Saturday, March 18, 2017

Remembering Chuck Berry and Where We Go From Here

I highly recommend you read John Mayer's piece on Jimi Hendrix for Rolling Stone.

I'm not just gonna recommend it, I'm gonna link it right here for ya:

I'm not going to lie to you, I don't know a lot about Hendrix. I know he influenced a lot of artists I admire, but I don't know much of his music. So as I write this, I'm listening to Axis: Bold As Love -- partly because John mentions it in the write-up, partially because John has a really killin' cover of the title song on Continuum, one of my favorite albums of all time.

I digress.

You read an essay like that, you meditate on the heartbreaking loss of Chuck Berry, one of the all-time greats in every sense of the word, and you start to wonder what kind of history you're living in. Chuck is the father of rock and roll. James was the godfather of soul (and Aretha is the queen thereof). Whitney was the queen of pop, with Michael as her king and Prince as her...well, you get the rest. I'm missing a lot of huge names, but I guess what I'm getting it as that I sometimes wonder if we're ever going to change the game like those cats did ever again.

I adore John Mayer, as every person within a ten mile radius of me at any given time is painfully aware. I model my songwriting after him and Sara Bareilles and Corinne Bailey Rae to a crazy degree. Everything I do with my voice is an attempt to do what Adele does. I've done my research, tracing back their artistic lineages, just as my freshman songwriting professor would want -- Carole King, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder (and Ray Vaughn), Eric Clapton, Billy Joel, Fiona Apple, just to provide a few names that I haven't already -- and tried to pull teeth from the jaws of their artistries as well. And personally? I don't mind that I may never break any new ground. It doesn't have to be me. I just want it to be somebody.

Contemporary music seems rooted in bucking genre conventions, in a "come as you are" approach to identity politics, in combining elements from multiple traditions and not being too concerned with hard and fast labels. I love this approach, but it also makes me wonder what's going to last from this epoch of artistic creation. Part of breaking ground is about Macgyvering your own aesthetic from existing institutions, but what of building new institutions entirely? Is that era gone? We are masters of deconstructing and reassembling working parts. But are we ever going to forage for new parts? Are there any new parts left for us to find?

Maybe this seems a bit grim, but I find it exhilarating. I look forward to seeing what emerges from our generation's imminent antiquity, what is remembered forever as Great and what is remembered for a few decades as Pretty Good. And maybe this is corny of me to say, but I think that I am currently attending school with people who will spin the fabric of the Great (or at least, I don't know, help turn on the sewing machine. This metaphor is getting unwieldy).

Some creatives believe that going to school squashes imagination, that it makes binary code of the heart and sucks the magic out of the whimsical by making it theoretical. I'm not going to lie to you -- that's true at first, or at least it feels true. The first semester and even the first year of music school can feel stifling and exhausting. You're overanalyzing every song you hear, you can never purely enjoy a great lyric or a cool guitar line because you're too busy mentally calculating its rhythm in "e-and-as" and searching your brain for its musical genealogy. But just like learning a new language, you turn a corner and you come out the other side.

You're no longer performing mental calisthenics when you're listening to music, because you can freely absorb it through the structures you've set up in your brain. You can retain more from it and use what you know better than you ever have before. And instead of resenting music, this thing you used to love, you come back around to it and get those butterflies like you did the first time your dad put on The Temptations in the car.

The point of all this is to say that I don't know what the future of music holds, and that yes, at times I worry that we're not living in a musical age as golden as the mid-20th century. But I also know that we're all too close to the damn thing to know for sure what, of the art we're all making, is gonna be Great. And I know that my classmates and I are among the best-prepared soldiers in the march towards innovation.

Rest in peace, Chuck. Thanks for making rock and roll for us.