Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Experience Dulled

While watching a concert of 1960s singers and singing groups on PBS, I was struck by the fact that they just stood there. Not that this was new to me, because that is what most acts did back then, but the striking comparison to MTV’s wild actions was splendidly clear.

Jimi Hendrix was one of the filmed participants. Considered a leader of musical direction in his times, he just stood there. What path did the generation take that music moved from being the focus to being a part of an experience? Odd that Jimi Hendrix would be on screen as my thoughts on this developed, as his group was the Jimi Hendrix Experience. I delved deeper as I realized that back when Hendrix was gigantic, most people had never seen him. He played concerts, but the bulk of his followers listened on the radio or to records. An appearance on television in the 1960s was for one song, two at the most; sung on a stage with restricted motion. Lighting was appropriate for a television stage and television technology at the time. Yet, we listened to it, loved it, and bought it.

One of the issues that brings this out is that over the last bunch of years I had had one of my classes spend a week looking for music of alienation in their lives. Any kind of alienation; by any kind of singer people were listening to. Over that period the event of focus is that the number of people who have no idea what the words are has taken off. In the late 1990s it was one or two people per class. It now has approached the majority. While rock has always been subject to this, the majority of the words were clearly apparent. As an old rock and roller I recall putting my head right in the speaker to try and pick out a phrase so my band could use the song and sound right. But the bulk of the songs had no such problem. I remember being in discussions of the meaning of songs, such as “American Pie.” The words were crucial to the point of the song.

I think three things explain this change. [1] Rock music has shifted to a more mushy sound. The Beach Boys and Beatles were people who thought the words important. I am not sure that is true any more. With such a colophony of sound, is any part of it important versus the whole? [2] The music has been visualized. The music is not just music, a set of sounds; it is an “experience.” It is more than sound; it is sight with movement, and sound. Has the point been reached where the visual exceeds the impact of the sound? Is Brittany Spears about seeing Brittany shake, or the sounds? The answer seems obvious. [3] Attention spans may play some role. Listening to the words is a more deeply worked out experience than just passively experiencing the act. One is involved with words because the mind must work with them. IS it as involved when the act involves a mixture of senses?

In all, it is sad. The ability of music to bring messages of meaning is stifled in favor of a mind dulling sensory experience. Of course shutting out the world could be the message. The postmodern experience surely makes great headway in this area.

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