Monthly Archives: January 2009

How Nirvana Helped Me, Even Though I Don’t Like Their Records

I don’t especially like Nirvana. At some points in my life, I’ve down right hated them. In my experience they have often served as a trump card for someone who didn’t put much thought into their musical tastes. Everyone knows at least a couple of their songs and therefore they become an easy “in” for someone who actually has nothing to add to the conversation. Here’s a good story: One time on my radio (or college PA system) show, I made the comment “Nirvana sucks. Their records were nothing special.” Within in minutes I had a foaming frat boy type yelling at me through the booth window, not only about my opinion but about using the term “record” when everyone had CDs or MP3s. In reaction to this, I cut into the song and explained to him on air that “record” was a general term for any recording and that he must have mistaken it for “vinyl.” This was the only time in 3 years that anyone had aggressively reacted to anything I said, and boy did I make some inflammatory comments during my tenure.

At this point in my life, my opinion of Nirvana is simple. They made solid pop records and had the right people hear them at the right time. The argument oft used by Mtv and VH-1 that Nirvana tapped into some sort of social aggression that occurred at that time is clearly bullcorn (another 5 points for getting that reference) and if you listen to their albums you can clearly hear that they did nothing that hadn’t been done before (or better, for that matter).

Even though they are not the band they are frequently made out to be, Nirvana did do something very important. For years after their rise to the top, record labels searched for the “next Nirvana.” This means that tons great of bands got more promotion and better record deals than they would have in any other era. Some became huge (i.e. Pearl Jam, who I personally believe would be the bigger reference point had Cobain not decided to kill himself) and some simply got to play in front of larger crowds. In this point I take solace; Nirvana probably did more good than bad for popular music. Without Nirvana I doubt I ever would have heard Veruca Salt or Green Day (who may end up warranting an entry of their own) or even Alanis Morissette on the radio, and I can’t imagine how different my taste in music would be today.

This leads to my point and hopefully a new layer to the argument we have here. Though this may shock some of you, some people do listen to the radio to find new music. Unfortunately, record labels and the large media companies tend to stick with what “works”, meaning for the foreseeable future we will continue to get the half assed show tunes of Fall Out Boy, the unbearable yelling of Beyonce and the wannabe tough guy rock of Nickelback. However, Nirvana proved that if one intriguing artist with (and this is important) a different sound can sneak in, it can have a positive impact for years to come. I had actually hoped this would happen with Against Me!, but even they were castrated by their producers on their “Major Label Debut.” That said, I doubt any of us can predict the next truly break through artist. If MP3s don’t end up having an impact that completely changes the landscape, it is only a matter of time before we get our “next Nirvana”. Until that day, our musical journeys will continue without the help of large corporations.

Before I conclude, let me make a note. The Beatles also changed the landscape on their arrival and I was not ignoring them during this. The problem is that The Beatles have had such an expansive impact that it isn’t fair to expect that to ever happen again. As I said before, without complete restructuring of the music industry their WILL be a “next Nirvana”, but there probably will never be another band like The Beatles. God bless the internet, and long live rock and roll.

-Vinny

Vinny’s Pick Of The Week:

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If It’s Not On The Radio

It’s Probably Good

Last week Vinny and I began discussing the topic of popular music. For a blog centered on the discussion and criticism of pop culture, it seemed like a natural fit to start with. The questions we have about music’s path into the future are deceptively simple. Where is it going? What is it doing? Is it a good direction? A bad one? Surely the answers to these are a matter of opinion, but then, the Chaos Collage is devoted to our opinions, and being the elitists we sometimes (or always) are, those opinions usually feel somewhat more like fact. Still, the questions remain complex.

In my last post, The Mass Market Music Blues, I briefly discussed the idea that even with artists spread across so many genres, media hyped music is focused more on image than on actual musical talent. It’s a shame, but it’s there. However, now that I’ve solidified that point, I’ll move on to the other end of the spectrum – modern music that deserves, at the least, more attention and appreciation, but just isn’t getting it.

Firstly, let’s qualify popularity. Many artists that fly under the mainstream radar are actually rather well known within their own musical niche. Joe Satriani, for example, fills large venues, has endorsement deals and gets coverage in guitar magazines, but his name is hardly ever heard on the radio or seen on television. The media pays him no serious mind because he doesn’t appeal to enough people, or the right kind of people. Hell, the man has been nominated for the “Best Rock Instrumental Performance” Grammy Award fourteen times and never won. Some might feel the nomination is enough recognition – but fourteen times? Give the guy some credit,  he at least deserves some critical validation. I say critical validation because the truth is, he will never appeal to a massive audience, and I think I’d like to keep it that way.

From a personal standpoint, a world full of people who absolutely love virtuoso guitarists like Satriani would be a nightmare. Shows would sell out too quickly, tickets would be prohibitively expensive, and there would be so much chatter from the media and fans that I might lose interest based solely on saturation. Excellent musicians deserve their chance at popularity, but, like a recent commenter suggested; keeping them a little hungry may also keep them honest. The more they care about the music, the more original it’ll be, and they’ll hold on to their diehard fans while remaining obscure to the mass market. In that respect, I suppose I’d vote to keep the status quo.

Of course, the opposite could happen. Their original stuff could end up being just what the spoon-fed masses needed, and they could either start releasing consecutive albums of little consequence (hence the phrase “I liked their earlier stuff better.”), or they could defy all the scenarios I’ve set up and be wildly popular and consistently genuine with their art.

That said, and since I’m sticking up for the little guy today, I’d like to issue a question to our readers. I’ve posted a video below of a song entitled “New Beginning” by the band Gravity. Back in 2007, they beat out two-hundred other groups in a battle-of-the-bands type competition, not to mention that all but one of them was still in high school. Considering the current musical landscape, I think that’s quite an accomplishment, especially for an instrumental-only progressive rock group.

I have my own ideas about why they took home the grand prize, and while I know anyone watching this probably wasn’t privy to the competition they faced, I think it’d be interesting to hear some other opinions about why they did, or perhaps didn’t deserve to win. Comment away!

-Alex

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The Mass Market Music Blues

The train – she’s a goin’ nowhere.

I was prepared to bore the readership with a story about my personal evolution as a music listener, or as Vinny might put it, a “music appreciator”. While it might have explained how I arrived at my feelings towards certain artists and genres, and illustrated the love I have for some and the contempt I have for others, I feel it would have bogged down the reader with needless personal information. Therefore, I will make this statement as simple as possible.

I admire artists who take chances with their material and who don’t conform to a cookie cutter formula when composing music. I love artists that show a high level of musicianship, who can allow their instruments to speak for themselves, rather than letting a lone voice speak for them – not to say that lyrics and a charismatic front man aren’t important, but artists who strike a balance between the two find themselves high up on my list. It’s really more complicated than that, but for the sake of blog sized writing, I’ll leave it there.

On to the point – the cookie cutter approach, modern pop music’s crutch. Plain and simple, it isn’t working, at least not for me. Since hindsight is twenty-twenty, and because  it was recent enough to remain relevant, let’s take a quick look at late nineties pop and apply it to the mold I’m suggesting.

Britney Spears had just exploded onto the airwaves, alongside acts like the Backstreet Boys, and any number of R&B artists – not to mention Limp Bizkit and other “rap-rock” type groups. They gained popularity not through the merit and quality of their music necessarily, but through image. A sexy schoolgirl with a pretty voice, five preppy guys who could melt hearts, a dumb white guy with a Yankees cap – they all applied to certain demographics (well, maybe not Fred Durst).

In a money driven world, and perhaps more importantly, money driven music industry, the mass market is subjected to what will sell. While these trends endured, more of the same kept popping up: Christina Aguilera, Mandy Moore, N’Sync, 98 Degrees, and so on. Were they all making the music they wanted to make? Maybe. Did they have any control over how the media would portray them? Doubtful.

To tie this in with Vinny’s argument about singles – the symptom is largely the same. Though I’m not an industry insider, I can say with some degree of certainty that artists have very little control over what songs from their album get chosen as singles. The recording industry decides what the mass market will like, and pushes it. What results are artists who are made to sound like they have very little to add to the music scene, even if other tracks on their albums are worthwhile. Because of the way the industry packages them, artists are unwillingly and unfairly categorized and stereotyped.

There are a few brave individuals such as myself who support artists that aren’t necessarily backed up by the full weight of the recording industry, but in general I think what we hear on the radio and see on MTV are representative of what marketers have decided the most people will enjoy (and pay to see more of).

But one can bet that when an artist branches out and tries something new, one of two things happens. They either become more successful, or really, really poor (or fall into obscurity, barely managing to eke out a living off of their small cult followings).

-Alex

Now, just for fun, I’ll toss in my answer to Vinny’s argument.

In the case that you believe my fears to be valid, what can be done to stop this from taking place?

Firstly, this is a valid fear, and it’s already happening. As for what can be done, there are a couple things. Looking from the top down – music is both an industry and an art, but money makes the world go round, and the same goes for music. Therefore, if labels were producing music solely for the sake of music and art, with profit only an idea on the backburner, we might see some more risky music falling into people’s hands. Until they stop trying to capitalize on every current trend and shove it down our collective throats, we will likely be faced with heavily marketed music. There’s slim chance that will ever happen, of course.

Looking from the bottom up, aspiring artists need to look at the musical landscape before them. The way things are now, if they want to make a living doing what they love, they need to play into current trends to some degree, or else they’ll never get picked up by a label. I’ve seen too many local bands with MySpace pages that want to “push the musical envelope” (whatever the fuck that means), but just end up sounding like everyone else – how many of them ever really “make it”?

Like any good revolution, it has to start from the bottom and rise to the top. There needs to be a collective effort on the part of aspiring artists to really differentiate themselves from all the other popular offerings out there. The problem is, paradigm shifting is a hell of a lot harder than sounding just slightly different than someone else. Yes sir, we’re in dire need of a game changer.

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The Chaos Begins

Though I am still working on a very long piece on the nature of popular music itself, in order to get this thing rolling I have decided to bring up a point that has been concerning me in recent weeks.
There is no doubt that we have all noticed the fall of the album in the record industry. The internet, in yet another unexpected side effect of the information age, has created a singles based market. Though I am fairly certain that the majority of our readership is unaffected by this change, I can say through personal experience that the public at large has bought into this one song-one price movement.
While popular music has experienced this before, the previous incarnation took place long before the vast fracturing and specialization of said music. My fear is that this change will create an irreparable divide between the pre-existing semi-professional music appreciators (five points if you get that reference) and the typical consumer. I also fear it will destroy the chances of less marketable bands ever getting a major label behind them. This could effectively ruin the advances made in the post-Beatles era (i.e. the album as an artistic form, the death of “single” cuts for radio and label willingness to let top artists experiment.)
In response to this fear, I pose two questions:
In the case that you believe my fears to be valid, what can be done to stop this from taking place?
If you disagree with my argument, what will keep this collapse from happening or why is it not a collapse at all?

My next post will be a response to your responses (and yes, Alex is included in this). I will post my rebuttal sometime next week. Write good, Dudes and Duddettes.
-Vinny

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A Quick Note

Not that I am too sure that anyone is checking this anyway, but I just wanted to make a quick note that both Alex and I are working on pieces to post here. We have been slowed by our mutual desire to make our work here worthwhile, and though I did intend to post my first piece today I ran into an unfortunate medical issue I had to take care of and was in my bed most of the day. Hopefully, there will be something worth reading up tomorrow.
-Vinny

An Update

After more than a week without a post, I’ve decided that blogging is a matter of getting over a certain hump, a roadblock if you will. Firstly, aside from the time constraints of a (less than satisfying) job and the fact that I have other interests and occasionally pretend to have a social life, generating ideas that are workable for a short-form medium like this blog is difficult. And secondly, since this is still new to me, I haven’t gotten to the point where I feel as if the world needs my opinion. Rather, I’m still under the impression that my words will simply be appreciated, not craved. Clearly this blog will not take off until I allow my ego to spiral out of control (ever so slightly, that is). And yet statements like that are likely how it begins.

-Alex

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The Empire Strikes…second?

[Insert “First blog post!” type exclamation here.]

Cue the applause. I’ve finally placed my own foot inside the warm, wet and slippery world of digital media. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration. I’ve been using what the Web 2.0 has to offer, to a certain degree, at least. I use RSS feeds to keep a steady stream of news filling my Firefox sidebar. I look up videos on YouTube to satiate desires for laughter, excitement, curiosity, musical fulfillment, etc. And now, at long last, I’m going to let the thoughts I have about things like news articles and YouTube videos, among other things, materialize onto a blog – this blog. Go figure.

Firstly, in response to what Vincent, my esteemed colleague, wrote in his post earlier today (and this is with the utmost sarcasm) – thank you, I am an upstanding gentleman. Secondly, I share in his discomfort with the term “blog”. The format itself isn’t all that new or unfamiliar, but it certainly does carry along with it certain negative connotations that I think we will attempt to avoid.

This isn’t a LiveJournal – we won’t be discussing who, within our personal circles, did or said what. We will not discuss personal feelings; feelings are for pussies, no offense intended. Of course, if personal feelings involve relevant subject matter – readers can expect that at some point I will gush over this guitar player or that.

That said, this is a place to criticize. This is a place where I can flex my writing muscles without fear, as Vinny put it, of constant submission and revision. That is something I can leave for my graduate writing workshop classes, where I’m allowed, and even encouraged to get high and mighty about craft, plot threads and stories about my drunken ex-roommates. Here, I can write some good old fashioned, in-your-face articles, posts, rants, criticisms, reviews – whatever you want to call them, for the sake of writing them. And if I’m lucky, you might even be entertained.

Tune in next time, when we begin the figurative pummeling (or perhaps praising) of something someone else likes.

~Alex

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I Shoot First (That’s What She Said)

Yay, a blog.

Okay, now that we’re all here I can get started. Why would two upstanding gentlemen like Alex and myself start a “blog” when I personally am not even comfortable with the term itself? Though I cannot speak for Alex, I personally have some specific reasons for doing this.

The first is a psychological need to dispense opinion on various media. This need derives from having done this everyday in class for the last 4 years and now having no classroom in which to do it in. I was trained to look at any story (or piece of art, for that matter) through numerous lenses at every encounter and this has left me with a lot of unused ideas since graduation. This type of thought will be my focus here. With this site I not only have the ability to dispense this thought but also to respond to outside insight or counter arguments.

The second reason is that this forum provides an opportunity to practice my craft without the sheer terror of submitting something I’ve edited and re-edited for months. Though I intend to produce valuable work for this page, it does not need to be anything the world cries out for.

Now that my intent is clear, let me tell you what I won’t do. I do not intend to post any fiction here. My work in that area is far too long, plus it will scuttle the intended format of the page. I also will not vent about anything personal here. If I feel the need to do so, I will complain about my problems in another forum.

Alright, I feel better now that I have the first entry done and I am sure you are much relieved to have a clear explanation of what will go on here. I promise to make my next contribution more entertaining. See you real soon!

-Vinny

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