Monday, November 29, 2004

Greatest Rock Songs?

Rolling Stone has generated some publicity for its list of the 500 "greatest rock & roll songs of all time." Which sounds like a list of the greatest commercials of all time. Some commercials are indeed clever, witty, etc., but the very genre itself is stunted and puny compared to the possibilities available to actual film-makers. Same for pop/rock music: The very genre places few intellectual demands on the composer. If you added up all of the musical skill needed to write every last popular song from the past century (I include all genres here: rock, pop, rap, hip-hop, big band, etc., etc.), you still wouldn't have a sum total that is anywhere near the musical skill needed for Bach to write the Goldberg Variations. (Speaking from personal experience, I can write a pop-sounding song in a few minutes of doodling around on the piano, but I am floored with awe at Bach's sheer technical prowess.)

After all, look at what Rolling Stone says about the "greatest" song of all time: Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone":
Al Kooper, who played organ on the session, remembers today, "There was no sheet music, it was totally by ear. And it was totally disorganized, totally punk. It just happened."
It is impossible to imagine a classical composer saying that about a fugue, or a canon, or a symphonic movement in sonata form. The very genres used by classical composers require skill, ability, talent, and hard work -- more than just fooling around.

This is what makes me roll my eyes whenever I come across musical critics who sneer at most pop music while praising the supposed artistic sensibilities of their favorite pop artist (say, Radiohead or Wilco). To me, this sounds like one 6-year-old trying to brag that his mud-pies are more artistic than the neighbor kid's mudpies. Or it's like getting into an argument over who has made the most intellectual movies: Jean Claude Van-Damme or Steven Seagal? Sure, maybe you can make out an argument that one is better than the other, but at the end of the day, you're still talking about genres that (while fun) are vastly inferior.

Not that there's anything wrong with listening to pop/rock music. I have my own favorites (such as Keane or Nickel Creek or Sixpence None the Richer). Still, someone who listens only to pop/rock music is like a reader who never progresses beyond "The Cat in the Hat." No matter how much fun it is to read that sort of book occasionally (and no matter how creative Dr. Seuss was), you're missing out on a whole world of books that are beyond that level.

UPDATE: I know, I know, what I say above is very provocative (or inflammatory?). Just to clarify, let me put it this way: A pop/rock/country/rap song is akin to haiku or a limerick. There are all sorts of haikus, from the banal to the profound, and all sorts of limericks, from the hackneyed to the hilarious. But no matter how much you like a given haiku or limerick, you're still dealing with a very limited form. In the world of classical music, by contrast, you have a wide range of forms that are the equivalent of everything from a 14-line sonnet to Beowulf to Milton's Paradise Lost to a Shakespearean play. When you have more sophisticated forms at your disposal, you can achieve incomparably greater depth, power, range of emotion, etc., etc. Besides, it obviously takes much more work and skill to write Hamlet than to write any haiku ever written, if only because Hamlet is so much longer. Just as well, it takes much more work and skill to write a symphony than a pop song.

13 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found it somewhat interesting this was called the 500 best Rock and Roll songs since it also contained a large number of R&B and country. However, since they didn't refrain from "crossing over" to other types of songs as mentioned above, I also found it interesting who I didn't see. Groups like ABBA for instance, surprised me as to their absence. Only one song from the Carpenters (that I recall) and none from the likes of Vic Damone, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, et al. I know, I know, it was only supposed to be R&R, but they did cross over didn't they? Anyway, I would rather list to the great composers and crooners anyway. Thanks for the link.

1:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found it somewhat interesting this was called the 500 best Rock and Roll songs since it also contained a large number of R&B and country. However, since they didn't refrain from "crossing over" to other types of songs as mentioned above, I also found it interesting who I didn't see. Groups like ABBA for instance, surprised me as to their absence. Only one song from the Carpenters (that I recall) and none from the likes of Vic Damone, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, et al. I know, I know, it was only supposed to be R&R, but they did cross over didn't they? Anyway, I would rather list to the great composers and crooners anyway. Thanks for the link.

1:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found it somewhat interesting this was called the 500 best Rock and Roll songs since it also contained a large number of R&B and country. However, since they didn't refrain from "crossing over" to other types of songs as mentioned above, I also found it interesting who I didn't see. Groups like ABBA for instance, surprised me as to their absence. Only one song from the Carpenters (that I recall) and none from the likes of Vic Damone, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, et al. I know, I know, it was only supposed to be R&R, but they did cross over didn't they? Anyway, I would rather list to the great composers and crooners anyway. Thanks for the link.

1:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found it somewhat interesting this was called the 500 best Rock and Roll songs since it also contained a large number of R&B and country. However, since they didn't refrain from "crossing over" to other types of songs as mentioned above, I also found it interesting who I didn't see. Groups like ABBA for instance, surprised me as to their absence. Only one song from the Carpenters (that I recall) and none from the likes of Vic Damone, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, et al. I know, I know, it was only supposed to be R&R, but they did cross over didn't they? Anyway, I would rather list to the great composers and crooners anyway. Thanks for the link.

1:39 PM  
Blogger Plainsman said...

Hmm. If it's really so easy to write an indelible pop song, then, given the outsized financial rewards for doing so, one would expect more people who make remarks like yours to take a half hour out of the day from practicing their arpeggios, write a "Like a Rolling Stone" or two, and then sock away a nice trust fund for their children. Well?

An oversimplified response, but you take my point. This is an interesting post. The "mudpies" remark, in particular, bespeaks a level of unreflective prejudice that is very, very atypical of you, Stuart. There's lots of crap on the RS list, of course, and I would not bother to attempt to defend it as culturally significant. But look at the sweeping generality of your dismissal. You're speaking of ALL "rock & roll songs," no, all "pop/rock songs", as commercials. Breathtaking.

The x-element not captured by your post is punk rock, which was a big aesthetic deal. All of a sudden, these simple, rote, even hackneyed blues-derived pop forms were blown up in four dimensions, thrown wide open to very extreme kinds of formal experimentation -- molding songs _directly_ to the contours of the underlying ideas. And this sort of thing was happening in ramshackle clubs -- in basements. Worked out by tattered groups of teenagers. That's cool, inspiring, a big deal. Punk, when it happened, had an electric immediacy that modernist Western art music, certainly since the beginning of the 20th century, just cannot -- has not -- claimed. The last glimmering of real, gut-level metaphysical shock in the Western art tradition was "The Rites of Spring." And that was a very long time ago.

Your post suggests that you have to fight a tendency to view a piece of music merely as an exquisite artifact -- in my experience, a characteristic aesthetic prejudice of very, very technically virtuous musicians. But music can also be conceived as a space where interesting things happen. Punk was like that. So were some of the novel jazz forms. "Like a Rolling Stone" was like that. The culture, and the possibilities of sound, use and play the musicians, rather than vice versa.

The "farting around" comment seems to betray a certain tone-deafness to the way more street-level, deliberately simple, and/or nonhierarchical musics function -- to the kinds of things they can do. Which, as I said, is very atypical of this blog.

5:58 PM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

Hey Plainsman,

I know I was being provocative and elitist here, but for now I'll stick to what I said.

"If it's really so easy to write an indelible pop song, . . . "Let me clarify: It is technically quite easy to write a pop/rock song. You don't have to know how to read music, you don't have to play any instruments, you don't have to know the first thing about music theory, you don't have to spend years honing your art, and as shown by the quote about the Dylan song, you don't necessarily have to have any coherent plan. You just have to be able to come up with a tune. Now, to write a song that is incredibly popular, you have to come up with a tune that will -- often for totally mysterious reasons -- be perceived as catchy by millions of people. That in itself is hard to pull off, but it is not a task that requires (or is even all that susceptible to) training or skill or education. A few people have the knack naturally, and most don't.


"The "farting around" comment seems to betray a certain tone-deafness to the way more street-level, deliberately simple, and/or nonhierarchical musics function -- "I'm not totally sure what this means, but I personally enjoy listening to all kinds of popular music -- big band, rock, heavy metal, adult contemporary, country, bluegrass. Pick any genre, and I probably like at least some of it. I just don't buy any of the intellectual pretensions. In the end, all of it boils down to one fairly simple format.

That, by the way, is what I meant by the reference to "commercials." It was perhaps a misleading metaphor, if taken to imply the idea of selling something. All I meant was that commercials may be technically excellent, witty, brilliant in their own way, etc., etc., but in the end, it's a 30-second format. A genre consisting of 30-second pieces just can't explore the kinds of human emotions/experiences that true filmmakers can do with longer works. No matter how the commercial is executed, it just won't have the same depth. Same for popular songs: A 3 minute song with three verses, a bridge, and chorus offers a very limited range of musical opportunities for a skilled composer. There is no popular song ever written that could even conceivably have the same depth as Bach's Mass in B-Minor, or Copland's 3d Symphony, or any number of classical works.

7:23 PM  
Blogger Brad Lena said...

As someone who first learned how to play bass by ear and did not read bass clef, one can, if blessed with talent, develop a robust musical vocabulary by absorbing the music of others who may or may not be schooled. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out, by ear, James Jamerson's bass lines from the latest Motown hit. I learned a lot from that about the art of music as expressed by Jamerson. His vocabulary included many of the techniques that I would later come to understand through the study of music theory privately and at the university. I can say that understanding the musical intellect behind pitch and duration- the fundamental building blocks of music- allows musical expression to flourish in unexpected and sometimes inspired directions. The untrained musical mind is constrained by lack of knowledge. Granted, this can be sometimes overcome by shear talent and the "muse." But as one who as experienced music from both sides of the street, I'd rather be learned. Also, it is so very dreary to have the "a priori" for the music industry especially pop and its derivatives excluded from the conversation about these issues. It's called disposable and discretionary income among the young. Having such wealth among the youth is a recent phenomenon. Factor in the rise of the "entertainment" cults with its massive indoctrination mechanisms of radio, T.V. videos, computers, etc. you've got something much larger than the craft of music going on but that's another topic.

9:15 AM  
Blogger P. G. said...

Oh dear. Now, admittedly, stuff like rock is based on a few chords strung together... but you can't cover jazz ("big band") in that sweep.

Have you ever seen a piece of sheet music for one of Sun Ra's compositions? It's absolutely TERRIFYING.

Then there's the harmelodic stuff...

Likewise, haiku (at least adhering to the traditional form) are difficult. Trust me. I've written haiku.

Buson's death poem:

In the white plum blossoms
night to next day
just turning.

11:46 PM  
Blogger kev said...

So, folks like Radiohead and Wilco - to use your examples - are puttering around trying to perfect a pointless genre, while.... umm... someone is continuing the art of Western Composition. Sure, there are some stragglers who have made interesting contributions to the classical section at Borders during the past 50 years -- Ligeti comes to mind; Rihm, Reich, Crumb, Feldman, and David Lang are some of my favorites. But the majority of contemporary composers are doing their own sort of "farting around": trying to convince academic institutions that their art is valid, while most of the music that is being produced is derivative crap. Schoenberg was the harbinger of the end, and Boulez was the rubber stamp that said "Classical music is dead!" (He may in fact have said something to that effect. He always says stuff like that.)

Nevertheless, I think there is some very exciting stuff happening in so-called classical music these days, although most of it is moving towards timbre-oriented composition, which is essentially what Radiohead and Wilco are doing, except the latter play their own instruments whereas composers usually defer to the pros for that. (most composers these days can't play a lick..)

This simple-minded anti-pop mindset reeks of academic elitism: "We have all our notes on paper, so we're obviously much better. And look! This voice repeats that voice! That's hella cool! Pop music never does that, because they're not smart enough!"

No, because they don't want to.

4:10 PM  
Blogger kev said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:39 PM  
Blogger kev said...

Also,

A lot of your criticism could seemingly be applied to just about any form of music other than Western Composition. Does Gamelan get haiku'd into obsolescence because of its aversion to counterpoint and tendency towards improvisation? And how about raga? How about the Hungarian and Eastern European folk music cherished by Bartok and Kodaly?

4:47 PM  
Blogger Brett said...

Ye Gods. To state that classical trumps all because it's more complex is simply foolish and also appears to just ignore the musical talents of some rock and popular artists. Having said that, it's a factor of the music that technical skill is only one part of the equation --- the Arctic Monkeys (okay, even I hate the name) are a band that has very limited experience and yet manage to achieve more with that experience than many of the premier musicians in rock. A literary comparison helps here --- do we judge authors based simply upon the complexity of their sentence structures and having to go to the dictionary to understand the text?

Look, jazz is often more complex than classical, and jazz by definition relies on improvisation, an aspect of popular music you disdain. Under your view that complex structure is the key, do Charles Mingus or Duke Ellington beat Beethoven? I hate to tell you, but many believe that Robert Johnson, lone guitar notwithstanding, does so hands down.

What constitutes great music is always a matter of opinion, and I obviously lean towards considering Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Martha Reeves, Otis Redding, Buddy Holly, the Stones, Paul Weller, etc., as deserving just as much respect and admiration as classical composers, and in some instances, more. Just as the primary classical composers reflected their times, an aspect of the music often overlooked, so does popular music reflect its times. It's quite possible to appreciate both forms --- heck, all forms --- and avoid placing one above the other.

12:45 PM  
Blogger Brett said...

Ye Gods. To state that classical trumps all because it's more complex is simply foolish and also appears to just ignore the musical talents of some rock and popular artists. Having said that, it's a factor of the music that technical skill is only one part of the equation --- the Arctic Monkeys (okay, even I hate the name) are a band that has very limited experience and yet manage to achieve more with that experience than many of the premier musicians in rock. A literary comparison helps here --- do we judge authors based simply upon the complexity of their sentence structures and having to go to the dictionary to understand the text?

Look, jazz is often more complex than classical, and jazz by definition relies on improvisation, an aspect of popular music you disdain. Under your view that complex structure is the key, do Charles Mingus or Duke Ellington beat Beethoven? I hate to tell you, but many believe that Robert Johnson, lone guitar notwithstanding, does so hands down.

What constitutes great music is always a matter of opinion, and I obviously lean towards considering Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Martha Reeves, Otis Redding, Buddy Holly, the Stones, Paul Weller, etc., as deserving just as much respect and admiration as classical composers, and in some instances, more. Just as the primary classical composers reflected their times, an aspect of the music often overlooked, so does popular music reflect its times. It's quite possible to appreciate both forms --- heck, all forms --- and avoid placing one above the other.

12:46 PM  

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