Good songs, Woodstock, and pre-momentum
Far as I can tell, as a reporter, there’s always the one question you love to ask whenever the situation presents itself. It’s the perfect question – the one which sums up exactly what it is you’re looking for from your reporterly quest. (We are, after all, I believe, in search of some kind of Truth About Life, whether we’re war correspondents or music reporters.) For my buddy Mark, the question he always asks of any artist who will give him a five-minute Q&A is, “Do you have to be broken-hearted to write a broken-hearted song?” For my friend Katelyn, it’s “What’s your favorite sandwich?” For me, it’s “What makes a song a good song?”
It’s sparked some interesting conversations, from which I’ve managed to draw a few conclusions so far. Namely, that it’s not the song itself that’s good. It’s the aligning of everything around the song. It’s the artist and the song, the band, the timing, the arrangement, the delivery of the lyrics, the dynamics, the moment it’s played, the person or people who are listening, what’s happening in the world, what just happened, what comes next…the context. It’s a synergy of items much bigger than the songwriter herself, much wider in scope than a radio frequency or how far a sound wave travels across a room. A good song is good because it throws you a rope and holds onto the other end long enough for you to pull yourself back in.
I got discussing this with a friend over coffee yesterday. Why then, she asked, do some songs, artists, and albums become hits? Is it just that that many people all at once are being pulled in? I guessed it’s not unlike the reason why Obama happened. That culture is always swinging and jumping, and every now and then it swings in a rhythm which lines up with itself – it makes a wave – and we can all, all of a sudden, agree on Barack Obama or Radiohead or Middle Cyclone.
As I started writing this, a friend sent me a link to Grunge’s Long Shadow: In praise of “in-between” periods in pop history (Slate). The reporter, Simon Reynolds, starts with this idea that music is good at particular moments. A wave happens, culture moves forward, and then the proverbial sea flows back over itself and we enter the period between waves. He prefers the post- eras to the precursor periods, and my initial reaction was that I can’t disagree with him. Post-punk, for example (about which he wrote a book titled Rip It Up and Start Again) brings a much more productive idea to mind than would, say, pre-grunge. It implies the artists have taken something from history and are working on making it into whatever’s next. For some reason “pre-grunge” initially struck me as a time when everyone was lost in the wilderness, just waiting for something interesting to happen. Considered again, I thought maybe it was more like the quick breath you take before saying something important. Moving through Reynolds’ statement, I started to think the pre- moments are preferable to the aftermath.
So I brought it over here to No Depression, where we’re in kind of a post-media space. I won’t get into my glass-half-full blathering-about again because I didn’t get enough sleep last night to be all tulips and unicorns this
morning afternoon (though, now that we’re entering the fourth month of this community, with more than two thousand worldwide members and quite a bit more readers, I see countless excuses for optimism). I will, however, take the opportunity to build a verbal bridge to the other thing that – for whatever reason, which is not yet clear to me – has been on my mind this week: Woodstock.
I’ll be 32 on July 7, so it goes without saying I wasn’t there (neither the original three-day festival nor the subsequent anniversarial “Woodstocks”). Its memory will turn 40 this year, so there’s that. And there was some chatter a few months ago about promoters trying to throw together a 40th anniversary festival or concert of some sort in New York City, but I haven’t heard a peep about it since then and can’t find anything about it now. My guess is they waited a little long to start booking and the whole thing fizzled pretty quickly. I don’t feel robbed. I’m rather content to leave that history-making event in history.
Like I said, I wasn’t there, so I don’t know. I do know from my own witnessing of historic events that there’s only so much telling you can do – people who weren’t there will never really get it. History is much better served when you bear witness and move forward accordingly, rather than trying to reproduce it with some far-fetched scenario under the same name. So yes, I’m happy to let go of Woodstock, let it stay in 1969. It was a wave that came and passed. It brought some new sediment onto the beach. Now we’re in another wave, and I’d much rather focus on this moment in history, how the music festivals we have, which have been persevering annually for decades, can survive the economic crunch this summer; how the folks listening to and purchasing music in 2009 will access that rope I was talking about – the one that comes from the good songs – as the recording industry stumbles over its own two feet; and how the musicians on the road this year – who, no doubt, have been influenced in some way by many of the artists who appeared on the Woodstock stage 40 years ago – can be heard against the din of everyone-who-wants-to-make-a-record-can.
Which, I suppose by some stretch of my own tangential trains of thought, brings me back to the whole post-media thing. I’m thinking perhaps the in-between moments deserve that praise Mr. Reynolds was talking about because that’s when decisions get made, when the force gathers and readies its unleashing. You could also call it pre-momentum. It leads to the next perfect question: “What are you doing?”