Tag Archives: Sociology

Solace in Traditional Forms

25 Sep

As a young songwriter (I’m talking teens and early twenties) all I wanted to do was re-write the book on how songs were made; to make something so outrageously original yet accessible that  young and old alike would think “this is amazing. I can’t believe this hasn’t been done before”. I went so far as to shuck traditional theory and lessons when learning the guitar in the hope that my lack of formal knowledge would allow me to stumble upon some sonic truth that had laid undiscovered throughout civilisation.

Yet somehow even using this method of songwriting I was drawn to the traditional forms. Major and minor chords would still form the root of whatever I was creating. It had nothing to do with selling out my ideals, but everything to do with solving the particular problem I was facing in bringing the musical idea that was trapped in my head out into the world. I had been willfully blind to the fact that every chord under the sun can be quantified by traditional (still largely current) musical theory.

I still did the best I could to steer away from the traditional forms. I didn’t want to have anything to do with my parents or grandparents generation. I wanted to help define the sound of my own generation. Yet despite dabbling in (and usually mixing together) every trend of that decade, I found myself drawn to traditional forms as if by gravity.

I hated Country, yet I would write it. I hated old american folk music and yet I would write it. Ragtime was boring. Most everything that wasn’t the result of some sort of punk attitude or aesthetic I had no interest in, yet somehow over time I began to appreciate it. And it wasn’t just me.

All my friends began having less and less interest in the latest hottest thing. We became fluent in the pathways of music past, and how to interpret their influences on those hot new things. The hot new things became hollow. Not hot or new at all. Just a jumble of old influences that their friends and contemporaries hadn’t yet cottoned on to, or if they had it was intentionally ironic or post modern or whatever other excuse was needed to form a membrane between what they were doing now and the context within which the earlier influence arose.

Something else was also happening. We were living. Things in our lives weren’t going as we’d planned. Life was more complex than we had been led to believe, and it was harder to succeed than we had thought. All of a sudden the new music with its vocals set deep back in the mix, its illusive meanings, or straight-up shallow raps didn’t seem to reflect where we were at emotionally. It didn’t shed a light on what we were going through and we were old enough to know what was going on behind the curtain; “That’s just a TR808 with a Juno bass line” etc.

There was however a pre-existing cure for our ailment, and it has come back time and time again when it has been needed, and that is the traditional folk song in its many forms. Blues, country, appalachian, jazz, gypsy and soul etc, are all folk formats to one set of peoples or another, and they all offer a reliable platform upon which an artist can say what they feel they must.

It tends to come back into popularity in times of great social change and turmoil, when people are looking for something familiar to hold on to (GFC anyone? That’s still happening right?). It’s hard to identify with a guy singing about getting a bitch on a dance floor when you’re being bullied at work, have money troubles and a rocky relationship. Sometimes you just want to hear your life sung back at you.

There is currently a healthy resurgence in these folk musics and the cringe formerly attached has greatly lessened in the younger generations (at least in my own). I have felt a shift in the current generation of pop artists whereby the aim is to be as respectful to the source influences as they can, to pay homage to them while also attempting to bring something new to the canon of that genre. Aloe Blac, Sharon Jones and the Dap kings and Mark Ronson come to mind as examples of respectful referencing of classic soul music for instance.

I have been doing live sound for countless acoustic acts over the past 7 months, all of whom have sought to bring irony free truth in communicating the subject matter of their material. When tongue-in-cheek does creep into a set it is usually in the form of an ironic acoustic cover of a Destiny’s Child, Spice Girls or Britney Spears style pop song.

They tackle the traditional art form in all seriousness because they are relying on it to help them deliver their message in the most economic form of emotional communication as they can. It is this economy of communication that has ensured that the traditional artforms that gave rise to the 2 minute pop song still endure. It is also why I myself have gravitated towards it.

I have been heavily influenced by artists such as Harry Nilsson, Johnny Cash, Randy Newman, Neil Young and  Burt Bacharach in the past few months. Not one of them would I say was all that original. Of course they all exhibit something unique to themselves, but every single one of them relies heavily on the frame provided by the traditions that came before them on which to hang their ideas. These guys were just particularly good at using the format to communicate.

I am still in the throes of dealing with a number of years of complex and deeply upsetting trauma through song. I can’t stop writing (I wrote a song yesterday while repairing a broken window!). And the only format that I have found that can adequately allow me to match my ideas with lyrics and melody is the traditional pop song. Often I have found Country to provide the easiest backdrop to what I want to say, and allow me to marry complex lyrical ideas (such as a narrative) with a strong melody. It’s like coming home. Like that moment when you’re old enough to realize that your parents aren’t really bad people, that they had tried as hard as they could for you given the circumstances and while struggling with their own demons. The traditional pop song was never boring. We just didn’t get it. We thought we didn’t need it. We were sure there was a better way that completely avoided it; and there might be, but it is my belief that you need to acknowledge what the traditional form is before accusing it of what it isn’t. To move forward sometimes you need to look back lest you go around in circles. Wait a minute….but we are going around in circles! Well I suppose he world isn’t flat.

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Corporate Greed is an Oxymoron

22 Nov

Lets get one thing straight; a corporation is incapable of greed. Greed is a human emotion. Corporations are not human.

A corporation can no more be greedy than a cup can be sympathetic or a political voting system feel angst about the possibility of being usurped (see MMP).

That does not at all mean that there isn’t a problem though. It just means if you are looking for somewhere to lay the blame for the effects of what is generally termed “Corporate Greed” you need to dig a little deeper.

A corporation is a tool designed for a purpose. A hammer is designed to hit nails into wood, a car is designed to transport people, and a corporation is designed to make a profit. Just like a hammer or a car a corporation needs people to operate it.

However there are two curious ways in which a corporation (or more accurately a “limited company”) differs from any other tool known to man:

  1. there is not inherent limit to its purpose; and
  2. unlike any other tool, a corporation has the rights of human beings under the law. It is a legal person.

When I say that there is no inherent limit to its purpose, what I mean is that every tool is designed to achieve a particular, finite goal. Once a hammer has driven home every nail required in a building, and the construction is complete, the hammer goes back in the builders tool belt until it is required to hammer nails into a different building. It does not continue to hit nails into every hard surface of the building, ad infinitum, until it renders the building completely useless for its purpose. A car is designed to transport people to a particular destination. It does not continue to drive, aimlessly, constantly increasing speed, infinitely – or until its tank is empty.

But a company isn’t like that. It is designed to make as much money as it can (over and above its production and running costs) for as long as it can. They call this making a profit.

The term “a profit” sounds benign. It sounds like it is just this one small thing, like a lamp or a knife, when it is in fact something far more difficult to define by reference to limits. It only comes into existence once all the costs of running the business can be paid (wages, rent, materials, utilities etc.) but can differ in size from a fraction of a cent, to an infinitely large sum of money. It isn’t “a thing” at all, but a potentially “infinite number of things”. It is not a dollar but a fluctuating number of dollars, from moment to moment. It may even not exist at all, but that is alright so long as the company is working to achieve it, howsoever large or small it may be. (Curiously there are even companies that are designed to accumulate losses, which begs an even wider range of mind bending questions).

It is difficult to imagine endowing an inanimate object like a hammer or a car with human attributes, but this is what we have done with limited companies to aid it in its pursuit of profit. A company can own property, run businesses, pay people, incur debt, hold money on trust for the benefit of others, write to people, influence politics, enter partnerships and do all manner of things under the law that a normal human being can do. It can even die without having drawn a single breath.

Fine. Seems harmless enough. If a human being can do all those things, why shouldn’t a legal person be able to do the same things. Presumably it’s still restrained by the same laws as a human being, right?

Well, yes – but no. This is where the seemingly subtle differences between a human being and a company come into play. While a company as a legal person, can live and die without ever drawing a breath, a human has the privelege of having the length of its life measured precisely to a finite number of breaths and heart beats. A company can remain in its state of not breathing but not dying for as long as it serves its purpose. A company can out-live a human being by generations. Think: Henry Ford or Walt Disney.

Then there is the purpose. As a race human beings have lived and died pondering their purpose for around 50,000 years. Vast fields of knowledge have been created in trying to understand their purpose. Religion, Philosophy, Astronomy, even Physics, are just some of the fields of thought that have attempted to discover the purpose of a human being, albeit via different routes; but a company is born knowing it’s purpose, and simply knowing your purpose can give you an invaluable advantage in achieving it.

Now we know what a company is, and we know its purpose it is probably time we give it a context within which it can play out it’s ongoing pursuit of fulfilling its purpose, so here we have a little story:

A person starts with a piece of property. They are ambitious, hard working and innovative, and decide to develop their property and sell the resulting product for a profit. Once they have done this through their own labour they end up owning more property than what they started with and they can repeat the cycle to generate more property for themselves.

It goes without saying that the person in the above folk tale should be entitled to keep the extra property created through their ingenuity and efforts, (It should be noted that money and therefore profit is a form of property) but what happens when you start fiddling with the objects and subjects involved in this tale? If you alter any one of the key aspects of this fable does it change the way the story should end? What happens  when the person isn’t human? What happens when product that is being sold for a profit was not made from any pre-existing property (i.e. made from literally nothing)? What happens if the product they sold for a profit caused harm to the person that bought it? Does it make a difference whether the person who produced it was human or not? And what if the person who owned the property invested neither labour nor intellect into the production?

These are some fundamental questions that have essentially remain unanswered in our society. The above tale is the fable that sits at the core of capitalist theory. It is the moral cornerstone of the system, and the foundation of  millions (possibly billions) of commercial ventures that have occurred since its inception. Yet how many of these commercial ventures can rightly claim a moral justification for their existence based on the fable?

If you have based your society’s economic system on a folk tale/myth, is it so inconceivable that a monster might creep into it like a wolf in sheep’s clothing? If you want to project human emotions onto inanimate fictions, at the other end of the scale you had best be prepared to also have sympathy for the devil.