WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT MUSIC

by Mike Vinti.

If 2014 was the year of anything it was the year popular music started to be taken seriously. Services such as Spotify, and the dawn of Smartphones, means that music is more a part of our lives than ever before; a trend that’s influencing the way we engage with it both in terms of platform and as an art-form. It’s easy to view music as a compliment to life, a melodic enhancer to otherwise mundane activities and there’s nothing particularly wrong with treating it as such — I can’t force you to like Death Grips. Music can and should bring pleasure, but as we listen to more and more of it, its messages and intentions are being ignored.

For years now, debate has raged about the messages and politics in TV, Cinema and in Literature, hell, even music videos have had their fifteen minutes of ‘long read’ blog coverage, yet music itself has gone largely ignored. The reason for this, as a friend of mine noted recently, is because of music’s ubiquity — it’s everywhere, all the time. It soundtracks our walks home and our work, our free time and our periods of most intense concentration — as I write this, I am, totally unsurprisingly, listening to music.

This may sound contradictory but bear with me. Since its inception, debate on popular music has been by and large reserved to questions of relevance and aesthetic, interspersed with faux political posturing around whichever U2/ Bob Dylan album has just come out/ is being rereleased. In short, it’s been a bit lacking in substance; not all of it, by any means, but a lot. This debate is again confined to the Music Press, magazines like NME and online sites like Pitchfork, who provide a haven for music-nerds like me to indulge their voracious appetite for underground music and think-pieces on Kanye West.  In the interests of full disclosure, I used to read the NME avidly, and I still read Pitchfork.

The problem isn’t that this type of journalism exists; it’s that it has a monopoly over the way we talk about music in the media.

This means, ironically, commentary on probably the most egalitarian art form is hugely elitist, seeking to one-up rival publications by focusing on a constantly shifting roster of ‘buzz-bands’ and ‘hot new singer songwriters’, often in lieu of serious debate.  As much as it fuels me, I can appreciate that not everyone has the time or inclination to keep up with the evolution of music, sometimes you just want to listen to Taylor Swift. If you’re one of those people, Pitchfork or the Quietus probably aren’t for you.  However, the combination of a music press obsessively blogging every new EP and Mixtape, and a mainstream one that more or less ignores it, means that a lot of people don’t engage with music as anything more than background noise.

Music, be it Swift’s or Q-Tip’s, is an act of expression. It’s as much a political artefact as any novel or play and is a reflection of its time as much as any work of visual art. Ignoring this aspect of music, as much of the mainstream press have, creates a culture in which you’re either ‘into music’ and caricatured as a Hipster, or out the loop and dismissed as a philistine. In the mainstream press, popular music can’t win. The only music coverage you’ll see in most of the press are album reviews and end of year lists, where music is easily digested into numerical units, its nuance and artistic merit reduced to a score out of ten, or worse, five.

This lack of intelligent debate around popular music prevents it from evolving, as long as r&b is dismissed as sexist, it’ll stay sexist.

The way we talk about something, and in this case where it is talked about, greatly impacts the reality of it.  Progressive popular music shouldn’t be the preserve of a sheltered class of bloggers and self-declared ‘music journalists’. It should be celebrated and challenged in mainstream press much as Cinema is, after all most people are ‘mainstream’. It shouldn’t take Azealia Banks to start a conversation about appropriation in hip-hop.

(Azalea Banks © rollingout.com)

Last year this started to change, mainstream papers, especially the Guardian and New York Times, gave debates on and about music more coverage, especially with regard to the representation of women and minorities. Issues of cultural appropriation are taking up column inches in Time and at last popular music is beginning to be seen as more than entertainment. Websites like Vice sister site,  Noisey, have been giving popular music the coverage its due for a while now as well, managing to cover emerging artists and host serious discussion on music as an art form and a cultural event.

Music, like any other culture, is a reaction to the times in which it was created. The reality may be that most people don’t care about popular music as much more than entertainment, but that never stopped Film Studies being a degree did it?

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