“It’s only music.” These words have made my blood boil since I was old enough to understand what the concept of boiling blood implies.
Why? Because throughout my life,the phrase has been employed to shut me up when I am either A) Waxing too poetic on music’s transformative possibilities, or B) Waxing too poetic on the truly dreadful implications for a society comprised of people raised on cynically produced “music-like” sounds crafted to separate them from their money.
“It’s only music” is the sort of odious statement that creates a world where it actually is “only music.” A world a lot like the one we live in at present. But make no mistake – it isn’t “only music.” Music cannot be blamed for the horrible things people have done with it, any more than Global Warming can be blamed on the Earth.
Did you catch that moment on the Emmy Awards last week, when host Jimmy Kimmel blamed British reality TV Svengali and creator of “The Apprentice” Mark Burnett for Donald Trump as a presidential nominee? It was funny, but it was also spot-on, because reality TV is complicit in creating what has come to be called a “Post-Truth” political climate, one in which the Cartesian maxim has been slightly altered to read “I saw him on TV, therefore I am.”
Politics is politics and connection with demonstrable reality has never been one of its strong suits. But Barnett and his ilk have more to answer for than Trump. They’ve also fostered the birth of “Post-Truth” music. “American Idol,” “The Voice” and "X Factor” all have done immeasurable damage to popular music. They’ve helped to create Post-Truth Pop, an environment in which schleps like Adam Levine and Blake Shelton are somehow held up as gatekeepers of what’s “good” in music, and any singer who can stay in tune while imitating (badly, more often than not) Whitney Houston or Christina Aguilera gets the party’s nod as “The best thing on offer.”
This star-making machinery lorded over largely by folks who have no demonstrable affinity for either spotting or displaying great talent has taken a lot of the fun out of music. People of a certain age are sick of it all, and they throw their hands in the air, proclaiming the era of great music to be officially over. Across the aisle, listeners who grew up in the time of Post-Truth Pop often drink the Kool Aid and go along for the ride. Both miss out on the fact that so much great music is being made because they don’t know where to look for it. (Step one: Turn off your television.)
"On a show, you’re in a false reality," psychiatrist Dr. Reef Karim told fashion and style web-zine Refinery29 in a 2015 piece dubbed “The Truth Behind Reality TV.”
“And that false reality heightens and amplifies everything, from conflicts to reactions to, yes, emotions. You see a bachelor come in [while on a show], and you think, 'Oh my god, he's amazing, he's like a prince,' whereas in reality, he might just be decent. Everything is amplified. People you might have a little conflict with are all of a sudden your sworn enemy. People who kind of like somebody all of a sudden love somebody."
The same might be said of a music-based reality show, the whole premise of which is to skip that part of a career in music that demands struggling and paying dues and learning the craft and heads straight for the “You’re now a huge star” bit. It’s true that some contestants on “The Voice” are older singers who have struggled a bit in the past, but the idea that stardom and success are something that can be “gifted” by the likes of Levine and Shelton remains just as offensive in these instances.)
The false reality presented by the “music-as-gameshow” environment amplifies the significance of the performances. It also does something worse – it presents the idea that music can be created by following a pre-defined formula, i.e. “Hit these pitches, run that scale, get really emotional here, hit a high note and hold it for the big finish, and presto, you’ve got pop music!”
If you really care about music – yes, even popular music – and you’ve either felt or observed in others the potential for personal transformation it offers, then this paint-by-numbers dumbing down of the form, largely achieved at the behest of people who would like to solve the “art vs. commerce” conundrum by making them one and the same, should at the very least give you pause.
On the surface, the power yielded by these musical talent contests would seem to have diminished as their ratings leveled off over the past few years. That’s misleading, though, because the damage has been done. That damage takes the form of a dominant homogeneous approach to music-making, bolstered by the belief that stardom – like money, in politics – justifies whatever one needs to do in order to attain it.
That’s a harmful lie, and it needs to be called out. Otherwise, it really is “only music.”