Thursday, July 02, 2009

A century of progress

Co-worker Mary Kunz Goldman made an interesting point in her blog today. (Note: this in itself is not noteworthy.) It prompted a comment from me on her site, but the more I thought about it the more I realized it deserved more than that.

After mentioning that Jackson's newer material hadn't been heard on the radio much lately, she writes, "I have also not heard 'Beat It' for years. Or 'Billie Jean.' Which makes me think: They will not be listening to these songs in 100 years. Sorry."

I think that's a safe guess, but not for the expected reasons.

One hundred years ago, we were going through something of a transition in the music business. For generations, music was passed along in two ways -- through the composer and/or live performer (sometimes the same person). The composer would sit down and write something, and it would be performed somewhere else. The good stuff -- let's include material by people like Bach and Mozart, for example -- survived. So, if you had a dinner party, you'd pick up the sheet music, get someone to play the piano, and you'd have your post-food entertainment. Or, you'd go to a concert hall and hear someone perform some songs in front of a few hundred people.

What was the music that stood the test of time back then? The "classical" stuff, obviously. Some Broadway-type musicals could be carted around the country easily enough and performed. And then there was folk music. The number one song on July 1, 1909, was "Shine On, Harvest Moon," which was part of the Ziegfeld Follies, so I guess it fits into the musical category.

But change was on the way. The Victrola was just coming into its own as a consumer good in 1909. Suddenly, a performance could be captured for posterity. Singers and musicians could pick up fans in a great hurry.

Think about what's happened to music technology in those 100 years. People used to listen to a song at a time on 78's, which eventually led to 33's (more music by one artist without the listener getting up to change albums), which led to cassette players, which led, sort of, to 8-tracks (oops), which led to compact disks, which led to iTunes and the whole digital revolution. We've gone from record needles to computer chips in my lifetime alone. Then there's the issue of amplification, which means that hockey rinks and football stadiums can be filled with sound. Thousands can share the same musical experience instead of just those within the sound of the voice or instrument.

Meanwhile, the music itself (just ponder electric guitars and synthesizers) and the people who play it have changed in that time too. My guess is that the singers were mostly on the generic side until the 1940's, when particular bands and singers became closely associated with certain songs. In other words, you could draw a line from Frank Sinatra (who became the first star as we define it now) to Elvis Presley (who capitalized on the rise of the rock and roll) to the Beatles (singers who could write great songs) to, yes, Michael Jackson, a crossover artist who made us one nation under the same groove for a few years.

Jackson was one of the last artists who made Top Forty music matter back in the early 1980's. After that, the music business fractured and you could no longer drive down the Thruway hearing the same song on every station from town to town any more. How many artists can fill a stadium for a concert any more? Music is still finding an audience, of course, but the hip-hop crowd looks a lot different than the country crowd, and so on down the line, and there's isn't much mixing.

Which gets us back to Mary's point. We'll still be listening to some of today's music in 100 years, because we'll be able to do so. Sinatra will make some swoon. The Beatles will always leave listeners admiring their artistry. And Jackson will be around when people want to dance. But mostly, the people of the next 100 years will be listening to their own fresh music, reflecting their own times and delivered to their ears in ways that we can't begin to imagine.

And I kind of like that idea. Hope I'm around to hear as much of it as possible.


Glenn Locke, The Tall Thin Guy said...

Ah, but more than 100 years ago Bach, Mozart, Bethoven, et al, were writing music that is still enjoyed today. The great stuff will be around in some form 100 years from now. Probably not "Kung Foo Fighting" though.

Budd Bailey said...

I almost put Bach before Sinatra, but wanted to stick to 20th century artists.

Like Karl Douglas, of "Kung Fu Fighting" fame.