Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Mystical in the Songs of the World

As one who came of age in the Nineteen-Sixties, for me Brad Wheeler’s now forgotten  2009  review article in the Toronto Globe and Mail remains a seminal read. He was memorializing the 90th birthday tribute to Pete Seeger on May 3rd in Madison Square Garden. Titled  'The songs, they are a-changing'  Wheeler's piece was a trip down the memory lane of the big “songs-of-the-times” and a lament for the great pop anthems of our past. Perhaps the last of these was Neil Young’s Rocking in the Free World of 1989.  

Wheeler's obituary for great songs quoted Don McLean, who in 1971 had penned that superb tribute to the rural American South, American Pie, as saying: “Pop culture is illiterate now; nobody cares about words and they don’t care about melody either. In order to write an anthem, you have to be at least reasonably poetic, and I don’t think that people today have the verbal wherewithal”. McLean went on: “People love language, they crave it, but the support for it is drifting away. Society is not going in the direction of poetry. It’s going in the direction of numbers.”

In regretting “the vanished mighty sway of music” Wheeler attributed it to the ever-expanding diffusion of outlets for music so that “..the potential to reach a large audience with a serious topic is diminished”. The possibility of a single and singular artist capturing the ethos of a time in history is disappearing. The ‘do you remember where you were when...’ moments of  today and tomorrow will have myriads of uploaded YouTube snips or their future equivalents. While a few are widely spread by viral means online, nearly all will be without the broad exposure that creates an enduring image in the public mind

As there is now so much noise out there, nothing can any longer be definitive.  No single vision can capture a time or place’s dominant mood or emotion. How can there be shared nostalgia for an era, like there is still for the Sixties, when there is no longer a signature tune or memorable picture or quote that forms a collective point of remembrance of how it felt to be alive then? Are we already coming into the time when the truly transcendent, the stuff of myth, can no longer find an entry into our society’s collective consciousness?

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