from the "there's no accounting for taste" department...

In a nation where Sarah Palin AND Donald Trump are actually popular, it should come as no big surprise that I sense the state of music appreciation in the US is at an all time low. This isn't to say that good music isn't available - truly it is - and in more accessible and diverse ways than ever before. Spotify and You Tube alone open listening options in ways that just 10 years ago were unimaginable. Add into the mix tools like Amazon and Apple Tunes and there is a virtual cornucopia of good music just waiting to be purchased.

But while the 'Net has expanded our listening possibilities, let me argue that our cultural habits have shrunken our willingness to move beyond our comfort zones. When life is stressed, overly anxious and perpetually filled with tasks to complete under a deadline, it is small wonder that: 

1) music is reduced to one among many soothing distractions; 

2) fewer and fewer people have the intellectual and emotional space to listen to new and/or challenging music;  

3) even fewer people make or take the time to encounter a live musical experience. 

Add to this the loss of public school music education as part of the core curriculum along with both the increasing segregation of sound according to race, class and politics in our land and the ubiquity of background music designed for shopping, commercials and video montages in the middle of a dramatic TV/movie, and you have a dumbed down musical culture.

Am I a music snob?  Of course - and proud of it!  Did I come of age when FM radio exposed me to Ravi Shankar, Frank Zappa, Pearls Before Swine, the Doors alongside of the Byrds, the Beatles, the Stones and Joni Mitchell? Hell yes!  Was I introduced to "Danse Macabre" and "Scheherazade" in fourth grade? Bet your ass I was - and won the music appreciation prize that year, too.Was there show music, American folk songs and "Sing-along-with- Mitch" available in my house? Count on it! We even had 78 RPM recordings of the Moscow Men's Chorus singing "The Internationale" along with Johnny Cash, Herb Alpert and Tchaikovsky. Every month when I was small, I would go to the grocery store with my father and we would pick out a new classical album from the $1 rack. But back in the day, at least in our bourgeois world, these things did not qualify us as part of the cognoscenti, just well rounded ,middle class kids.

It was expected and encouraged that we learn to play an instrument - and read music - as children. In first grade we played "tonettes" and then recorders. By second grade I was taking accordion lessons (which I quit so that I could watch Tarzan movies with my Dad on Saturday afternoons.)  In fourth grade I gave the cello a shot - my brother was on trumpet and my sister on violin - and while none of that lasted beyond a year, a foundation was built that has had lasting consequences. By the time the Beatles hit Ed Sullivan's Sunday night TV show in February 1964, my fate was sealed:  I got my first guitar for Christmas that year and there's been no turning back.  To be sure, I realized I would never be as smooth as those dudes; so, like Lil Steven in Springsteen's shop, it took the Stones to convince me that I could play raggedy rock and roll like they did - and I did, too.

So what's the point of my nostalgic rant through a by-gone era when heroes weren't zeroes and women were glad of it? Simply the slogan that Zappa used to put on the bottom of all his records:  The modern day composer REFUSES to die. These words from Edgar Varese point to the importance in culture, politics and religion of having regular access to sounds that carry us into ecstasy, songs that challenge our domesticated aesthetics, music that opens new cultural and intellectual truths as well as gentle songs of comfort and joy. I know that if I hadn't regularly heard the bold music of Bach on church organs, I never would have taken the time to listen to Messiaen. If the only thing I knew came from my favorite comfort zone radio station, I would have stuck to "Hang On Sloopy" and been apprehensive about Marvin Gaye's later works to say nothing of Funkadelic and Prince. If my first concert hadn't been Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, I would never have given Coltrane or Monk a second chance..

I know that there is no accounting for taste - musically or otherwise - and I refuse to be a music bully (a snob, yes, but a bully? NO!) And let me be clear that I am not asking everyone to like what I like. I dig Gil-Scott Heron AND The Monkees. I can spend time mixing both Rhiannon and Oscar Peterson. And it is fun to put on some Meshell Ngegeocello followed by Laura Nyro, U2 and Arvo Paart. Unanimity, self-censorship and acquiescence is not the drill.

No my lament is over the culture of shallowness that has emerged in America over the past 40 years because it trains us to be narrow rather than wildly open to new visions and possibilities. Complex music takes time - something so many of us feel compromised to share - it also takes encouragement - and that is in short supply, too. Listen to jazz radio, or classical radio or even top 40 radio and there is NO adventure taking place. Public worship may be one of the few places left where a diverse group of people are given the permission and opportunity to hear sounds they would never have considered before - and THAT is one of the reasons I believe it is important to keep on keeping on.


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