Tony Bennett, the legendary singer, songwriter, and all around man-of-distinction was asked in a recent article for GQ, “What’s the next big trend in music?” He started his answer with a quote from Toscanini, perhaps the finest composer of the 19th and 20th century: “Music is either good or it isn’t, it’s not someone’s opinion.”
The audacity of this quote, of course, comes from its premise—just because YOU like a certain song doesn’t mean it’s any good, at least not in the aesthetic sense. In fact, it could be the worst song ever made, and even though you believe that this is what passes for art in music, it’s widely recognized, at least by those who can distinguish these sorts of things, as a magnificent heap of day-old dogshit. Bennett, evidently, shares this view. It’s a good thing his music is fit for angels.
Bennett continues: “After the dust settles each year, there are musical works that will remain classics in every genre that will stand the test of time. So that cycle continues on, regardless of the momentary trends that may take place year to year, but the public is always going to appreciate good music and gravitate to it ultimately, and the rest will just be forgotten.” Not more than one sentence after preaching the Gospel of “High Art”, he places back into our hands the responsibility to know the difference between cheap music and music that will last into eternity. We must, as the wise old knight guarding the chalices in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade beseeches us, “choose wisely.” You get caught up in something too flashy, you may be making a choice for the wrong reason. Then your face melts off, and that’s the story of you.
Can the public always be trusted to appreciate good music at the aesthetic level consistently and habitually? There’s so much money to be made on the instant gratifications, the quick fixes, and the easy pleasures of bad dance music. Formulaic beat structures and copycat track designs are spewing out of laptops at a breakneck pace in an attempt to capitalize on a trend. It’s gotten so bad that even A-Trak, the Fool’s Gold Records boss himself, has chimed in: “No more copying. Everything has to be creative. The world would be a better place with less formulaic music.”
Bennett, a self-described Jazz fanatic, would agree, and he seems to think that we will make the right decision in the long run. But my observations tell me that when it comes to making decisions—especially about music—we all choose whatever brings us the highest amount of happiness and choose against whatever brings us discomfort, confusion, etc. Pain and Pleasure are, as the 18th Century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham said, “our two sovereign masters.” So why have we become so good at making decisions that are so terrible? One of the reasons may be that we are confused or otherwise don’t care what true happiness is or how to get it. We know what we want, but do we know what we need? For example, it’s easier to troll social media or mentally self-medicate with Swamp People, Duck Dynasty, or some iteration of The Real Housewives than it is to invest in the difficult process of learning a new skill or reading a book. It’s easier to fill that void in your soul by buying a new toy or going on a shopping spree than seeking out the root of the problem. This is often the case with art and dance music in particular.
Lots of artists have become Oprahs of Dance, giving entire audiences everything they want in the heaviest doses possible. “YOU GET A DROP, YOU GET A DROP! EVERYBODY GETS A FUCKING DROP!!! Oh, you want a synth-heavy buildup with sirens blaring? Check under your seats. SIRENS!” But producing like this disregards the essentials of artistic integrity and violates the covenant an artist makes with the public. Although certain tracks “melt our faces” and make us jump, there is little else that we as the audience need to do. Our bodies may be seething, but our minds are left behind. Good dance music, like good art, will attempt to draw from us the virtues that make us all better people—virtues like patience, creativity, intelligence, empathy for others—and reflect back our flaws and weaknesses so we can begin the process of changing. It takes practice to find that balance, like all good disciplines do, but good dance music will always endure exactly because we always end up recognizing how much, we as humans, need it.
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