In the Media Mix, What Happens to Music?

Norman Solomon’s Column

The last pages of a calendar remind us that life is fleeting. All we have at any moment is the present, filtered with memory.

Meanwhile, music — capable of powerfully evoking what’s past but not quite gone — can be a catalyst for transcending what has been. “Music is a higher revelation than philosophy,” Ludwig van Beethoven asserted. Later in the 19th century, some writers praised music as the ultimate creative medium. “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,” Walter Pater contended. Joseph Conrad referred to music as “the art of arts.”

Musicians open doors to realms of perception that might otherwise remain ineffable. And music can be a dynamic force for resistance when dominant institutions discount the experiences of people suffering from imbalances of power.

“The best, the authentic black music does not unravel the mysteries, but recalls them, gives them a particular form, a specific setting, attaches the mysteries to familiar words and ideas,” says American writer John Edgar Wideman. “Simple lyrics of certain songs follow us, haunt us because the words floating in the music are a way of eavesdropping on the mysteries, of remembering the importance of who we are but also experiencing the immensity of Great Time and Great Space, the Infinite always at play around the edges of our lives.”

Today, with multimedia technologies enabling people in much of the world to hear musicians from near and far, global cross-pollination offers a potentially dazzling array of music. To the limited extent that what’s shared is musical creativity from the grassroots rather than corporately homogenized pabulum, the results are apt to be uplifting.

But often the genuine diversity of music, for those who seek it, has a bleak flip side — widespread and unrelenting musical degradation for those who can’t get away from it. These days, that means just about everyone in “the developed world.”

What used to be called “elevator music” is now a nonstop source of noise pollution in millions of stores, shopping malls, restaurants and the like. At the supermarket, we may not consciously hear those washed-out “muzakized” versions of countless songs from yesteryear, but they still rattle our eardrums.

Economic powerhouses are well-positioned to trivialize music by foisting audio schlock onto vast audiences of innocent bystanders — and also by recycling popular music to hook people into buying specific products. Large quantities of rock songs, ranging from the mediocre to the marvelous, have become snippets of soundtracks for TV commercials. It all adds up to a concerted assault on meaning, with music very functional as a heavy battering ram.

Whether reacting with outrage or vague disquiet, many people are troubled by the transformation of a real song into a really manipulative advertising ploy. The worshipful culture of the almighty dollar leads to passive acceptance of such trends.

Some of the best rock ‘n’ roll from previous decades has been pillaged as fuel for the insatiable engines of mass marketing. The same Nike company relying on sweatshop labor used the Beatles song “Revolution” in commercials for running shoes. Another mega-firm infamous for exploiting workers in poor countries, The Gap, has featured Donovan’s dreamy “Mellow Yellow.”

The Who’s combative anthem to perpetual skepticism, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” has served to orchestrate ads for the Nissan Maxima. Another car commercial, for Dodge, drew energy from Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride.”

Feisty rocker Bob Seger, singing “Like a Rock,” has his voice all over Chevy commercials. It’s enough to make me feel like going to Kathmandu.

The Beatles keep singing “Come Together” — on Nortel commercials. Ugh.

We may figure that at least we have public broadcasting. But on “noncommercial” outlets like PBS and National Public Radio, the steady oozing of commercialism knows no ebb. Every year it’s more intrusive — and more customary — than the year before.

At the end of November, the day after George Harrison died, the NPR program “Fresh Air” treated listeners to reminiscences and tributes to his work. The show ended with Harrison’s transcendent song “All Things Must Pass” — while a voice-over intoned a slew of underwriter credits, closing with a promotional pitch for a “wealth management” company. As an interlude, airing on what passes for public radio, the incongruous mix was business as usual, offering artistic quality while undercutting it with routine corporate-driven messages. Guitars gently wept.

Norman Solomon’s latest book is “The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.” His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.

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