FolkWords Writes

Music - victim of fad and fashion

(March 04, 2008)

Music is as much a victim of fad and fashion as almost everything else. Much of it follows the desire to create a minute of fame for no specific reason – a desire that has become the curse of half the modern world.


Increasingly we expect little to last and the mantra ‘new is always better’ reflects the transient nature of today’s society. Unfortunately, when we create music that does nothing more that follow that principle it’s usually crap music.

The media dedicates hours of television and radio, gallons of ink and acres of newsprint to the antics of an increasingly mindless breed of ‘musicians’ or should I say media stars. Whether these so-called musicians or the media are to blame is irrelevant. While musicians with something to say work hard and long to perfect their art, trivial crap pours out of idiotic music-company manufactured bands and singers. Yes, and those are the same companies that scream ‘foul’ as artists increasingly find alternative ways to reach their audience – but that’s in another chapter.

Doubtless some of today’s ‘pop music’ will become the folk tradition of 100 years. That debate will continue but the point is made. There is good music around today. There is good pop music. Unfortunately, for the wider audience it’s usually swamped by crap. Pop music is changing. Some pop music is considered and thoughtful – most is not. For some, the term pop music is changing – for many it remains another term for crap.

Equally, there is no doubt the term folk music today is changing. The rise of the young folk artist has taken folk from smoky rooms behind pubs on a weekday evening into ever-larger concert halls. No longer are young folk performers working in the province of crusty old men staring disapprovingly over their glasses. They’re on a wider stage and reveling in the mediums they choose to reach their audiences.

One problem is (as many musicians will argue) the folk club (in itself) broadly has not changed. They still exist in varying forms. Some of those forms are more open and increasingly so – but ever so slowly – to wider definitions of folk. Even so there a still many clique-ridden places that grudgingly allow the odd floor spot to bands they don’t know. Then there’s the freshness of up-and-coming places of varying sizes run by open-minded people.

There's a change that’s flowing through folk

It erodes the boundaries (admittedly mostly artificial) between new and traditional. There is a steady increase in the inclusion of old stories in new folk music. And although old songs and tunes are regularly rediscovered, many old themes are integrated successfully into new folk.

Now some may argue that tales of farming, factory and seafaring life as having no place in the modern world. Those people state that adding a new folk edge to old themes is counterproductive. They reckon that folk themes should be about the Gulf War and the rise of terrorism. That may be true but most of those old themes speak in some way about the human condition – and that doesn't change. That’s precisely why songs about recent wars, civil unrest and disasters are just as valid – they speak about a condition that doesn’t change. So why dare these old and new themes portrayed as mutually exclusive?

A sailor longing for home as he stares across the ocean in the 17th Century probably went through the same rush of human feelings as a soldier crouched over a machine gun in Iraq.  A factory worker’s sense of trapped hopelessness is I would guess not far removed from the anguish of a jobless youth aimlessly wandering the streets of a big city. No matter how many years have passed since the words of traditional songs were written down by now long-forgotten authors they still have relevance. And so do the themes of today.

With countless songs and tunes falling into ‘Traditional Arrangement’ there are new compositions by musicians. Many of these musicians weave modern themes seamlessly into the tradition. Is this a reaction against the transient nature of present-day pop culture? Partly, but it's more a celebration of that which has gone before, and the potential of what is to come. And that celebration has to include where we are going from here.

Few pop songs go to those places whereas a great many folk songs do. And that is the difference that many see between crap pop and good pop.

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