Who Killed the Anger?

Published November 22, 2018 in Warp & Woof


Who Killed the Anger?

Creative Tension in Rock Music

William Sundwick
First there was “blues.” It was raw. Sung and played by illiterate, marginalized sharecroppers in the Deep South. Somebody in New York decided that, if it could be made more pleasant, less painful to hear, especially if played by an ensemble of musicians (a “band”), it might gain a wider audience. That was called “jazz.”

Sometime before, during, and after World War II society began making lightning fast changes, via technology. The pace only intensified for the rest of the century, and into the 21st. By mid-century, there was already noticeable tension between fans of “roots” music (folk and “traditional” delta blues forms), seen as simpler and “purer” forms of artistic expression, and more modern, sophisticated, urban fans who consumed a broader array of electronically reproduced music (radio, TV, stereo records).

That media-saturated urban group started showing the anger first. Rock-and-roll, especially the genre emerging from blues, was the first commercial expression of that anger. It was social alienation, clearly stated. Like big-band jazz, it was originally conceived as dance music. And, like jazz, as it became more “mainstream,” it would stifle creative impulses of young performers. They became frustrated by their inability to break through barriers enforced by taste-making record labels and radio stations.

It may have been marketing that saved them, but it was marketing of creativity itself. Artistic anger, alienation, became the marketable commodity. It turned out there was an audience for it. But, with success, sustaining anger becomes difficult. It seems only the uncomfortable, the struggling, can channel their creative impulses into the deep frustration and resentment that we associate with artistic anger. Creative tension between hungry and well-fed becomes an endless cycle.

This is where John Cage came from when he invented his experimental music. He was, essentially, raising his middle finger to the academic music “establishment.” It is also where Sun Ra and John Coltrane came from with their “avant-garde” jazz in the early sixties. It is where punk rock came from in the seventies. And, as we saw in the two previous entries of “Who Killed the Anger?”, it is where noise and experimental rock came from over the last thirty years. The eternal quest for “something new” is the motivation.

The first act in any revolution is to tear down the old system – or at least demonstrate against it! Revolution, not evolution, is the model. Evolution may be fine and, clearly, it’s the way of nature. But sometimes evolution is just too damn slow. The impatient among us will usually opt for revolution instead.

Indeed, the only thing that keeps us from violence in the streets is fear and doubt of our own moral rectitude. But, in music, revolutionary change seldom carries a moral component. It’s primarily aesthetic. Politics can be moral, music is almost always aesthetic.

Popular music, being consumed largely by young people, is especially fertile ground for the impatient and the frustrated. And, the upcoming Generation-Z shows no sign of being any less impatient, or alienated, than earlier youthful generations. The “silent generation” found early rock-and-roll, the later boomers had punk, “Gen-X” had heavy metal, and angry millennials have noise and experimental rock. Of course, not all members of each generation are equally afflicted by alienation and impatient anger. Many, perhaps through fear of their own emotions, have chosen instead to listen to milder “easy listening” music. Such music intends to erase anxiety with melody.  The anger is pushed down, repressed.

But the music I like confronts anxiety. It tells me to “deal with it!” For me, it’s about emotional catharsis as a solution to problems. If music is “in your face,” so much the better. Full disclosure: the only time I listen to music now is when I’m working out at the gym!

I do appreciate creative sounds, however. If a certain band has a trademark riff, mix or vocal that makes their songs easily identifiable, I am more likely to purchase them on iTunes. Uniqueness has equal weight to a biologically-driven beat that’s a good match for my cardio workout. I like music that encourages me to punish the equipment. “Pedal harder!”

Where do I find new music? Inadvertent listening on SiriusXM (often at the gym) and music-related discussion groups on Facebook are the tools I use to discover bands. They were my sources for Sonic Youth, AWOLNATION, and Deaf Wish.  Since I have no IRL friends who share my musical tastes, I rely on the virtual world for exposure. Sometimes my millennial younger son will contribute ideas, but his older brother has already moved on. Pandorain my car only occasionally, Spotifynever.

And, yes, the secret personal drive behind all this: it does make me feel young, again!

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