Old guy music rant. This one should annoy everyone. Including me.
My friends hate it when I make fun of some commercial hip hop and let my music nerd/snob flag fly. No matter how much I express my deep love for the likes of James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Stevie Wonder, Tribe, Arrested Development, and the Roots, people think I’m expressing anti-blackness when I say I'm not a huge fan of Kanye or Beyonce. But what I’m expressing is my love for music and people who make it.
And it’s not just hip hop or R&B. Just to piss off everyone else, I sometimes suspect groups like Radiohead are trolling us by playing nonsensical, non-melodic weirdness for 5-20 minutes. In my darker moments, I suspect Radiohead is playing to western assumptions about orientalism or “world music” ethnocentrism by playing “non-western” sounding music. I suppose I am now expressing anti-whiteness. But I sometimes dig their music.
There has always been this thing where people think they are hearing or seeing one thing, but they are projecting that thing onto something that is…not that thing. Kenny G was not jazz. Leif Garrett was not rock ‘n roll or…anything. Vanilla Ice…let’s just not talk about that. Acid jazz is neither acid nor jazz. And then there is this desire among some people to feel like they “get” something that is not easily “gotten.” This could be a definition of a “hipster.” A dude with a beard might talk about how he loves jazz but does not listen to actual jazz. He listens to EDM. Now, both have similarities, I guess. They can be cacophonous. They can have complex rhythms. They are not universally enjoyable in a melodic or flashy pop dancy sense. But one is largely played by people who have studied, practiced, and dedicated their lives to their craft. They learn music theory back and forth, and have to rehearse extensively when they play live with others. And the other is largely played by people who spend a few hours at their laptop with Ableton or Garageband layering pre-made loops. And then they hit “enter” in front of an audience. There are notable exceptions to both of my generalizations.
Last night I saw a similar scene. I often say I would rather listen to four people playing guitar, bass, drums and keys badly than something generated by a computer. After listening to some bands in local clubs and theaters, I need to rethink that notion.
Godspeed You! Black Empreror (that’s the whole name) can only be one of two things with a name like that. It’s either a collection of virtuoso musicians with a campy sense of humor who don’t take themselves too seriously, or they are a group of people who have an inflated sense of self playing droning nonsense to hipsters who take themselves very seriously.
They might be virtuoso musicians, but they definitely have an inflated sense of self, playing droning nonsense to hipsters and take themselves very seriously.
They came on stage and a woman playing violin and a dude playing standup bass starting playing a note in unison. There was an occasional 5thplayed by one of two guys sitting down playing guitar. The note went on for what felt like an hour but was probably about 5 minutes. The drummer hit a drum here and there. The note grew louder for another 5 minutes. People started to sway as if in a trance. It was a kind of spiritual vibe with the single note droning on for so long. It would have been cool if the whole thing took 5 minutes. Maybe 6. But it was almost 15 minutes of the note droning on and building up in volume with a drum circle rhythm played by the drummer and an extra percussionist.
That’s when it hit me. This was a drum circle with lots of droning instruments playing a single note played by and listened to by a generation raised to believe that anything done sincerely is amazing. Some dudes behind me yelled to each other, “Amazing!”
I didn’t think it was amazing. I was annoyed. For the first few minutes of the note, I waited, in anticipation, for something to start. I was with them. A groove, a melody, a progression had to about to begin. After the first five minutes, I started to feel duped. After the song ended 15 minutes later on that same droning note, I was just mad.
It occurred to me that this group of white musicians was attempting to copy the droning sitar music of South Asia. And the mostly white audience thought it was engaging in some spiritual awakening (and maybe they were). It felt like the ultimate Columbusing. And two of the dudes playing guitar sat on chairs. Their heads were always bent intensely, bobbing in unison. Most of the time I couldn’t tell what they were playing, but clearly they were giving off the impression that what they were playing required incredible concentration and physical energy which could not allow for standing on the stage. But they were not Segovia. They were more like Daft Punk. They should have worn shiny helmets while playing their droning one and two-chord songs. I’m going to feel really bad if I find out they are physically unable to stand up.
To be fair, there was a cool piece they did in 7/8 that had chord changes and did require all members to keep time and know the changes and breaks to the song. But I can’t tell if I enjoyed it because it was actually a cool song or because my soul was starving for music, and they threw me a tiny bone.
My ears felt like they were about to start bleeding, so we went to the lobby of the Wiltern to listen. If I’m going to get tinnitus, it’s not going to be from a band playing one fucking note. No, it’s going to be at an Iron Maiden concert or standing too close to the speakers at the symphony.
As we stood near the entrance to the theater, a tall black security guard saw us and walked purposefully towards us. He seemed to be the head of security because he wore a nice black suit with a big badge and and earpiece. I assumed he was going to tell us to stand somewhere else, away from the door.
“Can you explain this to me?” he said, pointing to the theater.
We were confused. I was about to tell him we were moving, but his question caught us off guard.
“This!” he said pointing inside. “It’s just noise. And they all seem to love it.”
We laughed. I had nothing. I told him I didn’t get it, either. And I realized he came to talk to us because we were a small group of non-white people.
“I mean, I work here all the time. I hear all kinds of music. But this…” he shook his head again.
As we left early to go eat, we passed the security guard again, and I pulled him aside.
“I have a theory,” I said. “This is what these white kids think is jazz.”
He pointed at me. “That must be it.”