The Downside of Cliches
A while ago I wrote about how cliches are an essential part of music because they provide a point of reference for the listener. If your playing gets too far "out there" the listener will be confused or alienated. You'll need to adhere to some kind of recognizable convention, even if the convention is one that you develop on your own. Listeners need a certain amount of predictability, even when you're breaking the rules. If you go too far into unknown territory, the absence of a discernable framework will alienate your listener.
Discernability isn't an absolute quality. Some kinds of music can alienate a listener depite adhering to very definite conventions. Certain kinds of jazz are simply outside of my comfort zone as a listener. I know, intellectually, that there are very definite conventions behind the music. Despite this, I don't fully track what's going on, nor do I appreciate the music on an aesthetic level.
Going in the other direction, I have never appreciated the music of the Rolling Stones. It's accessible and certainly adhering to convention. But their music has never held my interest. For my tastes there's too much cliche and not enough surprise. I don't mean to denigrate the Stones. They're one of the longest-running acts in rock `n roll, so they must be doing something for their fans.
What I'm most concerned about is not established acts, but rather the perpetuation of well-worn cliches by up-and-coming players. I recently read an article that observed how guitar music has become increasingly self-referential. The author observed that most guitarists go to the same well - the music of other guitarists - for their inspiration. Predictably, this slavish emulation of other guitarists results in a very shallow musical "gene pool" for guitar music.
I understand that this may not bother you. There's nothing inherently wrong in paying tribute the the great guitarists of the past. The effect on guitar music, though, is profound. Popular music is driven largely by new sounds, and there really hasn't been much in the way of new guitar sounds (and by "sounds" I'm referring to timbre, technique and music) in a long time. It's almost as if guitar-driven music as a genre has become, in much the same way that classical music and - more recently - certain dialects of jazz, fixed and immutable. The result of this ossification of the guitar-music genre is that there's less and less call for guitar in modern music. The author of the article I mentioned claims that guitarists get called upon less for the sound of a guitar in an arrangement than for the performance of some familar, cliched guitar part. The guitar is becoming less of a musical instrument and more of a vehicle for selling products to a nostalgia-inflicted generation.
You don't have to dig very deep to see that the last great electric guitar designs are all in their own middle age and that popular guitar-oriented music is almost that old. Take a look at internet message boards that cater to guitarists and you'll find that the vast majority cater to one or two of three demographics.
- The baby boomers who have plenty of disposable income. Mostly male, some of these players have been at it since guitar music was fresh while others are just now picking up the instrument in lieu of some other form of midlife crisis. (Apparently sports cars and mistresses are a lot more expensive than they used to be...) Few, if any, of these players are what you'd call musically adventurous. They'd much rather emulate the sounds and music of their guitar heroes than to find their own way. Discussions often center around tonal differences that no one but the poster can identify. Invariably, though, the "secret recipe" to "great tone" is expensive, difficult to achieve and must be appreciated by a set of "sufficiently-sensitive ears". (Or, to put it bluntly, "If you can't hear the difference then the problem is with your ears, not the equipment.") These are the "cork sniffers" who hear inexplicable differences amongst cables that cost as much as a workmanlike guitar or amplifier.
- Younger players who gravitate toward modern music. Modernists for short. These guys (most of them are male, again) appreciate the technical fireworks that go into a lot of modern guitar music, much of that falling under the broad aegis of metal. Many of these players, unlike their classic-rock counterparts, have the chops to pull off things like high-speed tapped arpeggios and swept-picked scales. The up-and-coming players within this group seem to be warming up on rhythmic dropped-D riffing through amplifiers having "crushing distortion".
- Younger players who gravitate toward older music. I call this group the eclectics. I have to admit that I've been puzzled about this since roughly 1974 when, at the age of twenty, I encountered a couple of middle-school kids sitting on a porch listening to Black Sabbath. That music, I thought, was long past its prime. I couldn't understand then why anyone not my age would be interested in listening. As the years went by I slowly got used to the notion that some music is timeless... It took me quite a while to get used to cover versions of classic rock songs, too. At any rate, players in this group seem to share a lot of concerns with the baby boomers regarding the structure of music and tone. The big difference between the two groups seems to be in their gear choices which are constrained by tight limits on disposable income. To their credit, the financial inability to engage in "cork sniffingquot; behaviors tends to give players in this age group more time to concentrate on the message rather than the medium. Combined with exposure to social networks which are typically more diverse than those enjoyed by older players, there's a lot of musical cross-pollination that goes on amongst these players.
As much as I dislike generalizations, I'm going to attempt to sum up the likely contributions of each of the above three demographics to future guitar music.
- As a group, the boomers are not likely to contribute anything new to either guitar music or instrumentation. They're more wrapped up in nostalgia and emulation than vested in innovation. Despite the fact that they spend a lot of money on gear, they're not really contributing much to the furtherance of instrumentation since their choices are primarily advised by vintage technologies.
- The modernists are the ones who are pushing both art and technology. They're responsible for popularizing technical mastery of the instrument as well as for the creation of new sounds, both on stage and in the studio. I can imagine that life for people in the recording and MI manufacturing industries would be a lot less interesing without the modernists. Time will tell which of their musical contributions will have lasting cultural value, although I'm virtually certain that some of it will. Acceptance of this music is likely to break at generational boundaries, just as it has with classic rock. The eclectics from future decades of listeners and player will adopt some of today's modernist music as their own, just as today's eclectics have adopted some of the older decades' music. But there seems to be a relativistic barrier in effect: very few listeners or players seem to have the capability or interest to adopt new music much past the age of thirty or forty years.
- The eclectics are the group most likely to enjoy commercial success in the music business (at least in the portion of the music business not dictated by appearance and fashion), since they're in a position to attract listeners from across multiple decades. Along the way they may even contribute something new to the historical body of work. However, it seems likely that much of what comes out of, and will be appreciated by, this group will be derivative in nature. I know this is going to raise a lot of feathers among the eclectics, since they have a tendency to think of themselves as "beyond convention". The reality, though, is that any pastiche, no matter how facile, struggles to transcend its origins.
Back to the question at hand: Has guitar music become cliched and self-referential? As I see things the answer is a resounding "yes" no matter which demographic one considers. The boomers cherish their cliches as reminders of their halcyon days. The modernists are slowly evolving new cliches, but they are nonetheless cliches; without cliches, there's no hook to draw an audience. The eclectics are dutifully attempting to transcend cliches through some process of alchemic transmutation of the classic with the modern; like their mystic forebears, the results remain a combination of the combined elements.
What can be done? Probably the single most important thing would be to stop thinking of the guitar as a vehicle for guitar music. Exploration of new sounds, sonic textures and playing techniques will go a long way toward revitalizing the guitar in popular culture. Unfortunately, this is not the easy road. Pioneers are the ones who take arrows in the back. We are all creatures of ego, and it's infinitely easier to garner kudos for doing a convincing imitation of Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughn or Eddie Van Halen or The Edge or James Hetfield or John Petrucci or Thurston Moore or <insert your favorite guitarist here> than it is to play to the blank stares of an audience that doesn't "get" what you're trying to do with your own music. But if you don't take the chance, and the the guitarist down the street doesn't take the chance, and none of the guitarists in your ZIP code take the chance, then what are the chances that someone in your city or state or country is going to put their neck on the line with something that's fresh and innovative? (A handful of players trying to break new ground really doesn't make a difference in the long run. If you're forced to resort to citing the likes of Robert Fripp and David Torn as evidence that someone is trying to break new ground, then you're ignoring the fact that they - and all the other guitarists you might mention in the same group - don't get a fraction of the attention that the "mainstream" guitarists command.) If too few players think outside the box, the box will remain forever closed...