Divining History Through Music

(or, What Will The Aliens Think?)

Something has been a recurring theme in my deeper thoughts through the years that I've been able to have deeper thoughts -- that is to say, since I was about twelve or so (born old, aging well, for the most part, but I digress).

As I have gone through life listening and looking about me, I have noticed the odd connection between the times and the music thereof. Music in 1974 was well out of the drug-induced stupor of the sixties, which had its own brand of music -- music that made a statement, and a very strong one. Music that I listened to in 1974 was different than what everyone else was listening to. My Mom (waves, "Hi, Mom!") had brought home some new music that caught my ear. It was Ragtime. Scott Joplin: The Red Back Book, and Joshua Rifkin plays Scott Joplin (I'm not certain of that last title, but I remember it all very well...)

I had discovered Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass by this time, and I thought the sun rose and set with them. I even got to see them at the (now closed) Circle Star Theatre in San Carlos, CA (I even found the autographs I got from that show).

Now, at that time, Ragtime music (yes, it deserves very much the same reverence as Progressive Rock, Rock and Roll and John Philip Sousa -- with all of which I grew up, but...) was just another happy sound in my life. I loved its intricacies, and yet its simplicity made it accessable to a budding and very impressionable young musician who could pick up things by ear (but couldn't sight-read his way out of a croissant). It was magical. It wasn't until much much later in life that I would draw the connection of the sound of the music to the era in which it flourished.

It's by and large happy music. Very very happy-go-lucky, in almost as much as people were having a good time, they were also trying to forget their problems. And it had all the markings of the bars in which it was most often played.

Now it was considered most often "coloured people's music", as near as my memory and recollection of research can divine. The good, upstanding moral white majority wanted nothing to do with it, by and large -- or so they gave the impression. It's quite obvious that this wasn't true; the Gershwin Brothers were influenced by it; and hey, what about Porgy and Bess, hm?

And has anyone listened to the sounds of music between 1890 and 1910? Ragtime draws some blindingly obvious connections to them. I think these people wanted to remember, to bring back the good times that the music embodied.

As I grew older, I started, of course, listening to the music which was popular at the time. I mean, really, who wasn't listening to the radio when they were growing up? Anyone growing up in 1976 thru 1980 was probably tuning into a top-forty AM station and catching all the music that was happening. "Fly Like An Eagle", by the Steve Miller Band; "Love Will Keep Us Together", by The Captain & Tennille; "The Things We Do For Love", by Hall and Oates. All very indicative of the times in which the music was written, very laid back, not too terribly much of an edge to it, but not so dull as to be a waste of time. It was pop. Popular music, the stuff that MOST of the universe listened to.

By 1978, the glory of our country's bicentennial had waned a tad (even though it really should have carried on through 1989), and harder elements began to filter into the mainstream. Firstly, AM/FM radios had become more commonplace, replacing the AM-only boxes which had been the norm. Secondly, youth yearned for more of an edge, more of a voice, and they got it -- in AC/DC, Van Halen, Rush, War, the Scorpions, and of course the plenitude of punk bands which were beginning to form, such as The Clash and others. The Progressive Rock swung into the mainstream with music from Styx and Supertramp, among others.

In 1980, Jimmy Carter was elected out of office to be succeeded by Ronald Reagan, and music changed again -- it got harsher, more shocking (along with the attire which went with it) in reaction to what was being passed down as the status quo. The world seemed just a bit darker. We started getting some serious creativity arising out of a generation who hoped to change the world and turn the establishment on its ear, to tell it to take a hike. In 1984, for example, we got some serious proof that the world WASN'T ending at this time, that imagination was still strong, and that we were still drawing on the lessons taught to us by the previous generation as far as how to go about changing the world (and, of course, how not to). We saw the rise and fall of Blondie, and the Police finished up on about the same note (with the notable exception of being wise enough to bow out gracefully and go their own separate ways). The Eagles had split up, and Don Henley and Glenn Frey were making their own directions. Each of these groups addressed a certain kind of angst in the newer generation, whether it was a worldly concern or a personal one.

From 1984 to 1988, with Reagan re-elected, we took a slight downturn again, but people never lost hope. We got some good -- and very poignant -- music from the likes of David Bowie, U2, Peter Gabriel. We also saw a comeback from Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Jackson Browne and several other "cause musicians" -- the ones who come back and perform for causes such as the Christic Institute, Amnesty International and others who attempted to further the restoration of human rights.

In 1988, we got George H. Dubya. What is astounding, musically, is that for the next four years, we didn't seem to have a musical direction, a trend that is reoccurring now. I mean, sure, out came cRap music (the 'c' is usually invisible), with its explicit lyrics, and an attitude that, to this day, I find horribly oppressive. But it's dark, and it communicates through a generation that feels as though it has no hope, nothing to move toward, nothing that it can possibly contribute that will make the world a better place to live. Even the Cause Performers were losing hope at that point, or the people were losing enough hope that they didn't want to see false ones raised.

I will also note that, while it was dark during Clinton's terms in office, it seemed that creativity was somewhat encouraged. We got alternative rock out of it, those pieces which basically took a musical ice pick and shoved it firmly through the ear of the establishment, and we got grunge rock -- the whiny self-serving anthems of Generation X proclaiming that no matter what they try to do, nothing seems to work.

...and since Dumb Dubya got shoehorned into office (I still don't know what he's doing there, anyone? Anyone? Bueller? ...Bueller?), we're back into the doldrums. If anything, the music has become more self- serving (in the case of the mellower stuff), or more violent and socially condemning (in the case of cRap). By the same token that the music is teaching our children to lose hope, to lose faith in the goodness of the mortal race inhabiting our planet, the children are not stupid. They are picking up on the general malaise that is affecting our country in general.

I have some degree of faith that somehow, the people are going to wake up, and when they do, and they smell the artificially flavoured pasteurised coffee food product, I wonder what tales the music will tell then.

Maybe my friends and I should start writing it now. Maybe we can nudge it in the right direction.

Got a match?

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