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« When political cartoons criticize or mock Christianity... | Main | The End of a Taboo: Even Romano Amerio Is “A True Christian” »

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Comments

Mark Brumley

I prefer the Rock of Ages to the Age of Rock.

Carl E. Olson

As the ageless, tasteless band KISS "sang":

God gave rock and roll to you, gave rock and roll to you
Put it in the soul of everyone
Do you know what you want? you don’t know for sure
You don’t feel right, you can’t find a cure
And you’re gettin’ less than what you’re lookin’ for

You don’t have money or a fancy car
And you’re tired of wishin’ on a falling star
You gotta put your faith in a loud guitar

Chorus:
God gave rock and roll to you, gave rock and roll to you
Gave rock and roll to everyone (oh yeah)
God gave rock and roll to you, gave rock and roll to you
Put it in the soul of everyone

Ed Peters

Gimme that old time rock and roll. the kind of music that soothes your soul.

Maren

Very interesting topic. As for much of pop/rock music being either "canned rebelliousness" or "canned sentimentality/love", I would add a third category (sometimes overlapping these other two): "canned artistry". By this I mean that I can't count the number of times a pop/rock "musician" has gone on and on about how "serious" his "art" is when in reality it simply isn't anything of the sort. I find it impossible to take him as seriously as he seems to demand, nor can I see much that could truly be called artistic in his endeavors. That's not to say that some don't have the potential to be something greater than what they are, but it's a rare bird, in my opinion. For the record, I also grew up in the 80s and had my favorites (still do), but if I had to be honest, I would have to admit that--even those I still have a soft spot for--cannot be put anywhere near the calibre of the great classical musicians/composers. What usually passes for "talent" and "serious art" these days is sadly nothing more than cleverness.

Weeze

Carl,

Interesting post. Good call on "OK Computer." Too bad Radiohead couldn't get close to repeating what they had there on any of their subsequent albums.

I do have to agree with Maren above that most of what passes as "talent" is mereley cleverness in these genres. However, I have been impressed with some recent progressive rock bands that are determined to pay serious attention to truly artistic composition as well as utilizing their skills as virtuoso musicians. Have you had any exposure to Dream Theater or the Christian prog rock band Spock's Beard? They take a little time to digest at first (and may seem a bit pretentious at first), but their pretty good on subsequent listenings and they usually contain some pretty interesting themes (i.e. "The Great Debate" by Dream Theater - about the moral arguments behind stem cell research, and, the concept album "Snow" by Spock's Beard - a modern pseudo-messiah story). These bands have given me some comfort in the desert that is modern music.

Pete

Hey, don't listen to that Weeze guy. I hear he likes Alice Cooper. Yeah, yeah I know you love the pageantry and such, but he is still over rated. I don't care what Dylan said about him.

Carl E. Olson

Weeze: I have all of Dream Theater's CDs and several Spock's Beard CDs. Neal Morse, former lead singer for SB, has some excellent solo material. I've been listening to prog rock for over 20 years now and I would agree that it has the most to offer musically and lyrically in rock music. Other prog groups that I keep track of include Pain of Salvation, Porcupine Tree, The Flower Kings, Kansas (still!), Enchant, Frameshift, Dredg, The Tea Party, King's X (a longtime favorite) and The Tangent. In all honesty, I didn't like many '80s metal bands, with the possible exception of Extreme, who happened to be very pro-life (their first album had a blatant anti-abortion tune on it), and much more rockin' than critics would ever admit.

Maren

Okay, I have to amend my comments above. I had forgotten all about Dream Theater. It's been years since I listened to them. I do have a couple of their CDs, and they're very good. I guess it just takes a considerable effort to dig out the few diamonds. Another one that I used to find refreshing from a musical standpoint (though not especially from the vocal side) was GTR. They were gone about as quickly as they appeared, though.
On an aside, I had no idea that Extreme was pro-life!

MenTaLguY

I think Prog Rock carries the torch for true art in music these days.

Eric Thomason

While staying on topic, I'd like to lower the level of discourse a bit and ask if any one else attempted to endure the Rolling Stones at halftime of the superbowl? After one song I rent my garments and plugged my ears and ran from the room screaming. On principle I'm only listening to Mozart for a week to recover from the damage they did to my pysche. Those geezers gave ANY type of rock/pop music a bad name.

Carl Olson

I deliberately skipped halftime. (I just wish I would have skipped what turned out to be the most horribly officiated Super Bowl in recent memory.) I'll happily go on record as saying that The Doors and The Rolling Stones are the most overrated rock bands of all time. A relative ten years my senior once told me that Jim Morrison was "a genius." I hadn't realized that "genius" had been redefined to refer to lousy, annoying, stupid music.

Ed Peters

The Stones make me sick. Always have. Ugliest group on earth. 60-something pre-adolescents. Ugh.

Weeze

Pete,

Yes, it's true that there is still a soft spot in my heart for Alice Cooper (after all, he is a Christian ;) ), and, yes, there are a few other skeletons in my musical closet, but don't make me point out some of your musical preferences in front of this crowd. Hehehe.

Carl,

Thanks for the list of other worthy prog bands. I have not encountered some of them yet. I'm not sure my appreciation of Kansas will improve much though.

Pete

Oh Weeze, how dare you threaten to "out" my musical orientation. In any case, I'll do the honors myself here in a little bit. But first, Carl, how can a brilliant guy like yourself not appreciate the stunning wordsmith that was Jim Morrison. As evidence for my claim, let me cite (1) L.A. Woman's opening line: "Well I deed a little dahdle bout ah hour ago", and that great line from Light My Fire: "You know they are a liar". I'll take your silence as evidence that I have won the argument.
Moving on, I could ramble all night on this topic, as Weeze can attest, but let me just say a couple of things. As far as some objective criteria of good pop music, I think one thing to look for is an individual or a group's ability to create in the context of an album. It isn't too tough to grab someone's attention for three minutes; just look at the phenomena of the one-hit wonder. It takes a little more skill, artistry and intelligence to grab a listener for the duration of an album. This also provides a bit of a link to the high art of classical, in which composers wrote symphanies, masses etc. all of which had unifiying themes that subsisted for longer than three minutes. More in a bit, as I have a meeting in 5 minutes.

Carl Olson

Dream Theater, Pain of Salvation, and Porcupine Tree are my favorite prog bands. Kansas and Yes were my favorites back in the '80s. But recent efforts by both bands are very mixed and often mediocre. Steve Walsh, lead singer of Kansas, has produced some interesting (and occasionally wild) solo material. If you've not listened to Pain of Salvation, I would recommend starting with "Remedy Lane." As for Porcupine Tree, "In Absentia" is a good starting point. My favorite Dream Theater CD is "Images and Words," but "Scenes From a Memory" is a fabulous concept album. DM's last two studio CDs have been much harder; "Octavarium" (the most recent) is quite good, especially the 24-minute-long title track, which has a bit of everything in it.

Carl Olson

Pete wrote: "I think one thing to look for is an individual or a group's ability to create in the context of an album." Yes, definitely! Which is one of several reasons I think "OK Computer" is so outstanding: it is cohesive and unified, both musically and lyrically. Off the top of my head, some other criteria, more or less objective:

1). Ability to play an instrument. This immediately eliminates some 85-95% of pop musicians.

2). Ability to write music that holds up when the slick sheen of high-end production is removed. Put another way, ability to write music that doesn't rely on studio magic. Must have a way with melody, an understanding of harmony, etc.

3). Musical and conceptual vision. Cleverness works for a few minutes, but usually cannot carry a 45-60 minute album. This doesn't mean an album must be a "concept album," but that it comes from a specific place and with a palpable point of view. Let's just say that most Top 40 doesn't have this quality.

4). Authenticity. Admittedly, a difficult quality to verify, but, in part, refers to music that actually has some lasting meaning that transcends the genre it (rightly or wrongly) is intially placed in. Songs such as "Girls, Girls, Girls" and "For Those About to Rock" may be catchy, but I doubt they are very authentic, no matter how devoted to the lifestyle were Motley Crue and AC/DC.

There's much more, I'm sure, but those come to mind...

Weeze

Carl,

Please don't be offended by this, but this has been one of the most exciting posts I've read here. At what other orthodox, Catholic web log can you discuss progressive metal bands in this way?

Dream Theater is my favorite band. OK Computer is one of my favorite albums. Carl Olson likes these as well = Weeze checking out anything else that he recommends.

I look forward to the rest of Pete's incite. I will have probably heard it before, but he's pretty sharp and often fairly entertaining. And he knows a lot more about music than I do.

Weeze

Sorry. That should be "insight." Like the name of the web log.

Pete

"Fairly entertaining?" I love you too. I'll have more tomorrow, as Carl has stolen everything I was planning on adding and now I have to think. Also, I have to go to bed. Not everyone works with the zombies, Weeze.

Mark Brumley

I prefer the Rock Who doesn't roll.

Pete

Carl, I think that your criteria for appraising pop music are excellent.

Regarding some of Scruton's criticisms, I think the idea that much of pop music is almost meant as background music is quite insightful. Alan bloom implied a simliar criticism in "Closing of the American Mind" by pointing out that music had become ever-present to modern youth, from the morning radio wake-up, to the car, to the walkman/ipod on the elevator up to work, to the internet radio during the course of the day etc. In a multi-tasking society, reflection of any sort is often sacrificed, but especially towards music, which becomes a sort of functional sugar to help the medicine of a frenetic life go down. This can be a strength of music; I've had some genuinely wonderful experiences doing, say, home improvement projects while listening to music from Beethoven to U2. It doesn't have to be an utterly empty experience simply because one's focus is not entirely on the structure, chord progression and harmonic intricacies of a particular tune or piece. The fact that music can be an accompanying art form, as opposed to reading or viewing a film which demands one's full attention, gives music the unique ability to fuse with other experiences, say at Mass, or at a particular event in one's life. However, when the normal experience of music consistently occurs in such a functional/background way, it is corrosive to a culture's musical understanding, and greater cultural health in general.

I don't agree with Scruton's assertion concerning the lead singer cult of personality, or at least the criticism that this is unique to pop music. Artists have always injected ego into their work, some more than others. Michaelangelo carving his name across the Pieta is pretty darn bold. Joyce and his adolescent views on War were as obnoxious as the Dixie Chicks (though I make absolutely no comparison to the respective levels of talent... the Dixie Chicks represent the apex of Western culture, as we all know. Joyce really can't hold a candle). Sinatra was at least as charismatic, and at times arrogant, as Bono, Axl or Dre. And what about Wagner? Not exactly a quiet, unassuming figure.

I'm still thinking about the the current state of a song's ability to stand alone, but it is an interesting assertion. Anyways, that's enough for now. I concur with Weeze regarding the stimulating nature of this conversation. Rock on!!

Pete

Scruton's comment, "Trapped as he is in a culture of near total inarticulateness, the singer can find no words to express what deeply concerns him," is brilliant. For whatever reason, I have always been intially attracted to the music of a song as opposed to its lyrical content. This was the case even during college, when the lyrics became about 95% of the point for most of my peers at the time. For me, good lyrics were icing on the cake. Besides my natural inclination towards music rather than lyrics, this imbalance was not helpd by the fact that much of what I was listening to had either objectionable or incomprehensible lyrics. Scruton is right on in holding that too many musicians have simply lost the ability to communicate (or else are too dumb to even think anything meaningful). I think there are some genuinely deep concepts in some of Nirvana's music, and some genuinely good music. Good luck trying to decipher them, though. The depth relies almost entirely on the emotion of the delivery, which is very literally a childish way of communicating. There is a difference between subtlety and vapidity, and too often in pop music, and especially the rock genre, it is way too difficult to figure out which it is you're listening to. I think you can divide pop music into three very general categories of quality:

1. The actually good stuff having moving and/or exciting music, thoughtful, clever lyrics, and some truth to it.

2. The simply entertaining stuff that is at best light and fun and at worst painfully trite and/or perfectly content to glorify any deviant pleasure to be had.

3. The falsely deep stuff that hides its lack of ideas in impenetrable and ultimately incoherent metaphor. The music may be good, but it is often used to cover up lyrical deficiencies. Or else the music is awful, purposefully, in order to join the non-conformist club. This has been the legacy of punk, which has had some genuinely good bands, but has spawned literally thousands of groups wasting tens of thousands of hours on what must be called, based simply on objective analysis, noise. You could have immoral music in any one of these categories. They are only meant to address aesthetic quality (although the two ideas probably can't be severed so completely).

On another note, country music represents the polar opposite from the rock genre. Country makes a point of telling you exactly what is going on in the song. Country musiciains are actually interested in addresing a listener and telling a story. I think this is usually a strength. The weakness, in my opinion, with most country is the repetition of about 4 different lyrical themes, and the often boring (sometimes painfully so) music. However, its popularity proves its ability to connect to listeners.

I think country has more songs that end up in category 2, while rock has more that end up in category 3.

Obviously, people could cite example after example of exceptions, but just go looking in the one dollar CD cart at Amoeba Music. I garauntee you'll find way more that follow the general rule.

Carl E. Olson

Weeze and Pete: Wow, this is great stuff! I'm really enjoying reading your comments on music. I won't have much time today to post or respond, but wanted to see what you think of this interesting column by S.T. Karnick (who has written many excellent things about rock music and is a big prog rock fan), titled "The Art (If Any) of Rock Music":

http://www.cruxmag.com/ArtofRock.htm

Weeze

Carl,

I agree with many of Karnick's points, but I think he comes off as being a bit too much of a reductionist. By that I mean that most people (especially art critics) like to have a bit of mystery in the art that they are appreciating and like to feel that they belong to an elite group of “experts” that “get it.” For this reason, I think that many art critics would reject or deviate (at least slightly) from any set form of objective standards that might be created to evaluate pop music.

I have no argument whatsoever with his assertion that most rock critics tend to exaggerate out of a need to create respectability, nor with the fact that they don't have objective standards with which to evaluate pop music. We had a very difficult time in trying to come up with an unofficial "Rock Canon" in a music class I took at college. Lots of arguing (Pete, I think you were in that class too). But again, reducing the process of evaluating pop music to a set of established standards and making it more of a science will take much of the enjoyment out of it. People want to feel that their ability to appreciate the given art takes artistic ability as well (not just scientific) and makes them artists as well. Perhaps we’re just being wishful thinkers though.

Finally, even though Karnick establishes some good criteria on which to judge the value of pop music, he seems to give up right where we would get to the real practical standards by not going into detail when he says, "the creation of drama and expression of human character in both lyrics and music has a logic that can be identified and codified into principles that allow comparison and reasonably objective analysis." OK. What are these principles?

In any case, fascinating stuff.

Pete

So here are some other bands that I think more often then not rise to the level of legitimate artists...

Sting: many people don't like the Police, and many don't like his solo stuff, but the man is a consummate musician. I think he bridges lyrical the gap between incoherence and spoon feeding, he is an accomplished musician in his own right (2 or 3 different instruments), he puts together bands that can play just about anything in any genre, and he writes good songs touching on a number of themes and exploring them in some depth. A couple of suggestions for listening: "Shape of my Heart" (awesome song about gambling, written before poker exploded), "Fortress around your Heart", "If I ever Lose my Faith", "I Hung My Head", "Seven Days". "Fields of Gold" is also a great, non-corny love song, which is really hard to create.

Metallica: the loudness may always be too much for some people, but there is a lot going on in most of their music. The most recent album is musically unsatisfying, but very interesting lyrically. The two best albums, in my view, are "Master of Puppets" and "...And Justice for All". I've been listening to the title track on the latter album recently, and it is pretty devestating. Again, solid themes, well-explored. Lyrics are solid, occasionally heavy-handed, but often surprisingly subtle. Excellent musicians who actually write instrumentals from time to time. And although the whole symphony pairing a few years ago may have seemed schticky, but it was actually well done, and proved that their music had melodic and harmonic depth.

Nickel Creek: These guys (and a girl) are actually a neo-bluegrass group, so maybe thy don't easily qualify as a pure pop group, but they are fantastic musicians who play entirely acousticly and yet rock. First album is awesome; last two are a bit more experimental. All for now. Happy Birthday Mark!!

Weeze

Ah, Pete! You blew my pseudonym! But thanks for the b-day greeting. Good memory.

PS-"Energy derives from both the plus and negatives."

Jeff

Carl,

How do you feel about Zepplin? Queensryche?

Plato's StepGuitarist

I am very surprised that King Crimson (21st Century Schizoid Man), Phil Collin's fusion group Brand X, Genesis' Double Live Seconds Out, Jeff Beck and various other prog rock minutiae have not surfaced in this thread.

I would think Scruton, of all people, would be interested in the British pedigree of the progressive rock explosion of the late 60's, early 70's.

The Rolling Stones reflect the eternal battle between the forces of Viagra and the forces of Depends.

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