Thursday, July 23, 2009

Reader's Diary #510- Mat Callahan: The Trouble With Music

Last year Mariah Carey surpassed Elvis Presley in number 1 Billboard hits, making her the top selling female artist of all time. Two more and she beats the Beatles.

Based on my own experience, people's reaction to the above news follows two lines of thought:
1. who cares?
2. HA HA HA!

No one seems all that pleased, outraged, or surprised. Basically it simply proves how out of touch and stupid top 40 charts have become. It is what we've thought since the early 90s when Wilson Phillips, Timmy T, Color Me Badd, and your friend Mariah Carey had number one singles while Nirvana and Pearl Jam, both with debut albums that year, did not.

Callahan's The Trouble With Music is about music, its historical importance and the path we've taken to end up where we are today: a world filled with, in Callahan's own term, "anti-music." I figured this would be a case of preaching to the choir.

Fortunately, I was wrong. I didn't agree with all of Callahan's points. But I like to be challenged and I like to think critically, so a little dissent is fine. Once I read the back of the book, I suspected there'd be trouble. Callahan states, "Like the replacement of essential nutriment by junk food, music lovers are expected to surrender their critical faculties and consume the phony McMusic that can be more effectively controlled and profitably sold than the genuine article." You see, I like junk food. I even, on occasion, like McDonalds. I also have, amongst my Hendrix, Clash, and Decemberists mp3s, a Rihanna song. I'm the first to complain when someone asks me about my "guilty pleasures." I don't feel guilty over music. I like what I like.

I just wanted a little more moderation with Callahan's stance. Just as I'm aware of the impact the junk food industry has had on agriculture and culture, I'm aware that contrived pop music has had a negative impact on music in general. So, Callahan's point is not lost on me. The problems arise when junk food and junk music take over.

But then, from the AK Press books I've read, moderation has never been their strong point. (Neither has editing!) Things are always black and white in their world. Also not surprising is where the finger gets pointed most often: capitalism. If you're a hard-core capitalist, I'd say avoid this one. Though if you're not, or if you're on the fence, Callahan does make a convincing case.

Sometimes Callahan's points are awash in philosophical and political jargon and other times his writing style, which relies heavily on sarcastic "quotation" marks, ANGRY CAPS! and identifying Ideals (versus ideals) with a capital letter, are beyond annoying.

But, in the end, I was left optimistic. For an author that calls the current situation a "crisis," Callahan seems to suggest that those of us who know, hear or play better, might simply have to wait this out. The powers that be will eat themselves and we'll have beautiful music about it in the end.

One of the most powerful passages in the book shows world sales of recorded music* falling by 10.9% in 2003. In the same year, in Britain anyway, sales of electric and acoustic guitars,** showed a staggering increase of 46%.

(*International Federation of the Phonograph Industry, **The Guardian)


Lisa said...

Sounds like a worthwhile read. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Allison said...

Quotation marks and angry caps, eh? Hmmm...not sure about this one. I'm tired of listening to people drone on about what is selling and how much junk music is out there. If they spent all the energy and invested it into looking for other music, they'd be pleasantly surprised. I guess I'd fall into the who cares (what is selling) category. I'm too busy being a musical indie pirate. ;)


John Mutford said...

Lit and Life: You're welcome!

Allison: Actually Callahan would support you on your piracy. In fact, if he managed to persuade me at all, it was in that area. I used to get free music online all the time, but have slowed down almost to nil, perhaps somewhat being convinced by all the starving musician propaganda. Fortunately, Callahan steered me back. Any music you'd like to share?