Writing on Air

Writing on Air by Jim Paredes

Music then and now

Posted on May 18, 2014 by jimparedes

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated May 18, 2014 – 12:00am

I have not written too much about music. I find writing about music difficult. Some things are best experienced rather than tossed about in your head and later on laid out and written down logically for people to read. It is easier to experience the Beatles by listening rather than reading about them.

Recently, I gave a talk about creativity and sound. I was invited as a musician to talk about my process of music creativity. I touched on my own early encounter with music and how it became central to my life. In the process, I noticed that the topic of music creativity lent itself to other topics such as self-discovery, spirituality, and personal awakening.

This article will be a simpler discussion. I will share my general thoughts on music as I experienced it growing up and what I think about it in the present.

As a family, there was always music in our house. Instead of spending hours of our childhood watching TV as most families did, we spent it around the music player (or the hi-fi set as it was called in the ‘50s).

We had a few vinyl records. They were mostly American hits, folk songs by the Kingston Trio, Belafonte, Disney albums, Broadway musicals, etc. I remember being so captivated by the recorded sound that I played our records over and over until I memorized practically all of them. I can still remember a good part of them to this day.

It was not hard to understand why I asked for a guitar during my early adolescence. By that time, I had discovered the British Pop invasion and the unraveling of the post-Elvis new music in the US. It was all very exciting. I learned every song I could on the guitar and memorized a whole lot of songs. As far as I was concerned, music was the most important thing in the world and my guitar was the way to know and enjoy music.

Artists like Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Peter Paul and Mary, Marvin Gaye, Jimmy Web, The Temptations and many of the icons of that era of the ‘60s through the ‘70s formed my musical taste. I felt that by learning the songs on guitar, I could learn the songwriting secrets of the best and the brightest musicians of my generation. I learned a lot and in the process and eventually became a songwriter, producer and performer.

The ‘80s brought in music videos and synthesizers. I noticed that the music world quickly changed. All of a sudden, songs had a visual component. When I first saw music videos, I did not know how to feel about it. Not too long after, I decided I did not like them. I felt then that music with videos left very little to the imagination. It was like force-feeding your audience images to stop them from imagining on their own. It seemed to me as though artists wanted greater control on how their audience should react to their music. I also noticed that because of videos, so much mediocre or even bad music began to “look” good, and some good music actually suffered because of bad videos.

Also, with the advent of synthesizers, musicians did not need to learn the chops to play good music anymore. They could now simply cut and paste music, speed up or slow down their playing, or play a song on one instrument like a keyboard, and hear it played back on another like a guitar. Anyone could do music with synthesizers and anyone could sing with the new voice gadgets. While it is true that the new technology of synthesizers and sequencers democratized music creation, it also ensured the massive proliferation of soul-less mediocrity.

I am not alone in saying that the late ‘80s and ‘90s music did not seem to have the same level of quality that ‘70s music had. There was a general sameness in much of the music being created. There was a deficit in imagination. Most of the music was “blah” compared to the glorious ‘70s.

And to me, it did not really get better in the new millennium. Too many people still sound the same. The songs have short, boring hooks that hardly get my attention or interest. More than good melodies and great lyrics, artists now project more hype and attitude than originality and good playing. Many concerts have become primarily visual extravaganzas and mass spectacle rather than exciting, original musical experiences.

Unlike in the ‘70s, there seem to be very few “organic” artists and music makers coming up these days. When I say “organic,” I am talking about artists who are completely original like Dylan, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Michael Jackson and the like who introduced listeners to new, greater experiences of what music could be. They spoke in innovative and clear voices. They thrilled, enthralled, inspired, influenced, shaped and challenged their generation. They were musical giants compared to much of today’s popular artists who merely titillate, amuse and shock mostly through banality and spectacle. I am not even sure if the music industry today could recognize or be interested in an organic artist if they saw one.

I must confess there are only a few artists I enjoy and most of them are not even of the ‘90s or of the present. Among today’s artists, I would consider David Mathews awesome.

I have been listening for years now to artists from different parts of the world. I love Brazilian and Latin music in general. I have not bought any new CDs that were on the US Top 40 playlist the past two decades. I generally shun “commercial” music. I make no apologies about being a snob. Generally, I search for maverick, unknown acts that have something new to say and have yet to hit mainstream.

I have always believed that creators should primarily ask themselves what they want to say first and foremost, and then figure out how they can make their music palatable to their listeners. In today’s world, many artists firstly ask what the market wants, and then mold themselves to fit and cash in on it.

To each his own, I guess.

But I sense the difference between artists who stay on and become icons, and those who are merely “flashes in the pan” lies in the originality and uniqueness of their content.

How does music become universal? For it to become so, the personal, local touch and the truth must shine beyond its intended local audience. What gets people to like something foreign is when the song despite its localized flavor can show a commonality of experience with other nationalities.

Koreans are making it in the world as Koreans and even singing in Korean. So did the Brazilians, Jamaicans, Japanese, Africans, Cubans in the past. I am hoping that one day soon, OPM will also come into its own and contribute to the world.

I know young people may not agree with my views. Maybe I am just too old school. I won’t deny that. And I will also admit that despite my earlier comment, I like some music videos that achieve a spectacular marriage of light and sound. Some cynics suggest that perhaps much of rock ‘n’ roll and pop may have run its course and something new must happen. I don’t know.

I just hope that a new vibrant musical era begins again where artists rediscover the power of substance over style, message over attitude, honesty and integrity over excessive commercialism. I like the music world to be run by music creators, songwriters and true lovers of music, not just the music business.

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