Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Tossing Bo Diddley a bone

(My last post left one question unanswered: Why exactly is diversity in music important? It's not crude or closed-minded to ask. After all, we don't really care about the overall makeup of sports teams, symphony orchestras, or Hollywood movie casts; we just want the most qualified to make it. So this blog post seeks to answer that question. Too long, didn't read: Pioneering invention depends on it.)

Until we get the next Bo Diddley, we won't be seeing the next Beatles. I think we all understand this intellectually.

Much like DJ Kool Herc had to come before Tupac Shakur, Jelly Roll Morton before Miles Davis, the Notre Dame school before Palestrina, and so on. In each case, the former helped invent the craft that the latter perfected. But while they all deserve to be respected as pioneers, we don't place them on equal footing, and it's not hard to see why. Music needs context to be widely appreciated, and context is understood not at the onset of a new craft's invention, but through its perfection. It's the ones perfecting the craft who write the soundtracks to our lives, while having us gaze romantically upon theirs. There's little glory that comes with inventing a new craft, in comparison.[1]

So everyone hopes to be the next Beatles; few dream of becoming the next Bo Diddley. But without new craft being invented for others to perfect, the cycle of progress gets broken. That's easy to overlook while there are plenty of interesting concepts left to explore. Unlike craft, though, concept doesn't provide much fertile ground; it's mostly a one-time deal that benefits one generation, or even just one artist.

And then what? Once every last concept has been fully exhausted, the future simply becomes a steady rotation, rather than accumulation, of music that resonates with each generation. The newer stuff might sound raw, but the underlying vision will have been endlessly polished. Its artists might look farsighted and bold, but the context for seeing them as such will be as old as the hills. Many would argue that we've reached this point already. Which is not to say that our generation's music can't be genuinely beautiful and wonderful, of course. But if that's all it is, then the next generation won't be keeping it around for themselves. Why would they? They'll have their own.

In other words, there are no shortcuts. The future of pioneering music lies in the invention of new craft, just as always. However unglamorous the role, someone has to take the plunge and be the next Bo Diddley.

The problem is, for the past decade we've been telling ourselves that the music we celebrate can be exactly what we want, all the time, each and every time. And what we want is music and artists that immediately resonate with us precisely because there's nothing left to puzzle over and figure out in their underlying context. In other words, not new inventions; not the next Bo Diddley. Which makes sense, after all—being the least wanted in his own time is how Bo Diddley himself came to be Bo Diddley. Had he had a better option, he would have taken it. The bands making what we want, though—what do they want? Chances are, if they hope to be the next Beatles, they probably want to see the next Bo Diddley get tossed a bone.

But now here we are. The next Bo Diddleys will necessarily come from those we least want, the very ones our present system is set up to reject. Sure, we could learn to want them, and that might help in the short term, but it won't fix the underlying problem.[2] Since we can't ever want everyone equally, someone will always be the system's least wanted. The only long-term solution, then, lies not in being wiser about whom we want, but rather in changing how we respond to whomever we don't.

So here's a proposition. Whenever an artist who might be the next Bo Diddley happens to show up, why not toss them a bone? In other words, let's ask ourselves: What's the bare minimum they need to not starve and die, at least long enough for them to sink or swim on their own merits?[3] And then give them at least that much.

It doesn't matter what they're trying to accomplish, or whether we get it or not. And if the present system doesn't allow us to do this, then let's change the system so it does.[4] After all, there are plenty of bones lying around that we're already happily giving away willy-nilly, and who knows when the next Bo Diddley will come along if we punt on this turn. Taking the unfamiliar path is more hazardous than most realize, and it's a sure bet that for every one that made it far enough to land on our radar, countless others sputtered out long before. So let's just toss that bone and get on with the rest of our day. Besides, when there's so little to lose and the future of music stands to gain so much, what's the worst that can happen?


[1] This isn't true of all musical inventors, of course. While Johann Sebastian Bach's music was derided as old-fashioned in his own time, its inspiration to later composers led them to revive his works. Bach now outshines all his successors, with only the possible exception of Beethoven.

[2] By the way, I want to ensure that none of you are picturing the actual Bo Diddley, whose place within rock and roll's pantheon no doubt conjures only the warmest feelings today. Instead, try to imagine who can't possibly be music's next pioneering inventor. Seriously, do it right now. If you find this difficult, start by asking yourself: Who out there is doing everything wrong? Suddenly, the next Bo Diddleys don't seem so appealing, do they?

[3] Where we stand right now with mashups might be a good example. It's a craft that has the potential to be taken much further, but for now, many of us don't credit it with conveying any real artistic meaning or emotional depth. So those who care to hear more have the means to do so, while everyone else is free to ignore it completely. That's pretty much what I mean by tossing a bone.

[4] This is, in fact, what my startup hopes to do.

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