Feedback Loops with Alan Lomax: Why Pop Music Sounds the Same

I think it’s pretty safe to say that I’m pretty behind the cultural eight-ball when it comes to responding punctually to events that have any contemporary pop significance. (Hence, my loving diatribe about a book by an aging rock star that came out 2-and-1/3 years ago). So, bearing in mind that I’m still playing catch-up with my responsibilities as a musically clueless white person, the experience of watching this old news was pretty novel, courtesy of my fellow theory crusader, Noah Firtel:

Watching this, or perhaps, “experiencing” is the proper term–the act of listening to a handful of songs so indistinguishable in structure, style, and execution that they can literally be arbitrarily spliced together with no loss to continuity and in perfectly square four-bar phrases (believe me; I counted)–certainly evoked a myriad of responses, summarized below by my little spin on the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of responding to provocatively bad music:

1) Incredulity: “… Hahahaaa, wut? What the hell is this?” The patient’s pupils dilate as a demonstration of disbelief to what they are witnessing, maybe even a hint of denial. Typical symptoms include ostentatious gestures of facepalming and laughter.

2) Realization: “Jesus, I always said shit on the radio all sounds the same, but…”

McBain Standup Meme Why Pop Music Sounds the Same

A sudden connection of neural synapses bring forth to the conscious mind that this document effectively proved what the patient has always humorously suspected about their society’s monotonous cultural products. A reflexive scanning of one’s iPod and Spotify in assessment of their music taste often proceeds.

3) Bargaining: “It can’t be all bad, right? But I like that One Direction song.” The patient attempts to justify their choices as consumers by appealing to the psychology of the archetypical Christian sinner, often sandwiched between evocations of Macklemore and black friends.

4) Anger: “Fffffffffffff…” Their search for a rationalization turning up short, the patient searches for expression beyond verbal communication, contorting their faces and muttering obscenities, struggling to capture a reminder of some concept of a “good old days.”

5) Acceptance: “Hey, One Direction just dropped Four!”

In short, as per the classic theorem for comedy (tragedy plus time), what was initially funny in its absurdity hasn’t accumulated enough distance from the present to be approached in the innocuously patronizing way that nostalgic ironic humor has patented since the early aughts. Instead, you’re (read: “I’m”) left with the flat fact that this, for better or worse, is what genres of music sound like now: clean, ubiquitous, formulaic, monolithic.

You can’t help but frantically ask, why does pop music sound the same? But then an antennae springs up and you remember: this was the dream.

When you think about it, when haven’t white people searched for some kind of cultural unification? Halfway-preserved memories of your high school history class might recall la misión civilatrice of French Algeria; or the imposition of new, “year zero” revolutionary cultures in Mao’s China, Stalin’s Russia, or Pol Pot’s Cambodia; or Hitler upholding Wagner’s oeuvre–in all of its homoeroticism and epic camp–as the aesthetic standard of the Aryan people; or Sesame Street.

La Misión Civilatrice Meme Why Pop Music Sounds the Same

All of these methods reached a dead-end in their own ways (sorry, Elmo), but out from the womb of the free market, here it is: a cornerstone of a culture whose message and delivery are codependent and seamless–life’s a highway; it’s goin’ down, y’all; drive fast and let your hair down to the sound of fuzzed out bar chords and some boots-‘n’-cats.

Kenny Chesney Yup Meme Why Pop Music Sounds the Same

How’s it been, Kenny Chesney?

But before I get ahead of myself and start sounding like the kind of senior citizen prone to generalizations of “all that trippy-hop and rape music” (i.e., my grandpa; I love you, Pop Pop), there actually seems to be a scientific backing for this.

To ring in the New Year, the Medical University of Vienna published a study called, “Instrumentational Complexity of Music Genres and Why Simplicity Sells”. Citing Schoenberg’s pretty-much-true proposition that the pleasure derived from listening to music derives from the inherent conflict between “the demand for repetition of pleasant stimuli, and… change,” the study quantifies the instrumentational complexity of 15 genres and 374 subgenres according to the amount of specified skills the performing musicians need to execute the style, and how often these skills appear in other genres. This exhibits a positive relationship in general with the number of instruments and technologies used in production, creating either variety or uniformity depending on the respective amounts per genre.

The results overwhelmingly displayed that while as a style “increases its number of albums, i.e., attracts a growing number of artists, its variety also increases,” a style’s commercial performance in album sales typically “increases with decreasing complexity,” providing an explanation as to why, apparently, “Only a small number of styles manage to sustain a high level of instrumentation complexity over an extended period of time.” Factor in the fact that the vast majority of people’s tastes converge towards the mean, co-opting their stylistic preferences from what they perceive others to like, in addition to the statistic that, according to The Atlantic, radio stations last year played Top 40 hits twice as much as a decade ago, and you’ve got yourself a well-oiled positive feedback loop.

Iggy Azalea Stupid Meme Why Pop Music Sounds the Same

And now it’s 2015, and this year in country music, where we once had this:

Or even British Invaders doing stuff like this:

Elvis Costello Almost Blue Why Pop Music Sounds the Same

Elvis Costello was a little late to the invasion game, but you know…

we’ve got six songs that have almost the exact same chord progression that autotune and production have made into doppelgängers. The musical style’s been perfectly diluted, clear and simple yet just vague enough to not really say anything at all. In a way, the liberals, the conservatives, the imperialists, the Marxists, the socialists, and the Nazis all got what they wanted. Hooray?

Usually this is about as far as I would get with this before I’d say “Fuck it,” and go back to listening to “Call Me, Maybe,” but today, all it makes me think about is Alan Lomax. A major figure in American folkloric studies, Lomax carries with him the distinction of being the individual who threw himself into the documentation and preservation of the indigenous music and traditions of Western Europe, greater America, and the Caribbean. The breadth of his legacy is aptly captured in the subtitle of his eponymous biography by John Szwed: “The Man Who Recorded the World.”

Lomax was born on January 31st, 1915 in Austin, Texas, to John Lomax, a politically conservative self-made academic who nonetheless was a devoted collector of folk song, especially those of cowboys and–who’d ‘a’ thunk it!–southern black communities. Given the cognitive dissonance of these two elements of his origins (I’m radically oversimplifying), it seems at once expected and still kinda funny that he matured into a prototypical left-leaning liberal’s wet dream. We’re talking about the kind of man who never wished to hide his southern accent, and even found it humorous when people in his company underestimated his (formidable) intelligence upon hearing him speak.

Alan Lomax Hipster Meme Why Pop Music Sounds the Same

But we’re also talking about the kind of man who crossed racial barriers to embark upon a recording expedition in southern Florida with Zora Neal Hurston; who helped bring the great Lead Belly and Jelly Roll Morton to a pedestal in the public consciousness; about whom there exists an anecdote of him mercilessly beating a white man in a bar who said openly that he didn’t want to sit next to a “nigger”; and who for years was trailed by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI for his alleged Communist sympathies. (He managed to evade consequences, unlike his friend and collaborator, Pete Seeger).

Regardless of your politics, that’s all pretty badass, and when you come across a guy with those credentials who had over 8,000 tapes and recordings of music from all over the world in his possession at the time of his death in 2002 (all of which is now available online to the public, by the way), it probably would be worth the time to give an ear to what he had to say.

Perhaps the central preoccupation of Lomax’s career was the mission to preserve culture and ensure its continued relevance through technology, fueled by an obsession with authenticity and the value of multiculturalism. In 1968, after running out of funding for one of these projects (a running theme in his biography), he urged everyone he could to contribute to his mission statement’s completion:

One of the greatest opportunities and most urgent tasks of this century is to film the full range of human culture while we can… there is little time left… The entertainment industry, operating a one-way communication system, now threatens to obliterate national cultures as it has long shamed into silence neighborhood, peasant, and primitive cultures… Unless we take action now, what remains of human cultural variety will vanish.

In order to understand many of Lomax’s behaviors towards other major figures in American history with whom he associated at the time, the key lies in considering this reasonably alarmist mindset. A wonderful encounter in the novel occurs between Lomax and Aaron Copland in 1933, when both were working on the same program for CBS Radio. The format of the program was such that Alan would present the social context for the folk piece that was the subject of the program, followed by a fantasy of sorts based on the song by a prominent American composer, a hark back to the musical nationalism of 19th-century Europe (Antonin Dvorak, Edvard Grieg, Bela Bartok in the 20th century, etc.). Lomax seemed barely able to contain his rage by Copland’s apparently dismissive listening to the classic American song, “John Henry,” and the subsequent piece composed around it, writing,

When his piece was played on the air, I was unsure no longer. My composer friend had written the tunes down accurately, but his composition spoke for the Paris of Nadia Boulanger, and not for the wild land and the heart-torn people who had made the song. The spirit and emotion of “John Henry” shone nowhere in his score because he had never heard, much less experienced them. And this same pattern held true for all the folk symphonic suites for twenty boring weeks.

It takes balls to take a major American composer to the mat for a lack of insight, especially since the institution of classical music in this country was so painstakingly erected–seemingly against gravity–on the basis of the composer as the Great Man. But, in the time spent with him, it becomes clear that such an ideology contained the seeds of the things that Lomax so passionately vilified: revisionism, inauthenticity, classism, artifice, conformity. His rancor was not so much directed at Aaron Copland, or even classical music, but the arrogance with which it snuffed out the voices of provincial, “low” cultures, themselves as precious a document of the human experience. And the agenda to somehow better these works through musical cosmetics, a violent instance of “everything these days [happening] at the center and broadcast out from the center to the periphery,” where everyone is “a hick by inference,” to him was inconsolable.

The dignity of the folk musician and the nuances of their traditions–something that could not necessarily be captured by European methods of documentation or analysis–assumed the place of Lomax’s central concern. And due to his efforts, many now-venerated contributors to the canon of American recorded music received, at least, their due recognition, if not necessarily their compensation.

Alan Lomax With Friends Why Pop Music Sounds the Same

Lomax, center, with friends at the 1972 Mississippi Blues Festival.

Nonetheless, this created more than an alternative; it became a front, a bulwark against the eurocentrist presence in American aesthetics, insulating the works of former slaves and sharecroppers, Appalachian singers and fiddlers, local church choirs, forgotten jazz greats, and blues conduits from the tarnishing hand of a white glove. This message, broadcast to a whole new generation via radio thanks to New Deal proceedings and arrangements with the WPA and CBS, eventually took roots of its own, creating a startling shift in what forms popular music took in America.

I remember once having a Grade-A 2:00 AM discussion (as college students are prone to do) with my good friend Will Ricker, a fellow music major and a genuine Vertmont transplant, the state likely being the last frontier of what Lomax meant when he referred to “the periphery.” Over assorted crackers, Quaker Oat Squares, and videos of Bruce Springsteen dressing up like 70’s Bruce on Fallon, Will casually asked me, “You ever notice how after a certain point, pop music stopped being tonal and went more modal? Like, what happened?”

To this day, I don’t think Will entirely picked up on how brilliantly simple that insight was, because what happened was, by all accounts, pretty fucking weird.

So, to summarize, you have a solid 30-odd years where American popular song comes from Broadway musicals and revues, the songs written by figures like Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Jerome Kern, an overwhelmingly vanilla bunch each of whom were taking their ideas from Romantic 19th century harmony, the music driven by voice leading and much greater activity in the progression. This was the hallmark of Tin Pan Alley songwriting.

Chet Baker It Could Happen to You Why Pop Music Sounds the Same

Chet Baker’s mellifluous rendition of “It Could Happen to You,” from 1958.

Fast-forward to 1963 and all of a sudden we’ve got a young Bob Dylan spinning his epic yarn with an out-of-tune harmonica and four chords that hold for–comparably–a really long time:

What happened was the ascension of folk music and song to the level of mainstream awareness, aided greatly by Lomax’s Depression-era broadcasts that helped it reach the larger urban public and create a demand that a growing number of artists–among them Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Aunt Molly Jackson, Lead Belly–began to fill, creating their own feedback loop with their newfound influence. Their musical thumbprint was not lost to the infant industry of DJs, a multi-racial bunch scattered across the country who reinforced folk’s relevance via air time.

By the time Alan had returned to America in 1958 from Europe (alternatively recording and avoiding the FBI blacklist for nine years), the so-called folk revival was in full swing, with many folk artists Lomax himself recorded now taking up residence in cities and being redefined as rock ‘n’ roll. Meanwhile, the folk music was audible in the streets. Washington Square Park rang out with them daily, a result of the congregation of young, white “folkniks” forming their musical careers.

How sweet; a demonstration of the endurance of authenticity in the face of the pressure to conform! But what the hell does this have to do with country music in 2015?

Funnily enough (or not), quite a bit, as demonstrated by our noble hero’s less-than-verklempt response to the phenomenon he had helped create. While he stuck his neck out in support of the early developments of rock, praising it as “the furthest intrusion of Negro folksong into U.S. pop music,” and “a creative American impulse… made by young people for young people… a rebellion against the puritan ethic,” he immediately turned his back on the “city-billy” singers, criticizing their technical smoothness in favor of mastering the regional singing styles from which their repertoire derived. Style, Lomax believed, was about the qualities of the music that were not central from a eurocentrist point of view, writing,

Music for most people, not professional musicians, is more than melody, rhythm, and words–it’s what kind of voice the singer uses, the way he holds his body, and… when and how and where the song is sung… The primary function of music is to remind the listener that he belongs to one certain part of the human race… a quick and immediate symbol for all the deepest emotions the people of your part of the world share.

Naturally, the thought of urban white kids singing authentic black folk songs without having partaken in local black culture didn’t exactly sit well with him. Perhaps, inevitably, though, the new generation did not take kindly to Lomax’s criticisms, and Frankenstein’s monster rebelled against its creator. John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers quickly shot back: “The effort [of the city-billys] is focused on a search for real and human values. We are not looking for someone to lead us. We are looking within ourselves.” Interpreting his crusading efforts as an attempt to stifle their creativity and to shame what they liked, just as the American classical leviathan shamed the artists Lomax championed, Alan soon found himself on the outskirts of the folk community, filling in the role of a reactionary minstrelsy police (“Too much tar brush!”), viciously attacking everything he felt smelled of cultural imperialism, even, yes, Sesame Street. Judging from PBS’s early morning ratings, most of this fell on deaf ears.

Alan Lomax Frustrated

And thus, a life that we all want to remember as groundbreaking sprouts a second narrative as a kind of cautionary tale, that even the most sincere and educated believer in the power of diversity and local cultures couldn’t prevent the products of his work from being whitewashed (literally) by a mainstream not willing to understand the nuances of the music they chose to perform. Meanwhile, groups like the Kingston Trio, the Weavers, and former folk acts like Muddy Waters and Sam Cooke all went on to have substantial careers. Greater homogeny yielded greater profit. Sound familiar?

Back to the hear and now, the same thing seems posed to happen on the hip-hop front. Granted, hip hop is probably the most vulnerable genre in recorded music history, due to the principles of its construction being based on computers, sampling, and synthesizers. No matter where you put or how you use a drop, it’s going to sound the same unless you go into the studio and record your own, a practice being kept alive by the likes of fringe pop geniuses like Daft Punk and The Roots, but less so with the more successful mainstream acts, like, say, Iggy.

(An interesting aside: though Lomax never commented on it, I would be curious to know how he felt when hip-hop began to crest in the early ’90s. When Fear of a Black Planet dropped, did he see it as a further insertion of black culture into the mainstream or a bizarre piece of found art that could never technically have it’s own identity?)

Still gives me chills...

All of this begs the question: why the hell does this happen? Why does everything remotely popular eventually have to suck? Oddly enough, I don’t think this is necessarily a global phenomenon, but a consequence of the rise of the recording industry, which, since the first player piano, this country has been the primary wellspring for.

Recently, I went to see the Pedrito Martinez Group at Subrosa, the new club that they headline in the Meatpacking District for a free soft-opening show. These guys don’t need me to speak for them, so I won’t:

Pretty ridiculous; all of them natural performers, and drawing from a deep tradition of Cuban popular music that constantly acknowledges its roots in African musical principles. These guys are at the top of their game and have only recently reached this new height of success–previously unheard of, might I add, for Cuban immigrant musicians playing their own music, no matter how virtuosic. How then, do they avoid the trap that American music doesn’t? I think the distinction can be found in a comparison of the public performance cultures of the U.S. and Cuba (or any other country). Cuba’s music, in part because of isolation from the record industry due to the embargo, but also as a consequence of the influences of African and Spanish cultures–both of which prize music and performance as a daily happening–is incredibly public. The music is so integrated into how Cubans live that it is omnipresent. America, by contrast, fails to cultivate that free environment of music played in the streets. Just ask Kermit Ruffins, who, when he and the BBQ Strutters played a rare gig in NYC, were stopped by the police almost immediately after trying to take the party outside.

Kermit Ruffins Why Pop Music Sounds the Same

Forget it, Kermit; this ain’t Nola.

I suspect this discrepancy has almost everything to do with centrality of the record industry as the way musicians make their money, which reinforces the idea of musicians as paid professionals. Lomax himself points out that such a policy he didn’t exactly find to be the norm overseas, claiming that, “In a country like Scotland… an offer of money would be an insult since the informants sing as a courtesy to a stranger.” In America, the culture revolves around the bottom line: how lucrative is this as an investment, and how can it be maximally salient to the public? (Thems ad-industry terms!). This drives the engine of our dreaded feedback loop.

Is this phenomenon avoidable? To be honest, American culture may be unable at this point to do completely away with it, but maybe that’s not necessarily the goal. Perhaps the best solution could be found in a readjustment of the scales, as it were, a shift in the industry and the market towards greater emphasis on live entertainment and performance. In this case, consider the internet a serendipity from on high. It’s no secret that the record industry sleeps in a six-foot hole as of about a decade ago, when policing the channels through which consumers obtained music became statistically impossible, because everyone was–and is–getting it illegally.

As a result, it’s become temporarily much harder to make a sustainable living as a musician. The trade-off, of course, is that artists are no longer as responsible to cater to the taste of Americans from the eyes of  record labels, a construct that never really existed. Or in the words of Bill Cunningham: “If you don’t take the money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid!” Enhanced communication has also made it possible to more effectively carve out a community of genuine fans, people who are actually invested in what an artist, and not their labels, wants to say. Finally, with production costs approaching zero in the midst of the rise of the Kickstarter generation, the stage has been set for another revival of sorts, a return to the acknowledgement of live performance as the most visceral music experience one can find.

Maybe much musical biodiversity has actually been lost in the 20th century; maybe not as much as Lomax feared. To quantify it would be impossible, but it remains doubtless that the only way to preserve what’s left our live musical culture is to actually cultivate it again. We’re back to the petri dish stage, only this time round, maybe we’ll tolerate the blotches and smudges; we might even learn to appreciate them.

Let’s all celebrate by listening to Pedrito sing about his hometown.

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