Is music still only sound? Is that all we can talk about? For me as a scholar it is striking (and worrying) that the non-academic media continues to discuss music almost exclusively as an autonomous art object. Be they commercial radio stations, television channels, web sites, or magazines the discourse centers on the sound, on genre, and, largely, on the influences of b(r)ands on each other. Isn’t there anything else?
This all struck me recently while listening to the NPR radio program All Songs Considered, hosted by the long-time director of the highly popular All Things Considered: Bob Boilen. I saw the podcast offered among iTunes recommended programs, read the blurb describing itself as an “eclectic mix of fresh music by emerging artists and breakout bands,” and thought I’d found myself a great new resource for discovering various musics of the world or at least of the US. Instead I found my iPod saturated with a rather lame, self-congratulating version of a college radio station. Indie-pop for hipsters is the fare of the day. I was amused for about twenty minutes.
So I returned to read the reviews given the program. Aren’t other people bothered by the incongruity between the title and the content? Indeed they are. A few laud Boilen for his choices, but the naysayers have the majority, all lambasting him for not including . . . heavy metal or pop or hip hop: i.e. other mainstays of the commercial music industry. The radio program he directs is widely praised because it does indeed take on a surprisingly large range of topics from near and far, the serious to the utterly mundane, all with very even respect and treatment. All Things Considered deserves, in my opinion, both its name and its reputation. All Songs Considered does not.
Take one recent episode in which an NPR intern was asked to come on the show to play some of his top picks and discuss them with Boilen. To start with the range of musical styles presented remained largely within the description given above. If one wants to argue about genre, then it is at the least safe to say that no non-Western or non-commercial music got any play. But what is really at issue here for me is the content of the discourse. (I’m using discourse here in the original Foucauldian sense of a hegemonic field of symbolic interaction which maintains control, in part, by defining what can be discussed and what cannot. See Foucault’s essay “The Discourse on Language,” 1971) The conversation between the two presenters was almost exclusively limited to three topics: 1. impressionistic descriptions of the sound of the band in question, 2. talk of instrumentation/orchestration, and 3. discussion of influence between bands and/or band members. A common rhetorical device was, “It sounds like a cross between band X and band Y.” Another, “Do you know musician Z? Ok, well s/he’s the leader of this new band.”
The points I’m making here are very simple. First, NPR should be disappointed in the narrow range of its All Songs Considered program. With such an obvious reference to its much more catholic relative, the program can be seen as an absolute failure in continuing the liberal, open discourse common to the network. Second, this limited range of discourse about music – found in a particularly striking example here in the radio program All Songs Considered – is common to the mass of media about music in the cosmopolitan world. The talk of music in our culture remains frighteningly separated from the world in which it takes place and it should worry us that this is the case.
Furthermore, this myopia represents a failure of ethnomusicology to publicly critique this pervasive formalist aesthetic and, more sinisterly, the success of the Kulturindustrie to divorce music from its centrally spiritual, political, historical, and identity-forming functions. We are left with little more than a series of Barbie-dolls about which we can discuss the merits of straight-cut bangs or decry the return of bell-bottoms (now called ‘boot cut’), and thereby forget the gender-role implications of playing with mammorous Scandinavian toothpicks and other trivia. Doesn’t music mean more to us than that?