Recently on HB List Harry Binswanger bemoaned how bad melodies are in pop music today. He (rightly) called the singer-songwriters you hear in Starbucks “whiny.” Here is my take.
I think of the death of melody in rock music as due to something analogous to the working out of premises. The premises of Nazism led logically to dictatorship and the Holocaust, even though some Nazis might not have wanted to go to such “extremes.” The premise of Libertarianism leads to anarchism and dictatorship, even though many Libertarians protest that they support a minimal state. The “premise” of rock is the back beat. As Huey Lewis sang, the heart of Rock’n’Roll is the beat.
In music the first and third beats are the downbeat as the conductor waves his baton in 4/4 time. In pre-rock popular music the emphasis is on these downbeats. In rock, the drummer hits the snare on the second and fourth beats, creating drive and tension. This is back beat. Since the coming of rock back beat has become ubiquitous in popular music.
Emphasizing beat in this way comes at a price: melody and harmony are de-emphasized. The history of the last 50 years would indicate that over time you can have beautiful melody or you can have back beat, but you can’t have both and sustain that balance.
In the beginning of rock, artists such as the Beatles and the Supremes combined back beat and melody to create the melodic pop-rock now heard on Oldies stations. But early rock was like a man with mixed premises. As rock evolved over the years, the fundamental premise of the beat grew and melody withered.
Guitars got more distorted to accentuate the beat. Harmonic subtleties disappeared. Some rock guitarists play chords on two strings only, playing the root note and the fifth; they don’t even distinguish between major and minor chords!
Each generation grew up with less exposure to melodic and harmonic sophistication. Today beat is all.
Heavy metal has a type of fan called the “headbanger.” Like prehistoric savages, these rockers throw themselves in a dionysian frenzy to the beat, their long hair flying. They don’t need melody; the back beat is there to keep time for their convulsions.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s the Old Fogies were appalled by rock’s beat. I remember my father, who sang in front of a local swing band in the ‘50s, laughing at the Beatles. He could not take them seriously. Today the Old Fogies have fewer defenders than Senator McCarthy. Looking at today’s music, I think they understood the essence of rock better than anyone.
HB is right that it is a tragedy that young people have little or no exposure to beautiful melodies. Although I can’t prove it, I suspect that highly developed melodies stimulate emotions and imagination. They really do “expand the mind” the way hippies used to claim drugs did. They are not just good, they are good for you. They have value.
In his book “How to Stop Acting,” Harold Guskin urges actors to listen to classical music. From my own experience, I think that is good advice. Beautiful music opens the mind to new ideas and emotional experiences. I would guess melody is highly fertile in making connections in the subconscious mind. Perhaps it offers a unique perceptual experience of metaphysical value-judgments. (I must reread Ayn Rand’s essay, “Art and Cognition.”) How all this works and exactly what benefits a mind gains from music, I don’t know. Perhaps some philosophic genius will work out a theory someday.
I should note here that I enjoy rock. I grew up with it and played in a garage band in the ‘70s. (Imagine four or five teenagers with hair down to their shoulders and cigarettes hanging from their mouths in a room full of amps covered with beer bottles. Welcome to my wasted youth.) I especially love the melodic pop-rock of the early ‘60s. To me the combination of melody and back beat is a thrilling integration of beauty and energy. But somehow over the years, as the “premise” worked itself out, melody waned as the back beat waxed. As much as I love rock, I can’t help thinking it is an enormous mistake. I suspect that 100 years from now the world will look back on our era as a barbaric cultural dark age.
I have another post on pop music here.
UPDATE: Changed analogical to analogous. What was I thinking? I dunno, I dunno...