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What We Talk About When We Talk About Music: Part 4 — Music and Identity

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series What We Talk About When We Talk About Music

This post is part of a series. Since the posts build upon one another successively, I suggest you start with the first post in the series.

When my family moved from Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan, I had a pretty hard time of it.

Understatement of my life, but it’ll do. The move began a long period of having the shit kicked out of me, and then struggling to find a way to fit into a youth culture I didn’t really understand. I was almost certainly dealing with PTSD from all the violence; I was definitely emotionally a mess; I was lost and confused about who I was; and my peers were, like all schoolkids, none too sympathetic.

This continued for years, until, at one point, I moved from one school to another, from one neighborhood to another, and I decided that I would rebrand myself. Not that I understood what I was doing in those terms, exactly: I thought of it more as camouflage, as a way of shielding myself from unwanted attention.

I got myself a walkman, and copied some loud, guitar-crammed tapes from a friend of mine named Kyle Thompson. I bought myself a black jean jacket, and a Guns’n’Roses backpatch, and badges. I let my hair get as unruly as my (fairly strict) mother would allow me, and slapped the headphones on when I went out, the music cranked up loud enough for other people to hear the buzz of ambient noise from them. (There were no earbuds in those days, but I wouldn’t have wanted them anyway: the music was more about my newly-crafted identity than about something to listen to anyway, even if it did allow a sort of outlet for my long pent-up rage.)

Lo and behold: it worked. People didn’t approach me like I was wearing a “beat the crap out of me” sign on my forehead. A girl named Melanie with whom I’d gone to elementary school called me one day, after seeing me at the mall with my jacket on, and complimented me on it in such a way as to advertise interest in me. I made friends more easily, at least among people in the subtribe who liked that sort of music. Nobody said anything about my obsession with D&D, or made fun of me for drawing dragons and elven warriors in my spare time, or writing poetry. I was a headbanger.

Consider the final sentence of the preceding paragraph: what does was mean in this context? Was I playing the role of a headbanger, or was I in actual fact one?

It’s a question best left to philosophers, because personally, I cannot answer it definitively. I adopted the identity of a headbanger, of a G’n’R fan. I acted like one, and while my adoption of the role served a social-adaptive purpose, that does not mean there wasn’t an element of role-playing involved. In the city where I undertook this task of self-rebranding, there were three sorts of boys my age: metalheads, hockey players, and nerds who got their asses kicked. I’d simply opted into the the affinity group that invovled the least physical violence being inflicted on me, since after all I had never learned to ice-skate properly.

After my sisters had been taking music lessons for about six months, I think it was, I approached my mother saying that I, too, wanted to learn music. She asked me what instrument I wanted to play, and I told her I wanted to learn electric guitar. She refused, on the grounds that I’d probably join a rock band and start doing drugs (which, though it aggrieved me at the time, I am now thankful for). So I told her I wanted to learn drums, which she also refused because she feared I’d lose my hearing. When, possessed by a fantastical sense of my father’s Scottish heritage, I suggested bagpipes, she told me I’d have to practice outside, which, in Northern Saskatchewan was a non-starter.

So I was watching the film Lost Boys–I can’t remember whether it was just on TV, or I was watching a VHS tape of it (!!!)–when I saw this scene:

That was it. I went to my mom, and told her I wanted to learn saxophone. I was going to be a rock sax player, like Tim Cappello, the “epic Sax Guy” in the Lost Boys scene above. I would have giant muscles and do pelvic thrusts onstage while playing a total of about ten notes on a tenor sax in front a horde of cheering, bedazzled of beautiful young people, including gorgeous young brunettes in white sleeveless tops who would be looking at me that way instead of at Jason Patric’s character.

Then my mom got me an alto sax, and I went to band camp, and reality set in… a little. I didn’t sound like Tim Cappello, for starters. I sounded more like this:

No insult to that kid. That’s pretty good for a month of playing. I was a little more out of tune, and sloppier with the fingering, but about the same. Everyone’s about the same after a month of sax. Mastering this contraption was going to take work: scales, arpeggios, exercises… daily practice.

Fast-forward a year, and I was still not sounding like Tim Cappello. I still did not have huge muscles, or long hair, or gorgeous young brunettes making eyes at me. Had I taken up the guitar, by this time I would likely have been in a rock band, but here I was still grinding out scales and arpeggios and etudes on my alto sax. But, as luck would have it, my teacher–a bassoonist and a local band teacher–told my parents that I’d learned everything I could from him, and it was time for me to move on to a proper saxophone instructor.

Which I did. (At no small expense to my family: my weekly lessons were in a city 90 minutes from where we lived, for starters, and my father drove me there every two weeks. That’s dedicated parenting.)

During my first lesson, I told my instructor-to-be that I wanted to play rock sax. A vision of Tim Cappello onstage, of the gorgeous brunettes in the white sleeveless tops, of my soon-to-arrive muscles, danced in my mind, while my teacher…

… laughed. He laughed aloud, and told me that if I could play jazz, then playing rock would be easy, so it would be better to learn jazz.

Then he gave me a cassette tape of Miles Davis tracks. I’ve long since lost the cassette, but it was a compilation LP of various Miles Davis quintet performances, and a who’s who of New York City 1950s jazz musicians: Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Red Garland, Max Roach… though I didn’t know who any of these people were, or why I ought to be listening to this old-fashioned crap.

But since it was homework from my sax teacher, and it would help me become achieve this:

and this:

… I listened to it anyway. Once, then twice.

Nothing happened for a while. I didn’t know how to listen to it, or, you know, what purpose the music served. It’s not like I could crank it up to ward off bullies. There were no Miles Davis back patches available at the “music” shop downtown.

And then, at one point, I got it. Something clicked, and I realized: this music wasn’t about backpatches or hairstyles or being cool or not being a loser. It wasn’t about huge muscles or hip thrusts. I still hoped it might be about gorgeous brunettes for a while longer, but otherwise, the scales fell from my eyes when I got it, probably a few months after the tape came into my possession. I understood, finally:

This music wasn’t about any of those things because this music was, first and foremost, about the music.

Rock saxophone is a funny thing to talk about, once you know enough to know why. But maybe I can help you get a handle on it. One way is to compare the work of musicians who have led bifurcated careers, like, for example, Branford Marsalis, who has played both in the popular music realm, and the “pure music” realm.

Here he is with Sting, playing in a pop/rock mode:

(Or the album version, here.)

And here’s what the man can really do:

Or for something a bit gentler:

Whatever you think about jazz music, it’s obvious that Marsalis is doing something more complex, more interesting, and more expressive in the latter tracks, while in his playing on the Sting tune, he’s essentially providing a little ornamentation most of the time.

The funny thing is that this is true of all the musicians in a popular music setting: everything they do essentially adds up to simplistic ornamentation, because the focus of the “music” is not the music, but the singer, the lyrics he or she sings, the narrative they convey.

By the way, here’s what Marsalis says Sting told him:

“It’s not about the songs, even… this is rock star stuff…”

Elsewhere–in another video from this interview session, I think–Marsalis says that at rock concerts, people aren’t there for the music, but because the show is an event, with a lights show and dancers and explosions and so on. People download music, he argues, because the realize it is really a fashion accessory with a limited shelf life.

This, coming from someone who played with for years Sting, who once said he’d idolized Elton John and who speaks positively of Bruce Springsteen in the same video above. Take it from me: Marsalis knows of what he speaks.

I’ve discussed, in earlier posts, what I think big business has done to music; I’ve discussed how I listen to music, and my impression of how people who consume primarily popular music listen to it–and the differences between them.

But I want to go back to that first post in this series. I want to talk about one of the more crucial components of the hybrid form we call the music industry, because if it were simply the case that popular music were merely a hybrid form of performance art, I wouldn’t be so leery about it.

The thing that makes me leery is how big businesses exploit probably our biggest Achilles heel in the modern world, and most especially the Achilles heel of the young modern person: identity.

After all, it’s no mistake that popular music targets, and is consumed very energetically by, people in their teen years. Teenagers are casting about for an identity, they are often desperate to fit into society, to have something they can lean on, a functional persona for social living. For me, and for a lot of young people I knew, music was one tool for building that persona… or rather, it was presented to me–and understood by me–as a tool for that purpose.

It wasn’t until I reached Korea that I realized people who listen to a certain kind of music don’t necessarily dress a certain way, or act a certain way. I’ve met, in Seoul, punk rockers who were as polite as my own ever were to me. I’ve met rock drummers who I’d have pegged for D&D nerd chicks back home when I was their age.

The culture industry–the networked businesses that sell us our clothing, our music, our films, our favorite TV shows, our books and magazines–have a vested interest in short-circuiting that process observed by Keats in the following lines, taken from this letter:

Call the world if you Please “The vale of Soul-making”. Then you will find out the use of the world (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it) I say ‘Soul making’ Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence- There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions-but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself.

To use the Keatsian term, “soul-making” is a bit like mastering an instrument: it doesn’t come overnight, but rather takes time, takes searching and questioning and investigation. I believe one of the purposes of art is to facilitate this process, by which humans achieve their identity, by which they find out who they are.

In that context, art that facilitates this kind of development and growth–this soul-making–is positive, while art that stifles (along with everything else that stifles it) it is negative.

Which is where my problems with popular music (and a lot of entertainment) begin. For one thing, the simplified narratives necessary in hybrid art forms are one thing, but having worked in a music store for several years as a young man, what I found was that the narratives were incredibly constrained, incredibly hyperdetermined. Love stories came in only a few varieties; conflicts were predictable and ever-familiar in their limited scope. Gender roles, definitions of success… they were all utterly and stiflingly conventional in a myriad of ways, and even the rejection of those conventional narratives took on a predictable, conventional form. (In a word, rebellion.)

I’ve learned a lot of things from reading blogs written, for example, by Asian-Americans and African-Americans commenting on media and entertainment, specifically about what it’s like to live in a world where the media has a ridiculously limited and set number of scripts for people who look like you. (Likewise, trying to imagine what it’s like to grow up as a homosexual in a world where nearly all of the love stories in the mass media (in movies and TV and music) depict heteronormative love stories. My GLBT friends have never talked about it with me, but those friendships led me to imagine.)

But, like I say in Part 3 of this series when I discuss “Gangnam Style,” the hypertrophy of this limitedness (at the cognitive bottleneck of racism) is really just an extreme in terms of degree, not of kind. The fact is that all modern people live enmeshed in a social system where an overwhelmingly limited, constraining range of scripts are available.

This is true in all cultures, of course–every culture has its constraints, and its limitations–but mass media performs its constraining function in a way where culture–the common living property of all human beings within the culture, which can be fought over and changed by people within it–is instead transformed into a product that is mass-distributed for profit. If the world was in the days of Keats the “vale of soul-making,” the vale has been redeveloped into a factory where souls are now mass-produced, and there are a really limited number of models available.

What is most horrifying is that music–something that, in its finest examples and its most exemplary moments–can be a profoundly freeing thing. The music is about the music in the same way that meditation is about meditation, or running a marathon is about running a marathon. By the experience of transcending our social context, traveling into the world of abstraction, challenging ourselves to step beyond the narratives and the identities provided for us–for a given purchase price–we are able to find out who we are outside of the context in which we find ourselves… and thus we are able to reflect on that context, to realize that perhaps that context is not fixed, not absolute. The revolutionary imagination–the mind that insists on betterment, on change, on ceasing in the error of our ways–is absolutely dependent on society-/culture-transcendent experiences, and especially today, when it’s really hard to get out into the woods, music can serve that function.

How immense and terrible is the irony, then, that instead, it has been reduced to a consumer product that inherently–in the narratives that dominate the lyrics of popular music, and its narrative-driven videos, and the personae and meta-narratives of popular music–acts against that kind of experience, reinforcing the status quo and insisting upon the conventional, consumerist mode of achieving identity.

An earlier generation declared that the personal was political; but if the personal–our very identities–are consumer goods, then what does that make the political?

It makes it for sale, like everything else in this world of ours. But the price we pay is not merely monetary… as usual. I believe that the steamrollering and jettisoning of culture on the large scale–what I discussed in part 1 of this post–is mirrored on the personal scale. The prefab identities sold to us as integrally formed around the music we listen to, the clothing we wear, the foods we eat, the car we drive, the beverages we drink (or aspire to let ourselves be seen drinking) all are part of this.

And it leaves me unsure of what can be done, what is to be done. The companies have been hard at work on creating this situation, for decades now, and their influence has infiltrated every nook and cranny of modern civilization. Even if we wanted to throw off the shackles they have crafted for us, we wouldn’t know where to start–since, after all, most of us eat TV dinners in most aspects of our lives.

Which is why it’s possible to be a jazz fan, and read Dan Brown and wear sweatshop clothing; it’s possible to be a foodie and yet never listen to anything besides popular music. It’s not only possible: it’s something that’s integral to the design of our entertainment and popular culture system. Even if one crosses the lines drawn on the pavement in one category of one’s consumer life, it’s rare for someone to cross the lines in all categories, because who has time?

So one is guaranteed to be consuming inhibitive, debased, corporate garbage–the stuff that runs counter to Keatsian soul-making–in most areas of one’s life, no matter what.

For all the benefits of modern consumer society, this leaves me wondering how much we’ve lost from human nature, what the cost has been… and when and if we will ever finally recover from it. It’s heartbreaking when the sordid mess stands before you in the clear light of day.

Heartbreak often leads to other emotions. Which is why I often get emotional about this stuff: because to me, it’s not just the arts that have been strangled to death sometime in the last century: it’s also us, all of us, on some level we haven’t realized yet, and may never do.

Consider this an addendum to what I wrote in Part 1… a special case of the observations made toward the end of that post, I suppose. Or perhaps, a rallying cry, or a crying out in the wilderness. I’m not sure which. But it’s late, and I need to end this post now.

One more installment, tomorrow… maybe. (Unless there’s call for a sixth, but five is all I have lined up, and so the last post is in the chamber, for now. Would be nice if those reading commented: this series has taken me weeks to write, and has been one of the hardest things I’ve had to write for this blog… and it seems to be getting very little notice, unfortunately.)

Series Navigation<< What We Talk About When We Talk About Music: Part 3 — HybridityWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Music: Part 5 — What I Listen to When I Listen to Popular Music >>
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