Tuesday, May 30, 2006

finally, on AlL Rise


Parts of it I like. The vibe is kinda cool but the music sprawls all over the place and I began to feel nostalgic, for reasons I can't quite explain, for Steve Reich's The Desert Music (which is an awesome example of minimalism if you're into that style).

I like the IDEA of a jazz/classical fusion but I'm not digging Marsalis' EXECUTION. He gets the surface details and even does a good job with cross-movement modd and key changes but I feel like he needs to scale back his ideas.

Of course my bias is that of a composer using monothematic cross movement developmental principles so obsessively that I try to spin out an eleven minute sonata form in three movements from just a fifteen second idea. I guess I can't fairly say Marsalis should do the same but for my personal set of aesthetics I feel like he's approaching the fusion of jazz and classical from such a rambling starting point he misses the fun of jazz and even a lot of classical music, tightness and precision of musical form.

Then again, Wynton Marsalis is the professional musician and I'm just an amateur.

on recent posts

I have posted most of the material from an essay project I've tentatively called "Penis Music and other Rock and Roll Conundrums". I thought about adding my ancient essay "The Composer in the Evi lEmpire" but maybe I should save that for later. Still, this for people who grew up during the Reagan years the title I just threw out telegraphs the subject of my pending blog post. For those less attuned to Cold War terminology I've got a Shostakovich essay in the works. I'll be taking umbrage with some statements by Robert Craft and will see to it his works (which are cool even when I don't agree with them)( get properly quoted and all.

But if I post more I might get you all bored. So think of the recent posts as making up for lost time. I've been sick and have done some travelling lately, though by no means have I travelled far.

Counterpoint According to Stevie Wonder

This was another essay I wrote in response to a suggestion of a friend that I tackle different aspects of Western music c. Stevie Wonder's "Living For the City" was one of the formative inspirations for me when I started hearing pop and rock music for the first time. It's an unforgettable song and one of the wonderful ironies of my educated life was that it took me a couple of years studying music theory and harmony and counterpoint before I actually began to understand, musically speaking, what Stevie Wonder was doing in his song. Emotionally and intellectually I had no real problem grasping what Stevie was singing about even at the age of thirteen. I consider that a credit to the greatness of his musicianship and the ideas in his song.

So all that is to say this essay below is an unabashed mash note to his music.


Counterpoint is simply the art of writing two melodies that can be presented at the same time in a single piece of music. These melodies may have nothing to do with each other or they might share traits. If you can have one person singing one tune and another person singing another tune at the same time and it sounds natural you’ve mastered counterpoint. Everything else is just a matter of degree. And if you can present and represent the same melody in different ways at the same time you’ve also figured out something about counterpoint. I submit, therefore, that in the annals of popular music there is at least one musician who has mastered a great deal of what classical composers and theoreticians call counterpoint.

Stevie Wonder.

We can call him Stevland Morse if we want, since that was his given name, but that would not make us better advocates of the “love-mentalism” he wrote about. It would also do nothing to explicate or appreciate his musical genius. Whether we call him Stevland Morse or Stevie Wonder we’re talking about the same man and the same songs. After studying traditional theory and counterpoint and 20th century art music I have come back to loving Stevie Wonder’s music more than before I knew anything about invertible counterpoint and sonata form. I don’t care if the man “knows” what he’s doing; the man knows what he’s doing.

People stumble over that truism, especially if they don’t compose. Just because you don’t know what you want by its theoretical name doesn’t mean you don’t know what you want. Babies don’t need to know words to know when they’re hungry. Of course I know where that analogy breaks down. Don’t take it as a belittling one. It’s my attempt to show that a person with natural musical gifts doesn’t have to have the formal vocabulary to know what it is he or she wants; music is a function of hearing both in fact and, more importantly, in the mind (Wonder even touches on this with the album title Music of My Mind). Knowing the theory just makes it easier for you to explain what you’re hearing in terms session musicians can understand and that makes it easier for them to play what you want them to play.

Now Wonder worked on and delayed the release of Songs in the Key of Life for about two years. What should we suppose he was doing all that time? Was he smoking a lot of pot or something? We know, at any rate, he had a daughter or “Isn’t She Lovely?” wouldn’t be on the album. Wonder was probably working his tail off during those two years trying to get the songs to sound just right. Wonder’s genius wasn’t (and isn’t) that he doesn’t “know” what he’s doing where theory is concerned. I defy you to listen to “Contusion” and say he didn’t plan that piece out in virtually every detail. The real marvel is that Wonder could work on an album for two years and get the end result sounding as if he’d written it all on a busy weekend. To give spontaneous, vibrant performances of songs you’ve worked on that long … now that’s genius, especially when the songs are as great as those on Songs in the Key of Life.

In case people are wondering, no, I’m not saying Stevie Wonder is greater than Bach or any other classical composer. Such a comparison is unfair to begin with, just as it’s unfair to compare Mozart to Bach as if one must be found wanting. Nor am I saying that Wonder’s handling of counterpoint is even close to exhaustive. What I’m saying is this: just as calling the man Stevland or Stevie doesn’t mean you’re talking about two different men talking about counterpoint as a concept doesn’t change whether you’re talking about Bach or Stevie Wonder. Nobody gets good at counterpoint without first honing a melodic gift, and that Stevie has in spades. Once you develop your melodic gift it’s a matter of time before you can sing one great tune over or under another. There may be a difference in degree but I’m convinced that difference is not in intrinsic quality. Even if he only uses a handful of contrapuntal devices compared to Bach or Brahms Stevie Wonder is still an immensely gifted musician and one of the greatest songwriters of our time. Whether or not his command of counterpoint is natural or acquired is moot; it is, in any case, a manifest attribute of his musical genius.

There are two broad kinds of counterpoint. There’s imitation and then there’s countermelody or countersubject. Now imitation comes in all sorts of forms but the simplest is imitation at pitch or at the octave. The best “textbook” example of imitation is canon where you have a melody in one voice that is taken up by another voice at the same pitch. And the best “textbook” example of canonic imitation in Stevie Wonder is “Superstition” (Talking Book, 1973). Listen to the brass arrangement throughout the song, especially to how it changes at the end. You’ll hear the sax take the melody and then the trumpet follows four beats after it. Notice that the brass melodies are played in unison for most of the song until the end and then the unison lines are broken up and played against each other. A better, more straightforward example of canonic imitation in a pop song couldn’t be found. A similar example can be found in the middle of the song “Don’t You Worry `Bout a Thing” (Innervisions, 1973). Wonder starts singing a form of the tune he sings in the verse and harmonizes with himself by singing the same melody moments later.

As a rule Wonder uses canonic imitation in the middle or end of a song but in other settings he uses imitation at the beginning of songs. I said earlier that there’s more than one kind of imitation. For the beginning of several of his songs Wonder likes to use an imitative procedure called stretto. This is what happens when the second voice starts imitating the first voice before the first voice is done playing or singing the tune. The finest example of this in Wonder’s output is his introduction to “Superwoman” (Music of My Mind, 1972). He plays a simple triad in one register and starts playing the same pattern in a lower octave before the pattern is complete. As he keeps going the pattern is continually repeated between these two registers but at shorter and shorter intervals. This is the essence of stretto, not simply that the imitation starts in the second voice before the first voice is done but that the succeeding entrances are at shorter and shorter intervals. The result is a dramatic compression of the idea that builds towards a climax. In this case the climax is chord that starts the first verse of “Superwoman”.

But while he’s fond of having a melody passed off from one voice to another, just as often Wonder chooses to complement his primary melody with a supporting one. This is what we call a countermelody or countersubject (the latter term is properly applied to the writing of fugues but the principle of the complementary melody is pretty much the same). This is where Wonder’s melodic gifts are most pronounced. He usually saves this technique for the chorus of a song and usually harmonizes the primary melody with a two-voiced supporting chorale with its own tune. My favorite example is the first chorus of “Sir Duke” (Songs in the Key of Life, 1976). While he sings “You can feel it all over people” the saxophones respond with a buoyant pair of lines that rise up and down underneath him.
At times these supporting melodies can assume almost equal footing with Wonder’s vocal. The interweaving brass lines in the pre-chorus of “I Wish” (also on Songs in the Key of Life) are a great example. This is a case where the countermelody is even used in free imitation against itself. More often the melodies work in tandem like the backing vocals that appear under the frenetic guitar/keyboard unison of “Contusion” (Songs in the Key of Life). In “Contusion” especially we see that counterpoint is more than the sum of its parts. A more restrained but equally pleasing example is the relationship between the lead vocal and the supporting chorale in the second and subsequent choruses of “Superwoman”. The expressive richness of Wonder’s singing doesn’t come from his lyrics, which are often shopworn, but from the amazing interaction of the vocal parts with each other, giving the text more depth than it could possibly have on its own.

There is also at least one case in which Wonder uses counterpoint and the material is completely free. Free counterpoint is the hardest kind to write. There may be imitation but this isn’t required and even the idea of a countermelody doesn’t hold because the melodies could be of equal significance. For this reason the dueling harmonica solos on “Too High” (Innervisions, 1973) represent one of Wonder’s greatest contrapuntal experiments. In this case the foundation for the duet rests on the dorian mode. Dorian is a symmetrical scale, the same notes appear in the same order even when the notes are inverted. This means that creating a dramatic line is difficult but it also means that there’s virtually no wrong note. Dorian is also the diatonic mode most amenable to blues and lends a circular, detached mood to the music, perfect for the song’s textual reference to drug use. Wonder chose his harmonic material wisely. Maybe he knew he was using the dorian mode or maybe he tried every key and kind of harmonica he could find until he got the sounds he wanted. Whether he “knew” what he was doing doesn’t detract from the importance of his creative decision.

The romantic ideal, the myth, would have it that musicians like Stevie Wonder are musical shamans who channel spiritual or musical inspiration they can’t possibly analyze. It’s hard for these people to deal with the fact that musicians like Wonder know what they want. Harder still is the thought that such a gifted musician could struggle with his material to find out what sounds best. It’s easier to assume it’s all a mystery and that it all happens at once. If that were true we could all be professional musicians—we’d probably all be homeless, too. Still, there is a little, barely visible kernel of truth to this shaman fantasy. The last three minutes of “Living for the City” (Innervisions, 1973) are as astonishing to me now as when I first heard them and I wonder how he came up with the tune that turned into that amazing chorus. How a composer gets a melody is mysterious and always will be. What needn’t be mysterious is what the composer does with a melody. The botanist doesn’t stop loving flowers for knowing how they grow, even after knowing something of the secret life of plants. The plant is still there for us to enjoy. A song by Stevie Wonder is as beautiful now for its melodic charm and contrapuntal brilliance as it was before we knew what he was doing. Like I said earlier, even if the man doesn’t “know” what he’s doing he still knows what he’s doing.

Pop Gets Crucified on a Cross of Rock (But the Song Remains the Same)

Led Zeppelin was right. The song remains the same. This isn’t to deny that there’s a nearly endless variety of actual songs but the song as an idea is always the human voice carrying some kind of speech through singing and as Ecclesiastes says so bluntly, there’s nothing new under the sun. There’s probably more than one song called something like “Gross-Out Booger Breakdown”. Okay, maybe not, but more than one person has thought of the title.

But we fool ourselves into thinking that songs are different when they aren’t as different as we want them to be. We tell ourselves that style makes a bigger difference than it often does. At least since Tin Pan Alley at the dawn of the 20th century popular music has had formulas. More to the point, all music the world over is formulaic in some way. Far from saying these formulas are bad these formulas are good. They’ve lasted us at least a hundred years. Formula is the staple for rock and pop. In fact from a great enough distance the two look pretty much the same.

Yet we often make a hard and fast distinction between rock and pop. It matters what kind of guitar you play and what kind of amplifier you use, or whether you use one. It matters how you sing, it matters what clothes you wear and what you’re talking about or sound like you’re talking about. It matters what magazines write about your songs or if you’re advertised on the radio or not. Yet if the chords and the melody don’t change to what extent are we really talking about different styles?

If Dolly Parton and Whitney Houston sing the same song different ways do the styles make that much difference? Either way the song is “I Will Always Love You.” How about when Jeff Buckley sings a Leonard Cohen song? Has the style changed? When Garth Brooks covers a song by Billy Joel or Elvis is it really country? Philosophers like Theodore Gracyk can talk about how a song played in ten different ways becomes ten different styles. That’s true as far as it goes but what about the fact that “Take Me to the River” is just what it is whether Al Green or the Talking Heads perform it? Led Zeppelin was right. The song remains the same. But we keep making labels for songs played in different styles.

If we like something that doesn’t fit the label we have we’re willing to expand the definition of our label. Sometimes music is considered rock on honorary terms even when it’s obviously not rock. Keith Richards and others have said that all Robert Johnson needed to be a rock star was have drums and bass backing up his guitar. The line between Johnson’s blues and rock and roll was considered that fine. Bob Diddley played rhythm and blues until he started getting a white audience then suddenly his music was being called rock and roll. Look no further than the book of Genesis. The first thing people do when they have the power is name things. You can call a mountain lion a cougar or a catamount but it’s still the same animal and it will still be a big North American cat. You have to look at the animal either way. Whether you call it blues or rock a Bo Diddley song is still a Bob Diddley song. We have a lot of people looking at the same animal and not only wanting to call it by different names but to fight each other over which name should stick.

But fine lines are important in establishing orthodoxy and this is precisely what happens in a lot of rock/pop distinctions. Sometimes we go further and use terms like “alternative” or “independent” or “classic” or “oldie”. We crave music that doesn’t fit any formula or stereotype and yet that craving becomes our stereotype. We need to say some artists defy any genre. Do they really defy genre or are they good at blending the traits of genres? Maybe the fact that they can “defy” genre tells us more about the interchangeability of human experience than we like to admit. Is this genre busting something the artists are actually doing themselves or something we say for our own benefit?

We do this because entertainment is one of the religions of this culture. The spectacle of our awards ceremonies should be telling enough. Even the social critics fall right into line without knowing it. “Rock” becomes orthodoxy and “pop” becomes heresy. The greatest blasphemy is when a band called a “rock band” gets called a “pop band”. Because of a religious need to separate what we call “rock” from what we call “pop” that’s exactly what we call them. Why do we make this distinction? Well, let’s consider what the two terms seem to mean for a lot of people. The first term denotes music that is free, unshackled by purely commercial interests, authentic, pure, groundbreaking, breath-taking, daring, innovative, personal, of the highest cultural importance. It is this attitude that leads people to scrawl, “Clapton is God” on walls. Pop music is ersatz, empty, shallow, consumable, establishmentarian, conformist, unoriginal, crude, venal, lacking in value, trash. It is this attitude that leads people to say, “Corporate rock still sucks.”

But what is corporate rock? Music that is produced steadily and mass-marketed to the widest possible buying public through the use of billboards, magazine ads and promotional films? Corporate rock could also be considered a palliative for the empty consumerist lives of the buying public, perhaps even presented as an alternative to the old stale regime of the public’s ancestors, the “alternative” itself perpetuating the process it claims to subvert, even being the means through which the corporation reaps its highest profit.

Well, let’s see, that means the Beatles fit the bill nicely. We’ve got A Hard Day’s Night, Yellow Submarine, and some other films. In college I met people who saw the billboards used to market Sergeant Pepper. There were magazine and newspaper interviews and TV appearances. That the Beatles were foreign made them that much easier to market in the U.S. By this definition it looks as if the Beatles were the acme of corporate rock. You certainly couldn’t say they weren’t a popular band. So did their music suck?

If the Beatles look like corporate rock by this working definition does this make them a bad band? No, of course not. Does this mean they weren’t authentic artists? No. Does this mean that their music was only consumable trash that was presented as if it were a message from God? I’ll let you decide that for yourself but the answer doesn’t have to be “yes” or “no”. It’s possible for people to sell out and retain their artistic integrity at the same time. Joseph Haydn managed to pull it off in the 1790s so why couldn’t the Beatles do it, too?

Yet once the label “pop” or “corporate rock” gets applied people recoil in horror. Nothing called corporate rock can be good. But to say this is to blind yourself to history. Not all music backed by big money has been bad. In fact a lot of it has been good. Say what you will. What if, by some astonishing turn, the corporate machinery got behind musicians who had something valuable to contribute to popular music? The Beatles are corporate rock beyond all doubt. That Beatles’ songs are used in advertising now is all the proof we need. I already know some will object but I’ll address this fallacious objection soon.

Didn’t John Lennon say he wanted to be bigger than Elvis? Selling out was the whole point of the Beatles from the very beginning. The question wasn’t whether or not to sell out but, as Moby might put it, how to sell out ethically and what to do after you’ve sold out. Never mind the details. In principle it is possible and it was possible. This presents a problem for someone who insists that rock is defined by not wanting to sell out. Maybe the Beatles became rock because they sold out and weren’t content to keep selling the same product. If so, it’s not very reassuring for maintaining a religious distinction between rock and pop. We’ve already seen that the Beatles fit many definitions of corporate rock.

The Beatles are that rare case in which the corporate part of “corporate rock” didn’t get in the way of genuine art. In fact the corporate people were instrumental to spurring the Beatles into doing some of their best work. Without Martin, Spector, Epstein and the corporate machinery to back them all up the Beatles would have been forgotten.

And just as the Beatles are a great example of corporate rock they are an equally good example of how the formulas of songwriting throughout the Western world could be cleverly used. They could see patterns most other musicians and listeners didn’t see, that a country song and a jazz standard and a folk ballad and a work by Schubert do have some things in common. They didn’t restrict themselves to rock and pop distinctions, to high or low art. It was all the same to them. It wasn’t until the Beatles broke up that they had to be deified into rock gods and people had to sweep some of their influences under a rug. George Harrison himself said that it felt odd to be in a rock band. He thought of the Beatles as a pop band and now, for some reason, they’re called a rock band. Perhaps he was unaware of the religious cult that arose around the concept of rock.

To label music “rock” and “pop” can be done but if, as some say, there are no aesthetic absolutes, then we have to admit at the outset that these terms are meaningless in themselves. To call someone a “pop” musician or a sell-out doesn’t mean they aren’t doing something daring or innovative. Even the question of daring and innovation can’t be asked without a broader historical context. Were the Beatles daring and innovative? Yes, and no. They were daring for incorporating elements of art music into a popular format. Nobody else was rushing to copy Karlheinz Stockhausen and calling the new creation “Revolution Number 9”. If you don’t believe me look at the list of people pictured on the cover of Sergeant Pepper. Stockhausen is on there, on that list of people the Beatles admired. The Beatles copied Stockhausen as readily as they copied Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan. It wasn’t that what they did was new in and of itself; all of these things had been done by other people before. The Beatles recontextualized elements of avant-garde European art music into mass-marketed music and that was new.

The real issue under the pop/rock distinction is not musical. It’s reflects an attitude about capitalism as it applies to the arts. Can what we call art be mass-produced or marketed as a mass-produced product? The mass-marketing of a musical work as if it were a product like toothpaste may not be the same thing as mass-marketing music that is meant to be consumed as if it were toothpaste. Even this argument gets more slippery. What do you then do with the early music of the Who? If you can’t stand the Who the answer is obvious but if you like the band what do you make of the issue of consumable music? What do we make of Andy Warhol then, or the Velvet Underground? It’s enough to force a person to think there might really be aesthetic absolutes. After all, everybody needs to clean their teeth once in a while, right?

You can’t honestly look at the Beatles and not think of them as a pop band. Pop doesn’t have to be a pejorative term. The Beatles wrote popular music but more than just popular music. The Fab Four blended avant-garde art music and Eastern music into their songs. The vitality of the work lay precisely in their not caring about what they were labeled. That was the job of corporate people who were selling the albums anyway. They were a pop band. If rock is the balancing act of blending the highest and lowest strata of art and popular culture then the Beatles succeeded brilliantly; you could call them a rock band then. But if this is true than “pop” can’t be seen as a heresy. If, however, you see rock as inextricably tied to black American music like rhythm and blues or jazz or anything not white then, sure, suddenly what the Beatles did couldn’t be rock. But at that point you’re no longer talking about music itself but about race. Oh well, no one can talk about music as music for long. It always becomes a question of culture, too.

Even so, the musical categories surrounding “rock” and “pop” are so malleable that the most honest thing to do is to say that Broadway, rockabilly, metal, Motown, blues, country, punk, progressive rock, bubble-gum music, doo-wop, and gospel are all really part of the same huge spectrum of Western culture: the song. The song remains the same. The song comes in many different shapes and sizes about every ritual of our lives but the song still remains the same. Go ahead and crucify that pop song on your cross of rock but before you do think about why you’re doing it. You may find that it’s not about the music after all.

Penis Music?

When Billy Joel said that being called soft rock is like saying he’s got a soft cock, and that he’s not a soft cock kind of guy, we all know he’s not literally saying he always has an erection. He’s talking about his music. And it’s true that even though he is defined by his ballads he has written plenty of faster songs. History is unfair to even the greatest composers, consigning them to be known for a handful of pieces that can’t possibly reflect their whole output. The Rolling Stones are known for “Satisfaction”, for instance, a throw-away song they wrote just to pad out an album. Yet it was the song that defined them more than any song they played up to that time. We all know James Brown feels good.

We have to grant Billy Joel the benefit of a doubt. Maybe he is a regular rocker after all, perhaps not a rocker of the same rank as Jimi Hendrix but, hey, he plays piano so he has a natural disadvantage. And the truth is that the bias against the piano in rock and roll is probably a post-Hendrix thing. Nevertheless, many of Billy Joel’s most memorable songs are often ballads and that’s what he’s stuck with.But there’s more to this soft rock/soft cock rhetoric of his then just the hard and soft. That dichotomy suggests several things. The first and most obvious observation is that Billy Joel uses the penis as a metaphor for his music and that he wants to be known for having hard music and not just soft music. It’s almost as if he’s ashamed of the soft music.

I assume his statement was mainly polemical, something to get people’s attention, something meant to be witty. He’s probably not really ashamed of all those ballads. He just wants people to remember the louder stuff, too. I grant that and that the soft cock rhetoric made its point. Maybe I laughed for the wrong reason but it was genuinely funny.

Nevertheless, the soft rock/soft cock rhetoric conspicuously omits anything but the hard and soft penis, as if the penis existed in only two states and the use, implicit in Joel’s rhetoric, could not be discussed. I realize it was meant mainly as a witticism but it is useful to take jokes seriously when there’s any room for controversy, especially when there’s a hard core that criticizes the soft core, so to speak. And of course it’s always useful to take a joke seriously if by doing so you make a joke of your own.

So consider interviews with the Scorpions or Iron Maiden. When asked why they always write lyrics about certain things the answer is always something like this: “Well, we can’t very well write music about dandelions and butterflies to this kind of music. This is hard music.” And because rock is often about sex, drugs, and itself (and politics and religion and other things people supposedly don’t discuss in polite company) it stands to reason that hard music has to be about something. The music, history shows us, dictates that the texts of hard rock be about certain things.

Classical music has had people doing this for centuries, in reverse. It’s called text-painting. You figure out what the text means and make music that fits it. A lot of rock simply reverses that order; Billy Joel, for instance, writes the music first and then tries to come up with words, as many rock and pop bands probably do. So if Billy Joel wants to fix the problem of being “soft” he might want to write about different things than usual and then write his music. I know from experience that it’s always an ordeal to write lyrics for a song after the music already exists. Most of the time you fall back on two or three pet subjects (like Jackson Browne or Don Henley), or you resort to something more random like Bob Dylan or David Bowie. Billy Joel’s soft rock misfortune, then, may not simply spring from the music.

As a matter of course the risk of writing words after music is that the words become limited by both your pet topics and the musical mood. Does anyone believe Robert Plant wrote the words first for Led Zeppelin’s songs? Would it ever have mattered if he wrote the words first? Probably not. You can’t sing about teddy bears and lollipops when you’ve got the rhythm section of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” or “Angel of Death” by Slayer. I take that back. You can but it won’t sound convincing, unless you want to be funny. Try it sometime and you’ll see what I mean.

If you tend to write about just your pet subjects, no matter the musical style, the textual range of rock lyrics is limited even more when the music you write asks only for rage and angst.To continue with my reductio ad absurdum, Billy Joel’s terminology offers a perfectly good explanation for why metal bands can only write about x, y, and z: hard rock needs hard words because music is finally all about the hard penis and the soft penis, hard and soft rock and everything in between (heretofore unmentioned and never generally discussed). Listeners who don’t like hard or soft rock at this point will make the easy put down. It’s not just Billy Joel that has this problem.

If the soft rockers are constantly writing impotent music then surely hard rock is in a state of eternal musical priapism, just as Motown, rhythm and blues, and other styles are constantly striving to maintain eternal musical orgasm. One can’t get it up, one can’t keep it down (so no blood gets to the brain and brain damage ensues), and the other can’t shut off the cremaster. Billy Joel’s soft rock/soft cock conundrum presents us with a metaphor for the whole world of Western music as one grand phallic parade.

It’s no wonder feminist music criticism exists! Who wouldn’t get tired of the rhetoric of penis music? Paradoxically, not feminist music critics who like to complain about penis music.But the truth is that all this rhetoric is unfair and we should all know it. It’s not fair to say that any style of music has to be described in phallic terms anyway, or vaginal terms. But the fact is that we frequently define ourselves by something and for a lot of people (too many perhaps?) this is sexuality, male or female.

And when people define themselves by sexuality then the worst accusation is to be either impotent or repressed, never mind that life is more than orgasm, copulation, or cuddling or what have you.Still, it happens that in a musical world dominated by men a cursory reading of Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective demonstrates that a common put-down of a classical composer was to declare him impotent. Strike that, the sorry lad was said to have creative impotence. Everyone knows that one form of impotence suggests another, after all.

As Slonimsky chronicles in his book the following composers were declared to have had creative impotence: Brahms, Aaron Copland, Debussy, Darius Milhaud, Dmitri Shostakovich, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Edgar Varese, and Wagner. We might as well throw in Gustav Mahler, too, for of him it was written “The drooling and emasculated simplicity of Gustav Mahler!” (p. 120 Musical Invective). “Emasculated” is the same general thing as impotence, after all, and let’s not forget the additional playground classic “retard” that “drooling” suggests. This sample reflects an impressive diversity of composers getting the brand “impotent”.

Ironically, the sexual slur in criticism of classical music usually applies to composers who are too modern for their own time (most of the above). In other cases it applied to composers who were too subdued to appeal to the taste of the critic (Brahms in contrast to Wagner). Curiously, the sexual put-down in classical music has mostly the opposite meaning that it has in popular music. Certainly Brahms’ music can often be sweet and cloying but by and large the “impotent” composers are anything but sweet and cloying. Edgar Varese, for instance, was a crucial inspiration to Frank Zappa, who could never have been described as a purveyor of soft rock. And yet Varese was said to be “impotent” in some form or another.

In rock and roll the intimation of impotence is less direct and it obviously has the opposite spin with the same meaning. The musician has no good ideas and is not where ever the cutting edge of rock is supposed to be. It doesn’t even need to be connected to male sexuality. Tori Amos’ Boys for Pele was considered a mediocrity by a Rolling Stone critic in part because the critic felt Amos couldn’t or didn’t convey rage in her music. The immediate appellation was to Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. The more contemporary reference could have been Kurt Cobain or someone else.

Most interesting of all was reading a woman critiquing a rock album by another woman by negatively comparing her to a man. Still more interesting is the criticism that Amos can’t bring herself to effectively convey rage in her songs. Clearly the men, we were being told, had the right example to follow. One woman was in want of unsullied rock credentials by not being like men who recorded forty years earlier. Arguably a song relies on text and not simply music. Nevertheless, the criticism is not entirely invalid.

The reason the criticism is not invalid is because, to borrow the penis metaphor Billy Joel has conveniently provided, if a person’s musical output is a penis or vagina it is necessary, for the sake of healthy musical expression, that the said member exist in all possible states. It’s a matter of musical health. The problem with soft rock or hard rock is that the member is only presented in one state or two rather than in the natural flow of life.

Inevitably the music which appeals to the largest group of people over the longest period of time is going to either study one element of human experience thoroughly or present a panoramic view. The case of the former is usually tied to a style of music like ragtime, tango, or the military march. But if music is to depict the whole of human experience it is dangerous to stick to one style. Historically the single style usually ends up exploring a wider emotional range (tango) or being restricted to an extra-musical activity (marching or dancing, for instance). In the end the hard rock and soft rock performers have the same creative problem, not touching on more than just one or two states of the human condition.

If music can be said to be a portrait of the human condition, and we still stick to the penis metaphor then we can say that some musicians depict the penis in every possible stage of its existence. The musicians who do this stand a much better chance of having staying power. In the history of pop music the Beatles are a good example of this. And it’s telling that when you listen to format radio you’ll hear Beatles songs on dozens of stations but you’ll notice you only hear a handful of songs from different periods. You don’t hear “Tax Man” that often on the oldies stations and you don’t hear “Help” too often on classic rock stations. You don’t hear “Revolution Number 9” on many stations at all.

Even when a band is truly eclectic in style and substance the presentation of their work is not.The other route to being remembered is to give listeners a portrait of the penis in a particular state. Thus soft rock, hard rock, or anything else in between. As Zappa and others have said this is often a function of marketing. The bitter irony is that while Billy Joel may have had a major role in his soft rock image there is the problem of critical and market reception. You can control how you make your music to some degree but you can’t control how the public perceives you with the same assurance (unless, perhaps, you’re Madonna but she is another subject).

Suddenly it turns out that the market has a label for your music and straying from it creates problems. What happens when you have a whole range of anatomical studies and the customer only wants to buy one? This gets back to Billy Joel’s problem. There’s a point where the limitation of style is considered better than any attempt to display the whole range of your thoughts and feelings in music. Even the most eclectic songwriters in pop music have their work pigeon-holed. Joel has a place to be angry.

It should go without saying that eclecticism is not unconditionally acceptable but it needs to be said precisely because it makes a world of difference in determining whether Billy Joel “gets” to make classical music successfully or whether the Beatles “get” to make the White album. The sad truth is that most people like penis music and they only like that penis music to exist in one state.

Soft Rock, Soft Cock

PREFACE: This essay was written some time around 2001 and Billy Joel's musical career, such as it now is, has not led me to change my views in the slightest. I haven't had the time or inclination to really dig into the classical career of Elvis Costello but am willing to say (perhaps at the risk of looking silly) of saying Costello might have less to worry about trying to establish himself as a classical composer partly because hehasn't tried so hard to counteract his reputation as a rock star.

Anyway, the text below is probably going to feel a bit dated and I realize that in the text I list some people as soft rock you might not agree should be listed as soft rock. I've got another essay entirely for those of you who wonder why women are listed in soft rock discussion and why this essay is called "Soft Rock, Soft Cock". Keep in mind this is a jocular piece making fun of Billy Joel and know that I haven't written this to be offensive. So, without further ado


I can hardly remember the various places I read it but I know for a fact it was in an issue of Musician. I subscribed to that fine magazine for a couple years and in those pages somewhere in the mid to late 1990s I read an interview with Billy Joel, who was talking about his transition out of rock into classical music. The Piano Man was going classical. Among other things he said he wanted to break free from the tyranny of the lyric and that other rock musicians, like Elton John, Paul Simon, and Phil Collins were also branching out, into Broadway. That Broadway thing is another issue, I suppose. Then again, maybe it’s not.

By far the most striking thing he said in that interview was that he hated being labeled soft rock by people in the industry. If I remember correctly he said something along these lines: “I hate being called soft rock. It’s like saying I have a soft cock and I’m not a soft cock kind of guy”.

My first thought was, “Well, it is soft most of the time, Billy.” And it should be. After all, if it was always hard we’d have to talk about a medical condition known as priapism that requires medical attention. Any man and many a woman knows that the penis exists in several states and that however Joel said it we shouldn’t take his words literally. On the other hand, rock is so steeped in sexuality (because we are) it often comes out that we discuss music in terms of sexual functions and sexual relationships. So this soft rock/soft cock talk is obviously a metaphor.

I won’t contest that Billy Joel has been labeled soft rock or that he does, in fact, have a basis for anger at the stereotype. This is the guy who wrote “Pressure”, “You May Be Right”, and “Big Shot”. Whether you think these and his other faster songs constitute “real” rocking songs is part of this issue but we don’t need elaboration. It will suffice he is accurately branded a soft rocker. He is, after all, The Piano Man. “I Love You Just the Way You Are”, “For the Longest Time”, “The Rose”, “Always a Woman to Me”, “Innocent Man” (I think that’s him, isn’t ?), and a host of other ballads have defined his work. The label soft rock is a function of marketing, of course, and marketing is arguably the most pervasive and pernicious element in a life of music-making, but it is also unavoidable. The legacy of Billy Joel as a soft rocker is too secure for him to change.

His music moved further and further away from the traditional expectations of rock through the 1980s, especially with The Bridge. No one is going to pretend that “Modern Woman” is a hard rock song no matter how much energy Joel puts into singing it. “A Matter of Trust” aspires to be a rocking piece and simply manages to be a pop song. A hit does not make it rock. Clearly there’s no way a song like “She’s Such a Temptation” or “Baby Grand” are hard rock souvenirs.

But setting aside the emotional and intellectual territory covered in Billy Joel songs there may be a simpler yet more profound explanation for this soft rock, soft cock association Billy Joel has made. It requires a broader survey of everything called soft rock. I’ve canvassed my friends for names to include in the soft rock pantheon. This activity will reveal much in and of itself. Here’s a list of names:

Rod Stewart
Billy Joel
Elton John
Phil Collins
Peter Cetera
Bruce Hornsby
The Eagles
Fleetwood Mac
Gordon Lightfoot
Jackson Browne
James Taylor
The Carpenters
Michael Bolton
Air Supply
Celine Dion

Take a look at this list and think about something besides the songs. What instruments do these people play (if any)? Of eighteen names a good number have their famous songs backed up by piano, often solo, or at least in settings where the piano plays a significant role in defining the musical landscape. I’m not saying the keyboard alone is the reason these people are considered soft rock. James Taylor, at the very least, plays guitar and I don’t recall the piano having any meaningful role in the Eagles’ output. But clearly the piano plays a big role in at least many of the hits a lot of these people made.

Some of you may be object. You might be thinking, “Sure, the piano may be more common in soft rock but that doesn’t mean all piano players have to make soft rock.” I agree. I love the piano works of Prokofiev, Hindemith, Bartok, Thelonius Monk, and Stravinsky and they didn’t play soft rock. Of course that’s not fair because their music isn’t even rock `n roll but it’s incontestably “harder” music than anything Peter Cetera or Billy Joel ever wrote. By the same token. no one has ever told me that Tom Waits, Stevie Wonder, Ben Folds, or Jerry Lee Lewis played “soft rock” when they tickled or pounded the ivories, even if Stevie has softened up a lot since Hotter than July.

Nevertheless, this remarkable pattern emerges and when Stevie’s soft he’s still a good case study. Why do so many soft rock/soft cock rockers seem to play keyboards? We can forget altogether the question of whether or not women playing piano can be considered hard rock or even rock. They may be lucky to be labeled soft rock or alternative rock (see Tori Amos in this instance). Let’s just settle on this question about the piano because I’m convinced a thorough survey of soft rock will reveal the dominance of the piano as one of the crucial elements in the soda rock recipe. If you don’t believe me we can approach this question from the opposite end.

When we think of hard rock or even just plain rock we never think of music dominated by the keyboard. When we think of classic rock bands we think of the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Who, and none of these bands ever made the piano central to their songwriting and performance or even made much of it when it did appear. Go back even further to Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Elvis, and we see that the guitar still dominates the musical landscape. In contrast, in the music of acknowledged masters of soft rock like Billy Joel, Elton John or Rod Stewart the piano is crucial. If we call it “adult contemporary” the facts won’t be changed. Take Phil Collins as an example. The further he gets from the drum kit in his writing process the softer and softer his music seems to get. If he wants to avoid the lifelong “soft rock” label he better start making more albums with Robert Fripp.

"Fine,” some of you may say, “what about those people you say aren’t soft rock?” That’s a fair question. My first appeal, whether you believe me or not, is to all around musicianship. Stevie Wonder played all the instruments on quite a few songs he recorded for his three 1972 albums Music of My Mind, Talking Book, and Innervisions. So that meant at least keyboards, harmonica, and drums. I’m less familiar with Ben Folds work but I’m told by some that he, too, has all-around instrumental facility. I grant that Paul McCartney is proof that all-around musical skill won’t keep you out of the annals of soft-rock but it’s the first best defense if that’s what you want to avoid.

But beyond the ability to play more than one instrument (and this importance of this can’t be overstated) is clearly not the only reason. The second critical difference between someone like Tom Waits or Ben Folds and Billy Joel or Elton John is musical affiliation. This is harder to explain. Billy Joel listens to classical music and not just rock `n roll. Some of you may say this is the problem but you’d be wrong. Joel admires Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Bernstein, Copland, and other 19th century Romantic composers. I happen to think this is part of Joel’s soft rock problem. The soft cock problem, if you will, has to be explained elsewhere. But influences alone do not put you in soft or hard rock categories.

When I say we have to look at musical affiliation I don’t mean the issue of influences but musical context. Stevie Wonder got his start in Motown and Ben Folds has clearly been influenced by Bill Evans (notwithstanding he also seems to know this, unlike many other pianists in popular music). Bands that draw from musical traditions and associations beyond rock itself have a distinctly different aesthetic sensibility from those who make their music within the rock tradition. Jerry Lee Lewis came from a culture steeped in Gospel. No one can listen to Tom Wait’s The Black Rider and think he has always and only played rock.

Billy Joel has obviously played some classical music, though, hasn’t he? That’s true but each art lives in unique terms. If I play a handful of classical pieces and then go on to spend twenty years writing rock and pop songs am I really living with that music as a performer? If I, for instance, join a rock band that covers Rush songs and has admiration for early Genesis, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Metallica, and Led Zeppelin how can I not expect to be influenced by those bands even when I haven’t listened to them? It’s possible, as Claude Debussy discovered, to be influenced by people you detest just as you can by those you admire. He spent no small part of his composing life moving away from the legacy of Wagner. You can listen to all the music you want but in the end you are always defined by what you play.

So what does Billy Joel play? Even he has figured this out. If he hadn’t he wouldn’t be angry at being labeled soft rock. The last and most unforgiving thing in all this is the testimony of history. Billy Joel is writing classical music now but after twenty to thirty years in rock it seems too little too late. If he had spent time composing rock and classical music simultaneously he might never have gotten the label soft rock. But the truth is that no musician can be known by his or her total output. Invariably amongst a musicians total work several defining moments or pieces will arise. Stevie Wonder never intended to be known for “Superstition” and “Living for the City” but those are his most famous and important songs. Here I come back to my long-ago comment about cover bands. You know your songs have touched people when they get covered and the covers don’t simply speak for themselves.

By the same token Beethoven is known for those works that are regularly performed. No one person can possibly perform everything Bach ever wrote so you choose the pieces you want to play. Classical composers are known, by and large, for a handful of works that define their artistic lives. The same is true in popular music and we’ve seen where history has put Billy Joel so far.

There’s still time for Billy Joel to change public perception. He can compose more classical music but I think we all know the chances aren’t good this will make any difference. If he had finished the once threatened oratorio on 9/11/2001 he might have been remembered but not necessarily in a positive way. It’s rare we hear musicians who can play a variety of styles convincingly. Pianists who are good at playing Ravel aren’t guaranteed mastery of Debussy or even convincing interpretations. Not everyone who plays Beethoven well can play Brahms. If it’s true in the world of art music it is equally true in classical music. Whether or not he has a hard cock Billy Joel at this point will be remembered mainly for making music most of us call soft rock. Right now Billy Joel may want to count his blessings. The only thing worse than being remembered as a soft rocker would be not being remembered at all.

Calm Blue Oceans & Thunderstorms, instrumental pop and bad classical music

A friend of mine lent me an album of rock instrumentals in 2001, Zooma, by John Paul Jones, our famous bassist from Led Zeppelin. I knew Jones was responsible for the added arrangements in many a Led Zeppelin song; that he was responsible for the brass arrangement of “Mellow Yellow”; and that he could find his way well enough around a keyboard. Jones is by all accounts a capable musician but I wasn’t expecting much from the album and my expectations weren’t disappointed. Zooma is largely a yawn.

It’s not that the album isn’t full of loud music and heavy grooves. No Zeppelin veteran could go for a fifty minute disk and be all quiet. It has songs with fittingly post-Zeppelin titles like “Snake Eyes”, and of course “Zooma”. There are a couple of nice solos and an interesting string arrangement that rounds off one of the tracks. But in the end Zooma is just plain dull, a series of riff-bashing exercises unsullied by the interference of the human voice. Jones has obviously mastered his instruments and yet his tracks feel like jam sessions that wanted to become songs. Jones didn’t give them that luxury. It’s impressive, I guess, that Jones can play four or five different kinds of bass and make instrumentals using only his own set of basses but what’s the point, really, of playing a solo on pedal steel bass? The simple fact that he can? That seemed to be the whole point of Zooma and I’ve been wondering if that’s reason enough ever since.

Lest anyone think this will be about popular music alone, let me share another story. This was also the year I heard the work of guitarist/composer Andrew York. I met a guitarist who said he was planning a recital. He said the recital was going to be a program devoted entirely to the music of Andrew York. “Who’s that?” I asked. “You don’t know who Andrew York is?” he asked in amazement. The guitarist urged me to listen to Andrew York. I figured this recital of his would be the best way to find out.

As a matter of curiosity and friendly acquaintance I went to this York recital. I was disappointed. York’s music consists almost entirely of pretty filigree patterns that are moved up and down the fingerboard. When there are tunes in a York piece the tunes outstay their welcome by dint of repetition. I don’t deny that Andrew York must be (or was) an excellent guitarist but I’ve since learned it’s not without cause he’s one of the flagship guitarists on Windham Hill since the passing of Michael Hedges.

You may object to my examples but the judgment of critics reflects this powerful bias as strongly as the buying public. If I rattle off names like John Tesh, Yanni, Kenny G, or even Phil Collins and Sting many of you think something like MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch put-down “elevator-prone sissy rock.” There are classical equivalents, to be sure, but most classical music is usually too long to get played in an elevator or department store. In fact much of this music is barely distinguishable from the background sounds that might accompany it: a calm blue ocean, or a distant thunderstorm.

Not a few people I know who have had anything to say on the subject of instrumental rock or classical music say the following: “If it doesn’t have a voice I’m not interested.” Fair enough. Even I said Zooma was a bunch of instrumentals that needed to be songs. A lot of people only like music that sings.

That’s one of the reason bands like Yes and Genesis aren’t considered good rock and roll. All the lengthy instrumental breaks are seen as pretensions to classical music or distractions from what could have been a straightforward song. We don’t have to stick with “lite rock” to find this pattern. Consider the Robert Fripp/Andy Summer’s collaborative album. I know they made one but I don’t even remember the title. That, too, was all instrumental and barely memorable. A lot of the progressive rock of Yes and Rush is so fraught with instrumental breaks it is virtually de facto instrumental rock. What is it about this stuff that drives people up the wall? And what is it about the music recorded on the Windham Hill label, for instance, that gets so many people cringing and inspired a nasty skit from Mystery Science Theater 3000?

I don’t think the song-theory alone can explain this. Ellington and dozens of other jazz musicians made livings off of instrumental music. Miles Davis didn’t have to sing anything to get people to buy his albums. People buy more recordings of Beethoven than almost any other classical composer. From Phil Collins and Stevie Wonder through to Rush, Led Zeppelin, and Metallica we see rock and pop bands writing instrumentals that are genuinely interesting pieces.

To explain the weakness of that “elevator prone sissy rock”, progressive rock like Rush, or classical music that puts us to sleep we need another explanation than the innate weakness of instrumental music or of any musical style. The real answer probably lies in an imbalance between instrumental technique and musical form. I’m not the first or best exponent of this idea but here it is: In too many cases instrumental music written by soloists for their own pleasure puts idiomatic command of the instrument above even the barest concept of musical form. This applies to groups and individuals alike. A person writes something because it lets them showcase a technique or they get caught up in the joy of pushing the technique into the domain of making a full study of it.

In classical music these works are called studies and are generally not meant to be concert pieces. In popular music there is no such thing as a technical exercise to promote all-around musicianship so a lot of these finger-walking pieces are recorded as if they were just like any other piece of recorded music, song or not. Thus technical command of the instrument supercedes musical form or entertainment value. Never mind any question of art or substance. This is the calm blue ocean kind of music.

Some folk call these people “fret-board masturbators.” The fretboard masturbator can play hundreds of scales faster than you can say jack-rabbit but you don’t know why they’re doing it or what real music all these scales are supposed to make. It happens that this was the phrase I thought I heard someone say when he heard Joe Pass for the first time. Whether the term should apply to Joe Pass I’m not here to argue. The invective does its job.

The invective can apply to Kenny G, Kitaro, Yanni, or any other “soft rock” you want; there’s no denying every last one of them is a calm, blue ocean. It could also apply to all kinds of metal and progressive rock, too. It applies with brutal accuracy to most nineteenth century classical guitar literature. It doesn’t have to be instrumental to fall into this category. Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” is about twice as long as it needs to be and it has words. Gabriel took more space to get his message across than the text really demanded. Even otherwise solid songwriters and composers can overplay their hand once in a while.

But there’s another side to this imbalance. Rush, Yes, and early Genesis are the major culprits for the opposite of the calm blue ocean, the thunderstorm. With chops of death firmly established the band or composer goes on to make grand musical landscapes with sweeping and drastic changes, occasionally with a text, however superfluous the text frequently is. My favorite example is “Xanadu”. Here’s a piece with at least five different ideas that are cobbled together in a form somewhere between a rondo and a palindrome but not quite either. Cribbing and trimming Coleridge we get a giant prog-rock phantasm that seemed to get its text as an afterthought. Where the other brand of instrumental rock errs on the side of mind-numbing repetition this brand errs in the direction of jumping to the next idea or mood simply for the sake of pulling off a dramatic change. If “Xanadu” were stripped down to the introduction and the sections where Geddy Lee sings the song would be fairly tight, if not wholly enjoyable. As it stands we’re taken through so many storms and eyes-of-the-storm you’d think the storm was a compound eye. Even the awkward metaphor explains the musical shortcoming I’m talking about.

It’s not that musicians in this category never get it right. “YYZ”, for instance, is largely free of the amorphous crashing of the Thunderstorm. Genesis and Peter Gabriel, for the most part, figured out how to strip down their music so that it had a form that made at least some sense; of course they didn’t do it when they were all working together. Other bands like Rush, and particularly Yes, have taken longer to boil their songs down to whatever their essence might be.

Naturally the joy of playing music should always be there when you write music. You don’t write music you don’t want to play. You don’t want to simply pander to some audience, either. But there are limits. The joy of playing should never be pursued without thinking about the joy of listening. You’re not the only one who should be having fun with the music you play. If there’s a problem with Andrew York and John Paul Jone’s Zooma alike, as with progressive rock, it’s that the musicians have not found that happy marriage of musical technique and musical form. The musicians who do and then go beyond that to express something in a unique way (not to say original) go on to make musical history, whatever the musical style may be. Those don’t may become footnotes in music history but they rarely get an honorable mention. The rest have the harsher but finally kinder fate, they get forgotten.