“They don’t make music like that anymore.” I hear that a lot these days. Usually this lament is uttered by someone my age listening to an oldies radio station or commenting on a song I’ve sung on one of my piano bar gigs, but I’ve heard it from young eighties-music-loving twenty-year-olds too. So is it true? Is anyone writing “good” music anymore? Well, the answer is no…and yes.
Think about your favorite music. Chances are, much of the music you love you discovered when you were in your teens and twenties. This is typically the time when one is trying to define oneself, when the deep questions of identity and purpose and meaning and acceptance become prominent in one’s life. And music is one of the ways in which we define ourselves. My twin daughters are now fourteen, and the music they listen to (wholly other than mine) is completely specific to their subculture and their relationships. Their music is a part of how they are discovering who they are.
Music, like any other cultural artifact, helps define us. And in doing so, it also helps us make sense of the world as well. Bing Crosby released “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” during the winter of 1943, and it immediately captured the sentiment of an entire nation dealing with the uncertainty of world war. The Beatles sang “All You Need Is Love” in the summer of 1967, and it became the defining moment for a decade of peace-seeking hippies marching for change. Kurt Cobain delivered the anarchistic “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in the nihilistic nineties, and it not only propelled Nirvana to the top of the rock charts, it became an anthem for the ironically-tinged Generation X. The War generation, the hippy generation, even Gen X—Music has defined all of us. As poet Ralph Waldo Emerson confirms, “Music takes us out of the actual and whispers to us dim secrets that startle our wonder as to who we are, and for what, whence, and whereto.”
Music is also a language of feelings. It is indeed true that music can sooth the savage breast. But it can also make us feel happy or sad, pensive or elated, boisterous or quiet, angry or indifferent. We have all felt pride as we stood for the National Anthem; quiet, interior peace at the hushed singing of “Silent Night”, anticipation at the promenade of “Pomp and Circumstance”; and butterflies in the stomach at the opening notes of the “Wedding March.” Evocative, emotive, enfolding, music delivers an unspoken dialogue of mood and sentiment, stirring and spirituality. Music, as they say, is what feelings sound like.
There can be only one reason why music has this much expressive, evocative power to us. It is because God designed it—and us—that way. This is one of the on-going themes of this blog. God gave us the imagination and ability to create musical instruments—ten-string lyres and djembes and saxophones and electric guitars—and he gave us the facility to play them. As Shakespeare penned, “Is it not strange that sheep’s guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies?” Equally mind-blowing, he created a world where the physics of sound—from the invisible gradations in air pressure that make up sound waves to the impressively complicated design of the inner ear and the brain—can exist. And finally, God, who made us in his image, imbedded into us the internal aesthetic that causes music and beauty to move our hearts, stir our souls. If you think about it, the simple act of turning on your car radio—mechanically, psycho-acoustically, emotionally, and spiritually—is nothing short of a miracle.
That we are moved by the crescendo of a symphony orchestra or the hush of a lullaby is not an accident. God wanted us to have this very special gift: music. Simply put, God, who is a Being of perfect emotion and passion, is a big fan of music. All kinds of music.
Because music is an expression of our feelings and emotions, we use music to define who we are. And this is especially true when we are in our teens and twenties. So my theory is this: The “good” music we refer to is typically the music of our own generation. Because we have implicitly defined ourselves that way. And this is both good and bad. Good in that music gives us a mode of expression. Bad in that our personal preferences can make us myopic to the larger genres of music that exist in the world.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we would be quick to admit that there’s an awful lot of bad music that was written in the sixties, the seventies, the eighties, the nineties. And if you listen with an open mind and heart, you can discover a lot of good music written today.
My twin girls and I will be riding in the car, and as is typical, I let them pick the radio station. Now I don’t let them blast the song, mostly because I want to talk to them about the music they listen to when it’s playing. I’ll ask them if they like a particular song and why, and I’ll offer my opinions as well. Because I want to model to them that music isn’t a static thing. Style and genre and artists change, but there will always be good music.
If you take the time to listen.