Sunday, February 15, 2009

Unwrapping the Rhapsody, part 2: This Musical Life

A co-worker is currently graciously sharing his free trial of Rhapsody with me, a program he described as Microsoft's iTunes, which is about as much as I know about tracking down music on-line. At the risk of incriminating myself of cyber-crimes, I'm one of an admitted many that have participating in file sharing to acquire his music, but to my credit I usually only indulge in downloading tracks I've already purchased in the past, on albums I've either lost of damaged. I'm actually pretty narrow-minded when it comes to music; I still like what I've always liked, and I struggle to integrate new material into my daily playlist. So I've wondered what to do with Rhapsody, with this preciously time-sensitive all-access pass to the entire spectrum of music as we know it!

I wholeheartedly embrace my personal eras in musical taste, though some would say distaste, as I proudly pledge allegiance to bands and musicians definitively out of style. For example, I grew up on the Monkees, period. Some still debate their validity as a band, including Micky Dolenz himself, who, in his introduction on CMT's Gone Country, said he played the drummer on a television show, despite their tours as a band and his legitimate talent! While my friends embraced MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, I transitioned into the likes of Bryan Adams, Sheryl Crow, and the Crash Test Dummies, when they were still dubbed rock 'n roll. Yes, today's adult contemporary was yesterday's rock 'n roll, in those last gasp years before "alternative," "punk," and "emo"* became the rebel genres of choice. A friend introduced me to Face to Face, and their self-righteousness struck a chord with me (heh) that both matched and transcended their thrashing pace -- so they remain my one and only alternative/punk favorite from those wayward early '90s.

(*I just recently heard of the "screamo" genre, the prodigal son of punk and emo that apparently best describes the likes of Dashboard Confessional, whose "Vindicated" from the Spider-man 2 soundtrack has always been my favorite musical companion to Tobey Maguire's pouty Peter Parker.)

While few would still proudly claim Bryan Adams a personal favorite, the late '90s remain my most enduring and universally accepted era, with the Dave Matthews Band and the Barenaked Ladies becoming linchpins in my playlist. Their balance of frivolity, i.e. DMB's sexual hyperbole and BNL's frequent lyrical goofiness, with the seriousness of autobiographical tunes like "Warehouse" and "What a Good Boy," respectively, best reflect the time a boy leaves the nest of home and high school to become a man at college -- which is exactly when I embraced them. David Gray shortly followed with his White Ladder, the album that made hit "Babylon" an overplayed guilty pleasure.

Now, my love for karaoke sckewed my musical development a bit, as I found myself most comfortable singing songs like Billy Joel's "Piano Man" and most recently John Cougar Mellancamp's "The Authority Song," tunes that I didn't consider personal favorites until they won me some acclaim onstage. Hearing those old radio hits coming out of my own mouth gives their otherwise dated lyrics new personal meaning; now, I liken Bon Jovi's Tommy and Gina to a modern day Romeo and Juliet in both romantic clout and lyrical significance! Like when you shake a bedsheet to roll and smooth out across a mattress, karaoke kicked up the wrinkle of those forgettable '80s and '90s jams so I could be comfortable with them in my mp3 player, too.

In recent years, I've embraced the ambient sounds of the Postal Service and Keane, the folksy blends of Farmer Not So John and Eddie from Ohio, and a smattering of odd pop jams like Li'l Mama's "Lipgloss" to round out an ironically eclectic yet still painfully narrow-minded playlist. So, the question remains -- What am I supposed to do with the whole world of music at my fingertips?

Well, firstly, I've collected my favorite artists' latest stuff. Let's face it: everybody hates their favorite bands' new stuff until it becomes just another part of the old stuff. I felt this way about David Gray's White Ladder album; it was so good that I was sure his follow-ups would pale in comparison, and I didn't bother. I mined some of his older material through re-releases and found it inconsistent, an artist trying to find his voice, so I figured White Ladder was appropriately as far as he could climb. Boy, was I wrong! Tracks like "Alibi," "Ain't No Love," and "Slow Motion" from his album Life in Slow Motion have become instant favorites. I've even found some incredible live versions of these tunes on YouTube, and would you believe that "Alibi" actually has a story-driven music video? Whatever happened to those days?

Yes, also, live tracks of old favorites have become a must to download. The Dave Matthews Band and Barenaked Ladies are infamous for their available live material, but live albums from Toad the Wet Sprocket, R.E.M., and Counting Crows have breathed new life into the overplayed radio hits I fondly remember from the '90s. See, this is where the branching out begins. Knowing these bands only from what I've heard on the radio, I actually begin to enjoy their other lesser known tracks. In turn, the band's overall musical identity, not what I had expected, broadens my pallet to other, similar tastes. Ideally, I should experience these past three decades in a way I never have before, as if I'd always owned these albums, saw these bands live, and lived a more comprehensive musical experience. The key word is ideally.

The thing about downloading music on either side of the legal spectrum is the threat that "the album" loses its identity, and by proxy, the band does, too. Imagine if "Money" was the only track you'd ever heard from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Does that hit represent the psychedelic context of the album as a whole? Even if the album weren't conceptual like that, consider this: If "Everything I Do (I Do It For You)" from the Robin Hood soundtrack was the only Bryan Adams song you'd ever heard (and for many, it is -- and thanks, last week's episode of Family Guy, for nailing that stake in the coffin), you'd never know of his earlier rip-roarin' tunes like "Summer of '69" or "Kids Wanna Rock." Downloading an artist's work by disjointed track is like trying to appreciate a painting via one piece of a puzzle -- and that's where the music industry is headed.

Worse, consider how American Idol operates. The mission: We're going to find the next big pop star by making contestants sing other people's songs. Then judges throw out criticisms like, "We don't know who you are as an artist," and, "That was very karaoke." Listening to some of the top artists and hits that Rhapsody has to offer . . .?

I couldn't have said it better myself. Ever hear that old saying, "Stick with what you know?" Right now, it's music to my ears.

1 comment:

Beth said...

I enjoyed this post and recalled how I often liked and continue to like what is not "in" at the time. And love Mellancamp and Bon Jovi... :) And I do think of you every time I hear Bryan Adams.
Have you ever heard Geoff Tate's solo album form a few years ago. I LOVE it and think you may enjoy...