The Trouble With Music
The trouble with music is the trouble with most everything else these days. There are as many material ways to describe the problem as there are people and things that suffer from it. But if you follow the trail diligently enough, it hardly matters where you begin. You’ll arrive at the same cold fact: The world in which we now reside enforces more and more the so-called logic of free markets — even when that means, as it eventually almost always does, valuing profit over human need.
The predictable result of that rule of thumb is that any portions of our shared humanity that don’t or can’t thrive on market terms are deemed worthless by definition, or at least naive and impractical, which in practice amounts to the same thing. Every part of human experience that can’t be bought and sold — this isn’t just most of what we value; it’s most of what we are — is either downsized or slashed entirely from the budget of our lives and dreams as we actually live and dream them. “The problem is not that there is too much music in the world,” musician and activist Mat Callahan warns in The Trouble With Music, “but that there is too little of the world in music. Or the music we’re forced to listen to, that is.”
A bracing, radical polemic about politics and art, The Trouble With Music is the sort of book that isn’t supposed to get written these days, let alone published (see the above). Yet the book is as timely as it is unexpected. It condemns the state-of-the-art systemic practices that contribute to the dominance of what Callahan terms “Anti-music” and to the diminishment in our society of human potential generally, of critical thought specifically.
Like the rest of us, Callahan bitches plenty about the troubles with music — the required emphasis upon celebrity and volume sales, and upon having (a.k.a. “shopping”) rather than being, as well as the cramming “of music into every conceivable public and private space, making its prevalent use sonic adornment.” But then he elaborates upon why all this, and much more, has happened, how it manages to continue, and what we might do about it.
Callahan is especially merciless, thank goodness, on those so-called music critics for whom aesthetics is all. These consumer guides, who produce the majority of music writing today, focus almost exclusively upon what our next purchase might be. For these writers, the necessarily political “question of the greater good never arises” because they never connect the music they write about to the people and communities that create and nourish it, because their writing “denies that real people live in a world larger than the concert hall or record shop.” With only minor revisions, we could make a similar complaint about most of today’s economists and politicians.
The world Callahan writes about is much closer to life-sized. When, if ever, was the last time you encountered a book with the sweep to engage Leo Tolstoy’s What Is Art?, Pythagoras’ the doctrine of the limit, the Paris Commune, W. E. B. Dubois’ The Soul Of Black Folk, and Walter Benjamin’s The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction, all as a means of discussing Ray Charles, Orson Welles, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Roots, Leo Fender, Dylan and Outkast?
If that source list (and it barely scratches the surface) leaves you fearing The Trouble With Music is one more impenetrable deconstruction of popular culture for the tenured set, don’t worry. Callahan is no post-modernist. To the contrary, he’s a humanist: His interest is in what’s best and worst for our species — a focus that today is sometimes termed “moral values” — and on the ways music reveals “three conditions of life: suffering, struggling, and rejoicing.”
Consequently (and discounting what appears to be an on-and-off-again relationship with the comma), Callahan develops his big ideas in sentences that are meant to be readily understood. He’s a master of the bullshit-free observation (“Music is not property,” for example) as well as of the pointed rhetorical question (“How does it matter that the song that brings tears to your eyes has sold 40 or 40 million copies?”)
Nearly every paragraph in The Trouble With Music could spark an argument, but these arguments need to be started, and the sooner the better. “The trouble with music is that we’re in trouble without it,” Callahan writes. How refreshing to find a writer who insists that the stakes we face, even when we are “merely” listening to the radio, are the very physical, and spiritual, life or death of our species.