“The party is good, but the music kinda sucks,” I said to a friend at a New Year’s Eve party once.
“Yeah, I wish there were places around that still played real music,” my friend said.
“I hear ya…” I answered.
Then we went about mingling, drinking, trying to hit on girls, and whatever else people in their twenties do at parties.
Later on, I ran into the guitarist of the band that was playing. The one I claimed was playing sucky music to my friend earlier. Of course, I didn’t say anything about it to him in-person. But he turned out to be a friendly guy and we started chatting.
I play guitar as a hobbyist so I asked him about his equipment. He took gave me the grand tour of his vintage Stratocaster, his pedals, and amp. Then he had me follow him to a backroom where he showed me his Telecaster and another Archtop guitar.
He started playing some recognizable classic rock licks and then went into some jazz standards. In other words he started playing real music.
This guy was good. I couldn’t understand why he would play the cheap, popular music from earlier when he could play real music.
“Wow, you should have played some of this stuff earlier,” I said.
“Yeah, but you gotta play the room to pay the bills. Besides it’s fun sometimes,” he said.
I realized then that I had no idea what I was talking about with music. I was just a lost seeker of real music—whatever that may be.
Since then, I’ve done away with my quest for finding real music. It’s a ridiculous concept the more and more I think about it.
Here are 7 reasons why we should stop trying to define what real music is.
1. Real Means “Sounds a Certain Way”
When people talk about real music, it just means music from the past that sounds a certain way. Nothing makes some music more real than any other music. Music is a preference. You’ll like some of it and you’ll hate some of it.
Don’t knock other music and say it’s not “real” just because you don’t like it.
2. Variety and Experimentation Should Be Celebrated
Guitarists like Albert King, B.B. King and Robert Johnson all influenced Clapton, Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Keith Richards. If this later group of guitarists never experimented beyond what their influences played—blues in this case—then we’d never have some of the sounds that we do today.
Experimentation is good in music and should be celebrated. MoTown, Eastern music, and rock all influenced the Beatles. If they only stuck to one genre they may never have been as influential as they were.
So we should celebrate if rock goes a little hip-hop or country goes a little pop. It’s how music evolves.
3. Artists Get Bored, Too
Performing artists generally have their dream jobs. They wouldn’t have persevered through tough times and reached the level they’re at if they didn’t genuinely like what they were doing.
But just because they’re doing what they love, don’t think they don’t get bored. Imagine playing the same songs hundreds of times during shows and rehearsals, traveling on the same bus from city to city, answering the same questions from everyone and so on.
Most artists or highly creative people get antsier than the average person. Routine is their enemy and that includes playing the same music over and over. They need to be constantly expanding and trying new things.
For example, Sugarland is a country duo. They’ve played Beyonce’s song, Irreplaceable, on stage with Beyonce. They’ve also performed one of their songs live with Lady Gaga. Real purists from all camps probably hated these performances. But it looks like the artists had a blast during them.
Now, Sugarland is on break as a duo and Kristian Bush and Jennifer Nettles are off doing their own solo acts. Will they be back together soon? Who knows, but for now they’re just mixing things up a bit and having fun.
4. Most Artists Are Talented, Despite What You May Think
In any field there are underachievers and overachievers. Underachievers aren’t unsuccessful per say, but they don’t get to the level they should have even though they have tremendous talent. Overachievers are people who achieve a lot relative to their talent level.
So when people say an artist is talentless, they really mean he or she is an overachiever and some underachiever is more deserving of success. This may be true. But you can’t say a successful artist is talentless.
It’s hard to reach a certain level of success without having talent. Yes, that artist might be famous for…ummm…that thing he or she did, but it was because of initial talent that you heard about that artist in the first place.
Some famous people attempt music careers and get a foot in the door because of who they are. But they usually do not last long in the music industry. These famous people have some talent. If they were unknown and you heard them perform at a roadside tavern, you would think they’re decent. But their talent isn’t enough to carry them in the professional music industry.
You can say you don’t like an artist’s music, but do not say he or she is talentless.
5. Popular authenticity is a quest
Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor wrote the book, “Faking It: The Quest For Popular Authenticity in Music,” where they talk about how artists show a certain side of themselves to change public perceptions and become more popular.
One example, Big Bill Broonzy, was a very popular blues singer among blacks in the 1930s. He performed with other proper jazz musicians and always wore nice suits whenever he played for black audiences.
But in 1938, he played for a white audience in New York’s Carnegie Hall where he portrayed himself as a poor Arkansas farmer coming to the big city for the first time. This image made him more real and he became more popular among whites after that.
In other words, he duped a bunch of elite WASP. Then, he continued doing it as he recorded more albums and played more shows under the guise of the poor ol’ farm boy who came to the city with nothing but a gee-tar in his hand.
The book also uses Kurt Cobain as an example. He appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a shirt that said, “Corporate Magazines Still Suck.”
In the interview he said:
“I don’t blame the average 17-year-old-punk-rock kid for calling me a sellout. I understand that. Maybe when they grow up a little bit, they’ll realize there’s more things to life than living out your rock & roll identity so righteously.”
In the same interview he contradicts that statement:
“I would love to be erased from association with that band (Pearl Jam) and other corporate bands like the Nymphs and a few other felons. I do feel a duty to warn the kids of false music that’s claiming to be underground. They’re jumping on the alternative bandwagon.”
This isn’t bad or good. I happen to like Broonzy and Cobain. I’m sure there are many artists who live their stories, but lots of real is based on public misperception, too.
Check out the book and you’ll never think about real music in the same way again.
6. Production Behind the Scenes
Linda Perry wrote and sang the emotionally charged song, “What’s Up,” with the 4 Non Blondes back in the 90s. She’s also publicly gay. By most definitions that makes her real.
On the other hand, Pink and Christina Aguilera were mainstream and successful on the charts so that makes them not real by most definitions. However, Linda Perry wrote “Get the Party Started” for Pink and also “Beautiful” for Christina Aguilera. So what exactly is real? Is it based on the artist performing? Or the songwriter?
Songs are a major production behind the scenes and there are so many people involved. Sometimes you hear a great song that you think of as real, but the actual artist performing didn’t even write it.
Does this make the song or artist any more or less real?
7. Most Artists Were Real at Some Point
I remember when Taylor Swift was still up and coming. She had curly hair, wore a sundress with cowboy boots, and strummed her Taylor acoustic guitar. She had a MySpace page and was known to respond to every single message. She was considered real and authentic then. Everyone cheered her to the top.
Then as she became more famous and successful, she became a sellout for one reason or another. When artists become sellouts it’s usually because of #2 and #3. It’s different so people hate it.
We shouldn’t criticize music. We should just listen and enjoy it.
Then it all becomes real.