Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Come Together

When David Brooks isn’t writing about politics, shilling for the Bush administration, or polishing the legacy of Ronald Reagan, he will occasionally come up with a reflection on modern culture. Today he informs us on Steven Van Zandt’s plan to teach American history through music.

Van Zandt fell for the Beatles and discovered the blues and early rock music that inspired them. He played in a series of bands on the Jersey shore, and when a friend wanted to draw on his encyclopedic blues knowledge for a song called “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” Van Zandt wound up as a guitarist for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

The 1970s were a great moment for musical integration. Artists like the Rolling Stones and Springsteen drew on a range of musical influences and produced songs that might be country-influenced, soul-influenced, blues-influenced or a combination of all three. These mega-groups attracted gigantic followings and can still fill huge arenas.

But cultural history has pivot moments, and at some point toward the end of the 1970s or the early 1980s, the era of integration gave way to the era of fragmentation. There are now dozens of niche musical genres where there used to be this thing called rock. There are many bands that can fill 5,000-seat theaters, but there are almost no new groups with the broad following or longevity of the Rolling Stones, Springsteen or U2.

Okay, once you get over the rather jarring notion of David Brooks and rock music, you can probably agree that he has a point. When I was growing up in the 1960’s, the rock stations (all invariably AM) were playing everything from the Beatles, the Supremes, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Diamond, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Beach Boys. Genre radio didn’t exist, and it really didn’t matter to the kids I hung out with what group was playing as long as it was good.

Van Zandt grew up in one era and now thrives in the other, but how long can mega-groups like the E Street Band still tour?

“This could be the last time,” he says.

He argues that if the Rolling Stones came along now, they wouldn’t be able to get mass airtime because there is no broadcast vehicle for all-purpose rock. And he says that most young musicians don’t know the roots and traditions of their music. They don’t have broad musical vocabularies to draw on when they are writing songs.

As a result, much of their music (and here I’m bowdlerizing his language) stinks.

He describes a musical culture that has lost touch with its common roots. And as he speaks, I hear the echoes of thousands of other interviews concerning dozens of other spheres.

It seems that whatever story I cover, people are anxious about fragmentation and longing for cohesion. This is the driving fear behind the inequality and immigration debates, behind worries of polarization and behind the entire Obama candidacy.

(You knew he’d have to stick politics in there somehow.)

Van Zandt has a way to counter all this, at least where music is concerned. He’s drawn up a high school music curriculum that tells American history through music. It would introduce students to Muddy Waters, the Mississippi Sheiks, Bob Dylan and the Allman Brothers. He’s trying to use music to motivate and engage students, but most of all, he is trying to establish a canon, a common tradition that reminds students that they are inheritors of a long conversation.

And Van Zandt is doing something that is going to be increasingly necessary for foundations and civic groups. We live in an age in which the technological and commercial momentum drives fragmentation. It’s going to be necessary to set up countervailing forces — institutions that span social, class and ethnic lines.

Music used to do this. Not so much anymore.

This is one of the consequences of living in a world with a lot of choices. Whereas thirty years ago a town might have five or six radio stations (enough to fill the pre-set buttons in your Dad’s Buick Roadmaster) and you had your choice of rock, easy listening, or country, you didn’t have the luxury of listening to a station that played only one kind of music. Now we have 500 stations on XM, Sirius and the internet to broaden our horizons and give us these dizzying choices. Even the over-the-air stations break themselves into tiny little facets: adult contemporary, adult-oriented classic rock, oldies, “dance” (which is updated gay disco from the ’70’s), rap, hip-hop, and here in Miami, Latin, salsa, Latin dance, Latin rap, Caribbean (and the many varieties thereof), and on and on. Each genre has its faithful listeners…and its advertising demographics.

I think this is less a result of our social segmentation than it is a sign of the growing awareness of diversity and cross-generational awareness. The number of kids who listen to the rock music of their parents’ generation is growing, and I saw a lot of teenagers wearing Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, and even The Beatles t-shirts this last weekend at the car show on Miami Beach. And while I don’t know too many baby-boomers who drive around with the windows open on their cars and crank up the bass to blast out the latest by 50 Cent, I know that there are those who have followed the trail of contemporary music and its evolution from the do-wop era to today with as much insight and interest as those who listen to Bach and Mozart.

Karl Haas, the late musicologist, teacher, and radio host, used to say that there was good music and bad music, and it didn’t matter if it was The Beatles or Brahms. I think that even if we may not find appeal in a certain form or are concerned that we’re fragmenting, we do have one thing in common: we know good music when we hear it, and that can bring us together. Bravo, Steve.