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American culture was once considered the greatest motivator for musical innovation, as in many other artistic arenas. Mostly because of the powerful emotive creativity of African Americans, American music exploded into the world and eventually blew back to our shores in the form of powerful, tributive and anthemic muses such as Reggae. Reggae and its predecessor, Ska, both from Jamaica, were the first examples of World Beat.
World Beat music began gaining interest in America in the 1970’s, as Bob Marley became popular for his Reggae music, which had a populist lyrical ethic and an entrancing and danceable beat like nothing before it. It was different than Caribbean music before it because, unlike examples such as Calypso, it was at least partly derivative of the musical genius of Marley’s brothers and sisters in the African Diaspora on the Mainland.
Many other styles of World Beat music have washed back to America, like aliens crying back to us the echoes of our radio waves that have pushed out into space since Marconi first transmitted a signal long ago. (One wonders what will come back to us when the radio waves actually do reach some aliens, and they return the favor; one wonders if there will be anyone alive here to receive the response.)
This reciprocal creativity will only happen once.
America has now run into a dead-end with its original creative genius: everything seems to have been done. Can this be true? Is there nothing left in America’s creative magical hat that will extend the life and popularity of American music? Will there be nothing new after Nu-Metal, Corporate R&B, Hip-Hop/Gangsta Rap and House Music?
All of these are commercial rapes of truer forms, of course. But even in the case of the sincere, original genres (respectively Heavy Metal, R&B, Rap/Hip-Hop, Electronica), we seem to be at a plateau, and moving nowhere.
As for the sort of creativity America IS displaying to the world, except for the occasional unsigned or otherwise obscure artist whom the ardent music afficionado must ‘dig up’ to discover, with increasing effort, there’s just mixture.
By mixture, this writer means that American corporate-driven music, which unfortunately represents the vast majority of music available through traditional venues to the consumer, is rehashed mixtures and copies of older trends.
For example, we now have legions of Kurt Cobain-wannabes, and some of them aren’t even American; Cobain is the new Elvis, and his impersonators need not even physically resemble him. They need merely to possess the same whining vocals, the same bitch-slapped personality, the same grown-man-in-diapers co-dependence coming through their music to their legions of undiscerning, unintelligent fans. They just need to allow someone to produce their unoriginal, overly and overtly derivative and boring music a certain way, to allow themselves to be marketed as the newest clone/follower/successor to Kurt Cobain. Then they’re on the radio and they’re OFF! (In that last comment I could mean they’re off on the track to success like a veritable racehorse or they’re right back off the radio, because these trendies are uniformly dispensable.)
This was a bad enough phenomenon back in the 1980’s, when Hair Metal flooded the media. It killed the commercial scene for true heavy metal music, and helped usher in the popularity of gangsta rap and a cheaper, more formulaic style of R&B that has truly cheapened the rich heritage of African American music and its seminal genius.
Once there was a time when African American music inspired scores of new genres, instantly spinning off ingenius ideas even in musicians and thinkers outside the African American culture proper. Old-style rock’n’roll inspired Ska on the Caribbean island of Jamaica, which led to the roots’n’rock juggernaut that is Reggae, which in turn led to several subgenres. Going all the way back, the gospel music of slavery led to the blues, jazz, swing, rock’n’roll, motown, R&B, soul, funk, even heavy metal and punk. Now, with the majority of commercial music creativity in the control of a handful of people who have nothing of their hearts or minds in music, all the different genres one can think of are now being bred back together; at first, a few genres here and there would find some interesting common ground. Rick James combined funk and punk; the New Wavers combined old-school punk with futuristic sci-fi music; hardcore meshed metal and punk together at last under one friendly roof; it all began to unravel when Anthrax, a previously respectable thrash-metal outfit, decided to commit blasphemy against the Metal Gods and mixed Metal with Rap.
At this point, all the worst kinds of musical mixtures began to appear, and bands that attempted to create pop-music synergy by mixing everything together that anyone in the group had ever heard, for example No Doubt, began creating drivel music that no one could any longer tell apart without being heavily invested in the listening: one needed practically to work in the music industry to be able to distinguish these bands, and this is how it remains today.
Now, storms of artists are being vomited into the commercial music media that are simply mixtures of virtually everything. My latest, most hated example since No Doubt is the despicable Evanescence. Completely apostate and cynical towards whatever faiths the members themselves knew growing up, they allowed themselves to be marketed as a Christian band until finally deciding to take the training wheels off and deny this allegiance publicly during an interview with the lead singer. This band is simply a bad mixture of nu-metal (which is a bad mixture of alternative and metal), rap, and goth.
Evanescence is garbage, perfect fodder for mall shops like Hot Topic and their lines of T-shirts and band merchandise. The only saving grace for this band is the vocal talent of its female lead singer, and even she leans on the whiny side. It also must be said that the band is, as typical, quite overproduced, including string arrangements and musical melodrama that is enough to invoke Monica Lewinsky’s gag reflex.
At least Marylin Manson had just enough originality and menace to be almost interesting, worth loving to hate, at least while he was ‘here’.
Now, with just about everything on the commercial music scene being absolutely, completely derivative, even country music and chickie folk, mimicking and copying and marketing beyond any individuality, there is little hope. We need some sort of musical 9-11, something that will bring down the whole corporate house of cards and blast the landscape clean of all the offending duplication.
Presently, this writer is finding solace in the underground electronic music scene: ambient, trip-hop, meditation electronica, dark ambient, space music and the like are providing an excellent counterpoint to his typical traditional heavy metal and old-school heavy rock. The scene in these genres has a markedly different nature from corporate music, to the point where many artists are utterly unconcerned with profits or even marketability, but simply in the opportunity to create and to disseminate. This refreshing art-for-art’s-sake approach has made these nascent genres of music some of the most powerful culture to come out of the West in many years, and what is equally shocking is that no parent in the world can possibly object to any of it. Unfortunately for America's musical creativity, the vast majority of it is not American.
Now, go to http://www.ambient.us/shop/ and check out the mesmerizing samples. Electronic music was at first lauded as the new ‘infinite creativity music’, and then due to the inexperience of most of the initial pioneers was the object of much disillusionment. The ever-present electronic underground, beginning with fertile artists such as Tangerine Dream and on through Future Sound of London, has rescued the raw potential of electronica and made it a new religion. It has even exploded into nearly countless subgenres, including a kind of electronic World Beat, expanding beyond pure electronica to the use of organic instruments and traditional musical structures.
We have also seen the advent of the compositional phenomenon (for lack of a better term in the lexicon of this musical layman) of ‘sonic sculpturing’. There are now CD’s full of ‘musical and sonic landscapes’ or ‘soundscapes’, which now exist alongside the more traditional concept of ‘songs’, and these are part of a new lifestyle of changing the ambience of one’s environment, at least mentally and emotionally, through artistically ‘sculpted’ sound. It is relaxation and spiritual and mental transposition without the fictitious immersion of escapism. It is immersion in brainwave synchronization and sonic imagery, a true change in the environment of a person’s mind and spirit.
The limitless potential of Earth music lies in these new genres and their boundless creativity and potential for establishing wholly new paradigms for listening not only to music as such, but simply sound. Indulge in this new musical and sonic paradigm for a while and enjoy the experimentation, even when it doesn’t quite work; but it succeeds significantly more often than it fails, for these pioneers are almost always masters, and even derivative works tend to be sincere and even powerful and evocative.
There is also a fair wealth of this music available at http://www.cdbaby.com , and there is an increasing number of outlets on the internet, searchable via any engine, that provide mail-order for CD’s or even legal direct download, as does the ambient-us site I first mentioned. Get on it now, people, and join the revolution.