the non-specialist consumer continued to confound these ambitions, and in various important ways still does. What we have to bear most importantly in mind – and this is common sense rather than revolutionary theory – is that most of us aren’t that bothered about music. Oh, we love it, couldn’t really do without it – what do these forty million people who never listen to music do with, or to, themselves? – but, as Tim Rice pointed out long ago (his introductory note to the 1981 edition of the Guinness Book Of Hit Singles, to be exact), the sheep get separated from the goats at around the age of eighteen – most people then relegate music to the background of their lives, but a small number of obsessives remain spellbound by music, feel the need to go even deeper into music, to keep up with new developments, to retrace histories.
But we continue to sing songs and like songs, be momentarily transported by songs, and it’s that residue which provides the main bloodstream in which music is actually able to live and survive. To connect all of this back to things like the Top Of The Pops series, a song catches the ear of a potential record buyer, and they like the song – it’s catchy, stays in their mind, they unconsciously whistle it while making breakfast – but they’re not particularly concerned about the backstory of either the song or the singer, unless the latter is a major figure; and even then they’ll allow some slack.