Last night I was watching Marina Zettl here in Vienna with her band. They have a jazz background and make pop influenced music in that direction (I can recommend giving them a listen)
As you can imagine for 3 jazz-trained folks, their technical abilities on their respective instruments (vox/keys, drums/vox and guitar/vox) were really impressive. In musical situations like this my first reaction is always joy at seeing such technical skill followed by nagging insecurity at all the things I am not able to do on my instrument.
I have spoken to other musicians and people who have started learning to play an instrument and given up and I know that feelings like this are not rare.
It is easy to start to doubt the validity of what you are doing by thinking about all the tricks that you don’t know.
Then I started thinking back to the first post I wrote about communication with music and started to feel a little better.
Even a brief look at the history of popular music shows us that technical skills that take years of hard study to master are not at all necessary to produce a compelling performance.
Punk is of course the most extreme example of this. Most of the early hardcore punk bands didn’t even have the most basic skills and sounding nice was not the intention of many. (I heard a story about a bassist from an unnamed band having to have 3 of the strings taken of his guitar to be able to record his track in the studio, 4 were far too many to think about!)
But also early rap, some blues music and grunge all had pretty low technical requirements and yet are still regarded as extremely important by music fans all over the world.
So what do these “simple” musical forms all have in common?
They are expressing something authentic and real that no lack of technical ability or inferior recording techniques can disguise. As I said in my first post, it is the power of this communication that overcomes all other obstacles. If what you have to say is true and real (and you can make others believe it with your performance) then you have already succeeded and the rest is just decoration.
It could be argued that digital audio production has done much to democratise the music making process. Artists (like myself) can now produce and distribute their own material from home, weakening the power of the gatekeepers who decide what becomes popular.
The downside of this is the move towards machine-like perfection. Tuning singers precisely and quantising all the tiny imperfections out of a groove in post production all serve to place an artificial barrier between the performer and their audience.
The good news is that there are plenty of artists bucking this trend with great success. Jack White is a great example of a man who expresses his truth above all else, with all the dirt, spit and blood that comes along with it. A less extreme example would be Lana Del Ray, who almost always sings slightly flat. In my opinion even the folks without the ears to spot this are attracted to this sound because it is the backlash against the heavily processed lies that digital audio make possible.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the occasional entertaining lie myself and there’s nothing wrong with that in moderation but simple truths touch us in a way that entertaining lies never can which is why this type of music keeps coming back onto the scene and in my opinion will never be displaced even after the inevitable rise of our robot overlords.
So don’t give up that instrument you are struggling with, just use it to make something authentic and the skills will come on their own.
What simple songs or music speak to you? Who did I forget to mention?
Share your thoughts in the comments section.
Till next time!