By Marc Miller
At least once a year, I take at least 10 minutes and gripe about the state of music in general. And, it’s that time of year again- but I’m hoping I can be a little more focused.
As most know, I’ve spent a good deal of time in my career playing recording sessions. The life of a session musician is an interesting one, in that while I consider it a distinct honor to get to be involved in someone’s very personal manifestation of muse, let’s face it- a lot of it is not great music. That’s a very personal indictment to be sure, and even though it sounds like I’m slamming the folks I’ve played for, I really don’t mean to. See, the thing of it is that not everyone can be a Beethoven, Mozart or J.S. Bach. Not everyone who picks up a guitar will be Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck. Not every bass part of every song is going to have me playing maj9#11 chords like a wild-haired Jaco clone (even if I had hair…..) – and that is 100% ok. Music is about expression of the heart – and that is what makes a lot of (what I would call) “sub-standard music” worthwhile.
But, the thing of it is that being a session player gives one a view – perhaps micro-cosmic – of what’s going on in the industry. I’ve been doing this a long, long time, and at no point in my career have I ever been so completely displeased and depressed about the state of music than I am now. To be honest, I would really have to use the word “despondent”.
Just like Hollywood now, there is almost nothing original anymore. What’s worse, I find that some of the people that I play with – be it live or studio – find originality and craftsmanship to be a joke. They marginalize my argument by telling me that I’m not “current” or that I am an “old man” – and, perhaps that is true – but, when I think of artists that I hold in high regard, all of them had their influences. They recognized their predecessor’s talents and offerings, but rather than just emulate them part for part, they would add their own signatures to what they did. This caused forms of music to evolve. Nowadays, none of that exists. It’s more about the appearance (I can’t do a faux-hawk) or the latest gear or software- but no one takes any time to craft what they do. It’s all part of our microwave society – “SUCCESS NOW!”.
Whether or not you are a spiritual person, there is no denying that there is a direct connection from art to spirituality. The greatest songs ever written are great because they touch people- either by evoking a shared experience like love lost, or by initiating a thought of a heretofore not-thought-of emotion. Those things that touch us in this way are timeless, but one of the cruxes of being able to do that for an artist is to craft things so that they tie up nicely. There was a day not long ago when Christian songwriters were the cream of the crop as far as tying all things artistic and spiritual together. Artists like Phil Keaggy, Randy Stonehill and Keith Green had a way of invoking an immediacy and a sense of urgency through their lyrics in words and pictures. For example, the Randy Stonehill song, “Sweet Emily” – a song about a dying girl and her quest to make her members of her family at peace with her impending death had this lyric to sum up the message:
“This life is but a moment in the morning of my day.”
Even now, as I write this blog entry, that lyric literally brings a tear to my eye.
But today, we don’t have that. Instead, we have what I’d like to call “Jesus Fan-Boy” music in Christandom. There is precious little difference in the Christian music idiom that is different from a Justin Bieber song. Or, more often than not, it isn’t considered “Praise Music” without a healthy dose of a Line 6 MM4 delay pedal and some kind of rudimentary ostinato pattern with pedal tones, that constitutes “closer to God” – but only if you have the right haircut. (Am I bitter about this hair thing? Yep. I am.) To make matters even worse, when bringing up the idea that “kum-by-ah” charts (words with an occasional mark of a chord) are somehow substandard to an actual chart with barlines – and, yes, I am suggesting that real musicians are able to read music – is met with all sorts of reasons like, “it’s easier for most people to play these” and “you wouldn’t be so lost if you weren’t reading all the time”…….
All of this is pure laziness and all of it is not of God, and I’ll go as far as to say that it’s not music, either. It’s a formula and nothing more. No one is interested in excellence anymore. No one cares to know anything about performance. (And don’t get me started on the subject of “it’s worship and not a performance” because people who say that are stupid. You cannot have one without the other, period.) No one cares about craft- and worst of all, in the realm of Christian music, they think that they are playing for an audience, or that somehow if things look a certain way and there’s a lack of depth to things that they will be able to usher people into worship and commune with God-
Hey! Understand this, you with the faux-hawk- your audience isn’t the people in the congregation. Your audience – who you are playing for- is God. It’s an audience of 1. And, God doesn’t care what it looks like – I guarantee it.
All of this really comes to a head for me when Christmas rolls around. We are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, our Lord and our Savior- the one, true Living God- and this is NOT the time to press your skimpy, misguided ideas. This is one of two times that most non-church goers actually attend, and here we are, more worried about being “hip” and looking good and trying to sound like yesterdays crap music than we are in telling people the story of what Christmas is actually all about.
So- Mr. Faux-Hawk- pull your head out of your rear, and at least try to excel at something, rather than being utterly, forgettably hip. Have some substance, and don’t reject the idea that people (yes, like me) who have not only been around the block, but actually helped build it – might just know what we’re talking about. And, if you’re like me and actually have participated in making actual music and you find that you are just bending to go with the flow- shame on you. The people that I’m railing against – the ones that really don’t have a clue – they need your help. You need to stand up, man up, and start demanding the excellence from these people just as you have demanded it from yourself. To do anything less is not a God-thing – it’s a lazy thing.