The Day The Music Died

Copyright © 2005 Dorian Scott Cole

Is the music dying? I suppose nearly everyone recognizes the words "The Day The Music Died" from the American Pie song. The words refer to the day of the plane crash that killed some of Rock and Roll's early noteworthy figures, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson.

I always heard Don McLean's song as a metaphor for the place of music, specifically Rock, in the hearts of minds of people - a phenomenon that captured the world and presumably knows no bounds. Even artists who performed lesser known songs of the 1960s still get royalties on music that is still sold around the world.

As a radio announcer in the '60s, that catered to a wide audience, I learned to like all kinds of music. Through the years I have tried to stay "in tune" with whatever turns the music market took. Some of it was challenging (Metallica, Grunge, Rap), but I hung in there. On this Web site, I've written about the importance of music as gleaned from the perspective of concentration camp survivors.

In that article on meaning, I wrote: "Frankl and the others began to appreciate beauty. In the barrenness that surrounded them, unable to be creative or express themselves in any way, they were forced into an inner life and they gained a much greater appreciation of beauty - nature, art, music. I think that beauty is not just the result of contrast, but actually shows what life can be, especially in a symbolic way."

Music seems to be inextricably entwined with meaning in our lives. Why does it show signs of dying? In some ways, Rock represented several generations of people. It gained a foothold in '50s (or earlier), became entrenched in our lives in earnest in the '60s, and from the '70s through the '90s Rock spoke for the angst, hopes, dreams, questions, and struggles of people.

The Rock of the '60s was fun, and it was hopelessly romantic. Some arrangements were simply instrumentals (Telstar and Walk Don't Run) - something rarely heard today. But Rock also had a serious side: it was also about rebellion and protest; about idealism, justice, individual freedoms, and the restrictions of an oppressive status quo. Rock spoke for people - it said what they wanted to say, what they wanted to think about - it was a symbol of a generation. But Rock was multigenerational. It kept reinventing itself. By the '70s it was about free sex (or love), and by the '80s it represented a generation disenchanted with hopeless romance, and more centered on materialism. By the '90s it seemed to go in many directions, and it wasn't nearly as much fun anymore, but it made it into the new century. Barely.

I was in the military during the Vietnam Conflict, yet one of my favorite songs at the time was Simon and Garfunkle's rendition of, Silent Night. I called it the ultimate protest song. They sang Silent Night, accompanied by a newscaster reading the news of the day - war and murder. The era was filled with similar songs.

Rock was never about great voices. The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart - not opera quality, but very popular because their lyrics and arrangments appealed to people. Today, the top show on TV, American Idol, is a trifecta of voice, dance, and performance. Who will be the next Britney Spears? Yet today's top performers can't fill a concert hall. Only the performers of the Rock era can do that, and still do that.

Rock has its roots in "good vibrations," and rebellion, sexuality, idealism, controversy, angst, and just plain fun. It speaks to and for the people who listen to it.

I have stayed with Rock through all of its difficult periods. One singer saw the "Trumpet playing band," as a threat. Rock's symbol is the guitar. I have one. But trumpets made good music, too, and a lot of people in high school learned to play one.

Some saw Disco as a threat. OK, I like disco, too. Disco is fun. And I love funky music, too. They are all great to dance to, and not such an aerobic workout as much of the fast '60s music.

When I found out that my good friend in radio, Roger, deserted Rock for Country, it was a wake up call. But, hey, Rick Nelson, one of my favorites, had done the same thing years before. Country is good. It's sexy, it has a good beat, it talks about concerns we all have, its full of angst, its fun - it seems to have all of the things that Rock used to have. Even the crying in your beer about nothing good ever happening seems to have dissipated some, and even the twang thang isn't as noticeable. I lived in the country and in Georgia - Country is everywhere. My wife even likes Country. I... my wife likes Country. OK, OK, I actually like some of it.

I survived when I tuned into AM Rock stalwarts WLS in Chicago and KXOK in St. Louis and found that one had changed to a talk radio format, and the other a religious format. OK, so FM changed things. It was bound to happen. I don't know what Imus is doing on radio now - I see him on TV now. Hopefully Steve and Vicky (WSTR Star 94.1 FM, Atlanta) are hanging in there with their Top 40 format.

Where is Rock today? I've been scanning the airwaves for today's Rock and finding nothing. N O T H I N G. Nothing that sounds even vaguely familiar except "'70s, '80s, '90s" stations. A recent article in the New York Times advises that another group of radio stations across the nation is fleeing Rock. Times are tough. Today's new music doesn't work - listeners are leaving. Or is it the impact of satellite radio? Or is there something more sinister going on?

Perhaps despite my best efforts to stay "in tune," the generations have finally found a sound that I don't like. The music that I hear today sounds a lot like someone pounding on guitar strings with a hammer and screaming. The song, Love Stinks, from the movie The Wedding Singer, the screaming part in its unharmonious terror, is a close representation. Is this how my generation's music sounded to my grandparents?

Every generation has to seek its own... rebel... find its own symbol that no one else can identify with. Is this what is going on?

Perhaps we have entered a Postmodern period of limbo in which the old music no longer holds meaning for us as a civilization, and something new must emerge from the meltdown into chaos. If nothing emerges and the music dies, if we lose all sense of meaning for our music to reflect, perhaps then in 2012 the earth will be hit by a comet and we will all die. Except in some remote corner people will be playing Country music and listening to old Rock songs and a new generation will be born hearing good sounds. Could make a good movie - something like Fahrenheit 451 meets Planet Of The Apes and Flash Dance.

Is this the day that the music died? I hope not. There is a good sign: marketers continue putting Rock in commercials. If people didn't like Rock, it wouldn't be in commercials. I think that there are plenty of people, young and old, who want to hear good beats, good rhythm, good orchestration, good lyrics, and even good voices - something meaningful, something that represents things that we think about and the angst in our lives, something happy, something that protests, something sad, something sexy, something fun, something to dance to, something to work to.

Rock on Rolling Stones. Rock on Fleetwood Mac - you sound better now than 20 years ago. Rock on Heart. Rock on Madonna and Rod Stewart. Rock on Britney Spears. Rock on Lonestar and Shania Twain. Rock on Eagles to Farewell 99. Rock on the rest of you - we need your music.

- Scott

Update July 2007

Whew! The music didn't die. It reinvented in a new form. I'm listening again. The world isn't coming to an end. Some personal favorites:

  • Hey There Delilah - Plain White T's
  • Girlfriend - Avril Levigne
  • Make a Memory - Bon Jovi
  • She Ain't Right - Lee Brice (latest country giggle tune)
  • What Goes Around - Justin Timberlake (really great arrangment)
  • Before He Cheats - Carrie Underwood
  • Say it Right - Nelly Furtado (my favorite, and one of the best arrangements and productions)
  • Beyonce, Shakira, Stefani, Nickleback, Daughtry, McLachlan, and a lot of other great groups making really great music that has been well produced - don't know all of the names.

Cool! Thanks for making my days a little bit brighter.

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