Home » Writing » More Perfect Union » More Perfect Union: Music

More Perfect Union: Music

You’re at a game, crammed into the seats like everyone else. It could be any of the big sports, but you can predict it especially easily when it’s hockey. At the first break in the action the wailing guitars crank up in a way that bring the image of a hand rolling the knob over hard. You sing along, or rather shout along, to the only word that goes along with it – “Hey!” Yes, it’s Rock & Roll (Part 2) by Gary Glitter, but neither you nor nearly anyone knows that. What you do know is that this is one of those songs that is part of a good time at the game, all as part of the price of admission.

It’s hard to talk about the bits and pieces of our common culture without starting with sporting events. They are the one place in our world where just about anyone from any of the many sub-cultures that live near each other have a chance of coming together. Part of the whole experience is the music, the stuff that we all know the words to – even if we don’t know who wrote it or that he spent time prison in Vietnam for child sexual abuse.

Very few pieces of music become this disconnected from their origins, but those that do have a special place in our culture. It used to be that mega-hits became bigger than the person that wrote them regularly. Top-40 radio was created as a format which broke up the traditional half-hour shows and presented a kind of jukebox for the listener, the number 40 chosen because it’s the number of singles a jukebox held at the time. The top choices from around the nation, determined by through a mysterious process that included at least a little payola, were listened to simultaneously by people across the nation. Some of them became so popular that people got to know the lyrics and called back to have them played again.

That’s what it takes for a song to become culturally important. People across all the various divides have to know it, and know it well enough to sing along. It has to be a ubiquitous background music that rises to the foreground. In short, everyone has to know it and pretty much expect it.

How many tunes make it to that place these days?

Without a common radio format, we can’t expect much new music to hit that level. It’s just that much harder to become a real Rockstar these days.  If you look at the songs that seem to have gotten to that stage, Gary Glitter’s 1972 opus is just a shade newer than the Beatles. A few hits from the 80s seem to have the gotten close to the definition, and a few hits by Nirvana have a chance. Somewhere in there we all stopped listening to the same music. A decade or so ago Top 40 died once and for all.

That’s not to say that music and musicians don’t have a chance. In many ways, I’m a bit jealous of them as a writer because they get a chance to have gigs at bars that get them seen. Music is inherently about the moment, unlike writing, so semi-pro musicians get a chance to create a moment all the time. Writing is a more distant art that can easily go unshared forever.

But for all the live music we have in various bars and restaurants and all the musicians selling their mp3s on the internet, it’s hard to imagine any of them making it to the point where everyone knows the words and sings along. That’s not to say our lives won’t remain full of music even as we miss out on other art forms, but the music we hear will depend a lot on what kind of box we find ourselves placed in. Our sub-cultures define who we are and there is less spanning those lines every day.

That’s not to say that we could find ourselves at a hockey game one day with a totally new local group performing as an opening act. It wouldn’t be a big stretch because all the fans are already there and ready to be entertained. I would hope someone would think of something like just to support more like music. Of course, as a writer, I’d be jealous – but I’d do my best to sing along. Or just shout “Hey!”

Other posts in the series More Perfect Union:
More Perfect Union
More Perfect Union: Literature
More Perfect Union: Publishing

7 thoughts on “More Perfect Union: Music

  1. Honestly, I thought it was just that I was getting old that I didn’t know the words to any new songs. 🙂 But I prefer indie music artists just as I seek out the next unheard of genius author. I don’t necessarily see it as a bad thing that some artists don’t make it to Beatles notoriety. Maybe for their wallets, but not for true appreciation of the art.

  2. It’s true. I have some fantastic friends who are musicians here in London. Talented, original musicians, and they make their living playing music. But it’s doubtful that they will ever be famous.

    Because it’s historically been possible to make a lot of money in the arts, the arts are now over-saturated. With everything we hear all day long about celebrity, I suppose it’s easy to forget that celebrities are the exception – most people who stay in these industries make a salary similar to what they’d get for an entry-level white collar job.

    Last year, the writers in Hollywood all went on strike. Some of you will remember, this was big news. Many of them wound up in pretty bad shape because their union told them they couldn’t work. At that point, it was estimated that the average writer in Hollywood brings in about $60,000 a year. And while that’s well above the poverty line, it’s not nearly enough to raise a family on.

    Especially in Hollywood.

    Especially if you’re a freelance.

    Makes you think.

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