Vox pop! When music gives voice to masses

Music pulses through the floor. It shakes your chair, your bones, your very teeth. Cups tremble on the countertops from the vibrations of the drumbeats, and you wonder if your hearing will ever be the same after two hours of these off-the-chart decibels. Couples dance in the pit at The House of Blues, one of Los Angeles's premier concert spots, and sing back to Sugar Ray, the dimpled, trs-hot poster boy from Newport Beach, as he screams, "You know it, sing it!"

This is popular music, circa AD 2000, as full of itself as it is of references to other singers and other times. "He's so, right now," says a 13-year-old in the audience, with a look of dazed adoration on her face.

Really? When taken in the context of the past 10 centuries, how much of this scene is "right now" and how much in the self-proclaimed trendy world of pop music, or music of the people, is timeless?

"Popular music has commented on controversies of its time, it has served as a source of entertainment, moral instruction, mnemonic devices, protest, and parody," says Mitchell Morris, an assistant professor of musicology at the University of California at Los Angeles.

If you lived 900 years before the invention of any recording devices, or 300 years or so before the invention of the printing press, and if you were not royalty or even of the upper classes, music served all the above functions and more in your life.

Want the news? Check out the wandering minstrel on the corner with the latest rendition of "The Song of Roland," one of history's great epic poems, written in the 11th century about a battle that took place in the 10th (news took a bit longer to spread in those days!). The wandering poet might sing these 1,100 or so lines of bloody battles and gory deaths for a crowd, emphasizing the warring clashes much the same way the evening news takes the most shocking graphics to sell its stories. Want to know where you fit in? This song may have been the CNN of its time, but it also conveyed a secondary message about the social order of the day in its careful recounting of the proper behavior of kings and courtiers and everyday folk.

Music of the people has always served a social function, Professor Morris points out, wherever there are significant differences in class, geography, race, ethnicity, and religion, because it goes to the core of one's being.

"Music possesses an astonishing ability to address human beings' varied senses of selfhood," he adds. "Who am I? And what am I? The music I listen to will tell you part of the answer, but it will also tell me part of the answer." It comes as no surprise that rapper Chuck D called rap music "black America's CNN."

While the Renaissance elevated the singer-composer to an artist with a point of view, this didn't noticeably change the role of music for average folk. "There's always been a split between elitist and popular music," says William Shurk, the sound-recordings archivist at Bowling Green (Ohio) State University since 1967.

"Popular music is a functional kind of art," Mr. Shurk points out. "It allows you to do something like sing or dance or listen and discuss." Often, the wandering storytellers would use the same music while they added new words. "The lyrics or the important people would shift depending on which king was in power, and this allowed popular music to have many guises of meaning," he says.

Given the power of popular music to rouse people's emotions, protest has always been a prevalent theme. "Many of the broadsides of the day were written against the rulers, because, after all, what does the king have to protest?" Professor Shurk says.

In the 20th century, an entire generation condemned rock as the music of the devil, and folk music combined with the power of rock provided the soundtrack for the antiwar protests and social revolutions of the 1960s. But popular songs as both protest and communication had come into a vivid focus much earlier in the United States during slavery. "Follow the Drinking Gourd," a popular negro spiritual (and later sung by the folk group The Weavers in the '60s) was actually a map giving directions to slaves following the underground railroad.

The Industrial Revolution (the 18th through 19th centuries) changed the role and reach of popular music. The invention of mass-produced pianos meant they popped up all over the US and Europe. Young girls took lessons so they could read mass-produced sheet music. Wax-cylinder recordings created the ability to "write down" a tradition that had been oral for centuries.

"As soon as you take these performances and turn them into a commodity, it becomes a thing you can buy," says Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse (N.Y.) University. "It then becomes part of this national equation of competition - that what starts out as authentic or subversive becomes target marketed as such."

The logical result of music as a commodity at the end of this century is what Dr. Thompson calls a culture of irony. "This is the idea that if there's a sincere response to anything, people will say, 'How could you be so naive as to not know you're being manipulated?' "

Popular culture, Thompson points out, now has the power to co-opt anything into the market economy. Everything about Sugar Ray, aka Mark McGrath, from the de rigueur elements of today's pop scene - frosted, spiky hair; multiple body tattoos; black, drooping pants with the white boxers peeking over the back - to his smiling bad-boy language are elements from earlier "protests" against commercial culture: punk, rap, grunge, hip-hop.

But this mlange says that everything, no matter how distinctive when it started, can be recycled and marketed. Ironically, Thompson says, the openness of the Internet may turn back the homogenization of popular culture.

At the end of the evening, though, it's clear that certain things don't change. Pop music speaks for and to youths, says Phil Ramone, a longtime Hollywood music producer. Just look at the crowd in the dance pit.

Today's bottom line, he adds, is that "people care mostly about the beat and the energy." As an afterthought he adds, "And the more intelligent the lyrics, the better."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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