Thursday, June 24, 2010

                                        Noise Annoys
     Parents, as a rule, don’t like the music their kids listen to. They often refer to it as “noise.”

     Kids may or may not call their parents’ music boring. If they’re hearing their elders refer to their music as noise, this is a natural reaction, i.e., “Oh yeah, well yours is boring.” And there’s the generational identity thing of the “new” music, as in the Who’s “My Generation.”

     But what I want to talk about is the parents calling the new music noise. At first blush this just sounds like an insult, but I’d like to take their side here in a backhanded sort of way, because I think what they hear is in fact, to them, merely noise.

     I realized when I reached middle age and started seeing my contemporaries dissing new music (they didn’t get grunge and they really don’t get hip-hop) while I welcomed the changes, that most people can only “hear” music during a small window of their lives, puberty to early twenties. It’s the only time of their lives they’re open to possibility. Any music which comes after that which is not the songs they heard during their window, or songs of the same style, they simply can’t hear as music. It’s just noise. Note 1.

     This window phenomenon figures particularly in popular country music. For the past thirty years at least, the popular country music of the day has been the mainstream rock and roll of fifteen years before, in style at least and sometimes actually the same songs, e.g. Dolly Parton in the nineties covering Fleetwood Mac’s mid-seventies “Landslide.” Thirty-something country musicians play songs such as they heard on commercial rock radio at fifteen.

     This also explains why people who would never have listened to country music in their youth become converts as adults. It’s the only place they can hear “new” music which is a kind they can hear. It also explains serious rock musicians converting to country in their later years, most notably the King himself.

     Some rock musicians can only ever play the music they played when they were young and just keep making that same music. In some cases it gets tiresome, (Jackson Browne, Chuck Berry) but in rare cases a group (Led Zeppelin?) keeps exploring the same genre to good effect.

     Others (Dylan, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, David Bowie) have that rare ability to continue to hear new sounds and make them themselves. It’s those people who keep rock music evolving for new generations.

     Sometimes a musician will release a song about how music ain’t what it used to be, and these are generally awful. Case in point, Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll.” (To give Bob his due, his best songs are reflections on his teenage years (”I started humming a song from 1962…” “It was long ago/But it seems like yesterday”)

     The rare exception is “American Pie,” where I agree with almost nothing the singer is saying but am immediately hooked by the pure genius of the whole.

     Finally I want to talk about “An Old Fashioned Love Song,” partly because it sort of fits my topic but more so because it’s one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard. It was a radio hit for Three Dog Night, one of the last popular rock bands to write none of their hits. You’d think that they would’ve had really good material since they weren’t constrained by having to write songs. Apparently they just had really bad taste and saw that much of the radio public did as well. Also see, “Joy to the World” (Jeremiah was a Bullfrog)

     Anyway the song was written by Paul Williams and contains the lines

Just an old fashioned love song

Comin down in three part harmony

Just an old fashioned love song

One I’m sure they wrote for you and me

    Mr. Williams actually wrote that down on a piece of paper. He probably had more than one draft. Note 2.

     1. I was gratified to hear on NPR a few years back a scientist who had done a study which supported my window theory. This guy had a graduate assistant helping him do research. His assistant played music all the time, which was like all the other assistants he’d had before, but the new guy’s music was driving him crazy.

     He realized after a while that what bothered him so was that the young man wouldn’t stick to one kind of music. Counting Crows would be followed by Mozart, then Elvis then Wu Tang Clan, then Barbara Streisand. The scientist realized that when he himself played music it was the same Pink Floyd albums he’d been listening to for twenty five years. He then observed that most people were like him rather than his assistant.

     After doing some study, he realized that this phenomenon wasn’t just about music but about new possibility generally. Among his observations: if you’re fifty years old and you’ve never tried sushi, you probably never will. Also, the rare person who keeps following new music throughout his life is likely to change professions and interests throughout life.

     2. This last paragraph is stolen from a Paula Poundstone routine about a Snickers commercial.

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