Selling Us Back to Ourselves, pt. 2

In my previous blog entry, “Selling Us Back to Ourselves”, I described how the act of making of music once belonged to all of us — and was subsequently taken from us and transformed into an “expert’s” activity, the product of which was sold back to us.

We ended with the question: “When did we lose our belief that everyone can make music?”

I don’t know the definitive answer, but my semi-educated guess says it was a long process that began in the 1930’s – probably with the advent of records and later TV.

If any of my students are reading, a record is thisBefore phonograph records were widely available (if any of my students are reading this, look to your left), people who wanted to experience music had two options:
1) perform it themselves
2) go see it performed live (probably within walking/bus distance).

But once records and TV became commonplace and affordable, there was a sea change in the way we experienced music – music was now something we passively listened to instead of played, performed, or made. The “average consumer” consumed music, instead of producing it on parlor pianos, ukuleles, or what have you. The people who produced music were “professionals,” ranging from Sinatra’s backing band to shaggy-haired rockers. Music became centralized, and then distributed to the masses (at a profit, they hoped).


And in 1950’s post-war America, we may have damn well liked it that way – consumerism may not have been the dirty word it is today. In my last post, I described how musicologist Christopher Blacking proposed that before the second world war, we judged by how “sociable” it was; a music historian I’m reading now, Richard Taruskin, says that this value was “tyrannically abused under totalitarian regimes” during World War II — in other words, totalitarian regimes used music for propaganda. The history of classical composers sanctioned or blacklisted by oppressive regimes is pretty well-documented; apparently these regimes also used popular music and songbooks also (I can find references to these songbooks but not actual examples).

These regimes celebrated “the people” as a means to mercilessly control the people. Following Taruskin’s logic, music that was created by “the people” may have rang suspicious to those who survived the war; it may have seemed a little too reminiscent of those totalitarian regimes. It’s no coincidence that after the war, serious classical composers began creating impenetrably complex music. Accessibility was no longer important to them; judging a piece on whether or not it was “for the people” smacked of Communism and Socialism.

And in America, flush with a post-war economic boom, it’s possible that our love of capitalism made us, in our own way, skeptical of music that could be made communally. Communal music wasn’t a *product*, and here in America we love *products*. *Amateurs* made communal music, but a teenager could by a record made by “professional” musicians with their allowance money.

In the No-Wave documentary Kill Your Idols, Arto Lindsay discusses the weirdness of today’s record industry taking youth culture and selling it right back to young people. He’s discussing rock and roll, but that quote applies to music on the whole.  The ability to make music used to be “ours,” even if it was as simple as singing a song from the folk tradition while we do housework.  But now we perceive the ability to make music as belonging to an elite few.

Up next, a shout out to those who are keeping our traditional music alive – and what does “our traditional music” even mean in the US?

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