The Death of the electric Guitar and the Philosophy of Music.
Here’s an old geezer’s take on the situation: Music is too easy to make now days.
Let me qualify.
Think about media in general, how it developed, the eras, the movie star and rock stars, the classic movies, the great movies and songs, the guitar heroes. To my mind, it is difficult to think of those things without also reflecting on our time of mass media and access. Access is the key I think. there is too much access to sustain the old version of the Rock Star.
Sure we will still have stars that people love; my daughter wants to marry Panic! at the Disco lead man Brendon Urie. But he’s no Guitar Hero. He is definitely a Singing Hero, and in a very conventional mode is a rock star by definition. And, if we take Panic! as an example of guitar players, I don’t think their guitarist Kenneth Harris is a guitar hero; he’s just the guitarist of Panic at the Disco. Sure he can play pretty well, but a Hero? I think not.
But think historically about how all this excitement came about ; Limited access. It was not that we (the audience) were not permitted access, it is that there was only a small number of groups, music and events. Rock and Roll was all we had, and there was only a tiny bit of it. You could only see, say Aerosmith, maybe once a year. you got maybe 10 songs from them, and then with all the other music that appealed to rebellious youth, there likewise was only a small menu to choose from.
This is to say, that compared to now we had a small menu. One could say that the later punk and Indy rock move that came out of the 80’s was in response to such limited access; you could go see 5 bands, probably 3 you loved, at the same place for $12. Guitar was still central, but they were not guitar heros. Probably the closest thing to a punk rock hero was Captain Sensible. His leads were phenomenal, his playing of the energy of Rick Nielson of Cheap Trick, and his stage presence was just the kind of rock star mentality that had already left the rock and roll of prior years to be ‘Classic’. Captain Sensible was really the last of a certain kind of rock and roll guitar attitude; of a dying breed; he was only one great lead guitarist of a genre of guitarists that was huge, but who had nearly no really good lead guitarists. It was no longer about the lead guitarists anyways, it was about energy.
Even if we consider the Heavy Metal/glam bands of the late 80’s, we have to admit that what they were lacking in Hero-ness, they made up for with regular and repeatable shows, Glam look and relatively shallow lyrics. We start finding that people were no longer interested in being transported musically, we find that people just wanted to ‘rock’. Here I am going to qualify talent as the extent that one leaves open the possibility of mistake to chance, and yet does not make the mistake. Id say that the guitar hero came out of the intimacy that comes to be involved through limited access, a sense of common contingency and implicit improvisational understanding. The ideas of a repeatable and regular sense of music was not the soil the guitar hero grew out of; the repeatable sense what that of not knowing just what you might get.
The guitar hero emerged also because the pool of musicians and groups who played any particular type of music was also limited. When we consider what is occurring now, we might see that it is not that there was very talented musicians who made great music as much as there was only relatively few musicians making music. We only had to select from a tiny amount of song; of course those who were able to make it to our ears were people who had a certain special manner. We couple the sense of an intimate disaster, that at any moment in the playing of the song it might fall apart or hit us with some unexpected intimate meaning, meaning that came from a sparse and distant proximity of the maker of the music as well as the music itself, the lyrics and the live playing, we have a pretty good explanation going.
I see risk is the basic factor involved. Kids and music lovers did not have the sense that music was a kind of security. Music was a way to inhabit the unknown, to embrace the inherent insecurity of existence, to leave the regular sense of everyday living. The guitar hero embodied an actual kind of heroic sense that seem lost now days. No one now wants to get lost nor risk not ever being able to find their way back, and our music reflects that.
People want their music to reflect the security they do not feel in their lives. They do not want to get lost; the future is so uncertain that they want their music to deliver a regular and certain performance every time, be it in in a recording or a live performance. My 14 year old daughter had been to a few concerts; she was ecstatic, happy and amazed and flaunting that the group sounded exactly like the album. I would have never expressed anything like that when I was 14. I enjoyed that the albums sounded nothing like the shows; to me they were two aspects of the good music and a good band.
People just want to have a good time; the experience of live music, the good time involved has nothing to do with intimacy anymore, people want a performance: The intimacy is found due to and within this preordained arrangement. The guitarist now relies upon the notion of a guitar hero without having to actually be able to risk improvisation or the unknown. Music is an expression of what is knowable, a celebration of what is substantial in its apparent obviousness. The music has been so well learned, the avenues and stylistic maneuvers of guitar leads and music structure have been so well studied and emulated, we already know what to expect when a riff is played, or a lyric sung, and we compare the talent and ‘hero’ quality of the guitarist to how well they ‘sound like so and so’, how well they pull off the ‘blues lick’, or the ‘heavy metal solo’, the ‘indie innocence’, the youth angst. The audience is prepared beforehand as to what to expect of not only the performance, but the actual notes themselves, the actual lines of music and how should fit together. People want heroes only in name, and the musicians are only too happy to give them that figure.
But we should also note that it is not that suddenly this generation somehow does not enjoy “good music”. We should see that this has always been the case, but there was only a limited amount of people ‘showing’ other people how they should respond to music, but most people at all times do not have a ‘deep’ appreciation of music technique, or have any reflction on what is ‘really’ occurring in any perfofrmance. They just listen to music and go to concerts. They speak to lingo of the day as to what is appreciated by others and what amounts to a good concert or good guitar playing. Most people don’t know if someone is really improvising or just playing sheet music, and they don’t care.
Lastly, the sheer access to technology and the simplicity of making music has allowed for a glut in the music market. Anyone can make ‘quality’ sounding music now days; they don’t have to goto an expensive studio and they don’t have to ‘get signed’. Those are basically anachronistic means to fill a performative space for entertainment that does the work for having and supplying ‘elevator music’ that is not stigmatized as such. Popular music is not ‘the best’, it is just marketed within a context of money, image and quality. There is no risk in that playing; the risk is absorbed in the actually being able to ‘make a living’ at music. The risk is in the making of a career, not the involvement in music. The risk is in what skills you can learn, what resources you can activate on your behalf, more than what talent the guitarist finds its substance within. But this is not new, it’s only now becoming obvious such that what we say about a band does not really mean much more than ‘in comparison to…’
As well, technology makes it super easy to make good sounding and musically sounding music. Anyone can write lyrics and put it to music; the quality of lyrics and music is reduced to methodological regularity of how music is supposed to be put together. And it does indeed sound good, we can no longer argue about what is good music and bad music: It is all good music. No room for heroes in this kind of world; a music maker does not even have to know how to play guitar to ‘play guitar’ in a rock band, computers will do it for you — and you’ll look cool regardless.
I understand that the music business has their approach to the why of things, but unfortunately, theirs also has more to do with, again, career and sales and making money, than it does with talent or attitude. And the business end is the most up front about it. There are simply more quality guitar makers and music makers that there ever has been, we have free access with virtually no limitation on what kind of music we can get, or how we might understand it. Guitars will still sell, it’s just that people will have to work a little harder to make the sale, so their name will become more involved with ‘what is better’ even though it’s probably no better, or worse.