In this series of memoires and rants, Mr. Brennan explains from his point of view exactly why mainstream commercial music has become so generic in recent decades, why creativity seems to be dead (at least for recorded and marketed music) and (at the end) what listeners can do to battle this influx of musical branding. The chapter title “Standardized Forms, Fear of the Random: Living in Boxes, atop Grids” basically sums up the whole argument of the book. Oddly, at certain points, the book contradicts itself and extols the virtues of this same pop-elevator music – but these contradictions become less as the book progresses and the reader gets the sense that the author’s ideas were forming as he was writing (and this is a record – no pun intended, since this is about music – of his thought processes). Despite this, it's altogether interesting and full of valid points. For the record, I was once, myself, told by a record producer that some music I’d written was “too interesting” to put out on a CD – he suggested that I dumb it down, literally – so I know from experience about generic pigeonholing in music. My own battle against it has included suggesting that the libraries buy CDs of music from lesser-known genres, or from no genre; and CDs of music from other cultures; and reviewing as much as possible of the same.
How Music Dies (or Lives) is difficult to review, so let me start by saying that it is a thought-provoking book, written by an intelligent writer, who is not only an award-winning producer in the USA but a musical researcher who travels the world searching for music unknown to the west. Ian Brennan (not the "Glee" guy) expresses his observations in a series of short essays -- perhaps "rants" would be a better word -- interspersed with memories of his fieldwork recording around the world. How Music Dies is an important book for any thoughtful person with a strong interest in music.
Brennan argues that for most of human history, a voice could not be heard beyond shouting distance, but now commercial interests record voices, frozen in time and altered in the production process, to sell, while negating our basic human need to make music. Now, we consume a musical diet largely produced by attention-seeking musicians and corporations often more interested in selling images than in music itself -- even the musicians themselves can be lost in the production process:
"Today… often performances must be brought to life after the fact, from pieced-together and doctored, punched-in recordings.
"What remains are personas more than people. Live concerts transformed into promotional opportunities, rather than musical experiences. And instead of creative acts we are given re-creation.
"Devotion to superstars is not so different from believing in Santa Claus or Bigfoot. That the peak musical experience someone can attain is to pay hundreds of dollars, just for the privilege of sitting a football field away to watch prominent specks posture onstage, is a fable (197-98)."
Brennan contrasts this approach with the creativity and sincerity of people so poor and removed from commercial music that they must make their own instruments, though they may still be drowned out by western hits, in their distant countries.
There are a number of problems in the book though, such as sloppy editing. Brennan gripes about SpellCheck, but regularly misspells ("masterbation") and skips words. He also makes sweeping and untrue statements. For instance, he claims that most preliterate societies are matriarchal, which (apart form the cultural-evolutionary implications of the word "preliterate," as opposed to "non-literate") is just wrong -- I know that many readers hate footnotes, but academic writers must show evidence for generalizations or questionable statements. There isn't even space here to categorize the types of Brennan's errors and inconsistencies. However, after praising uneducated musicians who develop their own music, he sneers at guitar players who don't know "the relative minor of the key of A" (179-80). Would Robert Johnson, Elizaebth Cotten, or Muddy Waters have known? He attacks "white" people playing "black" American musical forms, after telling us that these same styles were hybrid and influenced by white music. I can almost guarantee that Brennan will find fault with whatever form of music you love.
Still, this is an important book to read, in a thoughtful way, a discussion; you're free to agree or disagree, in your head.
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