Friday, November 09, 2007

Dead beats, or the death of melodies and chords

ON A RECENT NIGHT I pulled into a Borders parking lot and the radio was playing that classic house anthem "The Music's Got Me," with that "ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh" refrain, and it reminded me of how I once hated house music.

It was the late '80s, my freshman or sophomore year in high school, when house exploded. While I grew up appreciating lots of different types of music (pop, classic rock, hip-hop, R & B, easy listening, classical, and on it goes), I didn't like this house stuff for several reasons:

1. I was on the tail end of my Beatles/Zeppelin phase.

2. It was also a clique/conformity thing: You see, I was a bougie. My family were like the Huxtables, okay? I was well-educated and "proper"-speaking and spent most of my life around white and Asian kids. I was also kind of Urkel-esque to boot. I didn't fit in with the "real black people." And as they were all into house, I had to be against it.

3. At our football games, the househeads would bring out a big-ass boom box on the sidelines and form a dance circle and start jackin' all over the place. At the time, I thought that was ghetto. It embarrassed me.

4. I couldn't dance. Since house is made for the express purpose of dancing, I didn't see the point.

5. Frankly -- especially when it came to the less melodic stuff -- I thought it sounded like jungle music.

Now eventually, in a couple years' time, I got into the house. I made more black friends. I got in with the clique a little more. I started learning some dance moves. Hey, this is fun! I came to be a househead too.

But back to Borders. After "The Music Got Me" goes off, I head into the store. Lo and behold, there's a book on pop songwriting by one of the masters, Jimmy Webb. (Title: Tunesmith.) And in that book Webb quotes Dick Bradley on the black influence in rock music, and practices that served to create "the abandoning of the tradition of melody which had characterized earlier light and popular musics in Europe and America."

Bradley, sadly, is right to some extent. It's not that the African-American tradition didn't add lots of value to American music at the same time: where would we be without syncopated rhythm, without funk, without crunk, without call-and-response, without blues, without soul, without hip-hop, without house? But just as European music was in a way incomplete without the African input, music from the other extreme -- all rhythm, no melody or harmony -- is equally incomplete. And that's what we are approaching in pop, R&B and hip-hop today (save for those songs which sample the melodies composed by better musicians in a better age such as the '80s or '70s). It's time for notes to stage a return and share the stage with beats. Unfortunately, using notes intelligently and effectively isn't nearly as easy or cheap as making a drum loop on a computer.