Monday, December 27, 2010

My Sentiments Exactly: A Brilliant Essay By Scott Robinson

This is a reprint from All About Jazz. Scott Robinson, an extraordinary multi-instrumentalist, is also clearly an original thinker. Scott gave me permission to reprint this essay, which I think hits right on the money in terms of what is going on in our society. Thanks, Scott, for telling it like it IS!

Sameness is the Enemy
by Scott Robinson
You know the feeling: you're just arriving in a part of the US you've never visited before, and looking forward to seeing what it has to offer. The moment your plane touches down, the cabin suddenly fills with dreadful Muzak that you must endure until you can make it to the exit. In the airport, the insipid music (or another version of it) is again your unwanted companion, following you everywhere, even into the bathroom. You wend your way past the same Chili's Express, Cinnabon and Miller Brewhouse you saw in the airport you departed from 2,000 miles ago, and pick up your car keys at the rental desk. Out in the lot, the music continues to follow you as you make your way to your car, through speakers mounted every five feet in the canopy overhead. 
You hit the road, looking forward to the local scenery on the way to your hotel. You're on a highway, and it looks disturbingly like a lot of other highways in a lot of other places you've been, nowhere near this one. You pass shopping centers, malls and large swaths of housing developments just like the ones back home. These bear evocative names that recall whatever was destroyed in order to put them there: Fox Run Woods, Turkey Glen Estates. Nervously you turn on the radio, thinking, "maybe I'll catch some local music." But up and down the dial is a seemingly endless supply of the same pop/rock you were subjected to back at the airport, along with a hefty dose of right-wing talk and a smattering of news.
Near a big intersection you find your hotel, one of a giant chain (aren't they all nowadays?). Your spirits fall as you look around and realize that this highway interchange is indistinguishable from all the others you've seen all across this continent. Wal-Mart, Wendy's, Home Depot... you are in the center of a giant ocean of unrecognizable conformity. Where Indians once hunted bison is now no different than where steamy Floridian jungle once stood. Those worlds have been removed and replaced with... this.
You step into the hotel lobby (yes, the pop music is playing there, too) and make your way to the checkin desk, passing by the hotel bar. Maybe you'll drop in later for a good local beer! Quickly you scan the taps: Bud, Bud Light, Coors, Coors Light... no luck there. As the perky young gal at the desk hands you your key, you ask, "Where can I get some good local chow?" "Well, there's a Denny's next door," she answers cheerfully, "and an Applebee's just across the highway. I like Applebee's, 'cause you know what you're gonna get - it's always the same!"
This scourge of sameness has somehow permeated nearly every part of our landscape and every aspect of our culture. And it isn't just here at home. Thanks to globalization, multinational corporate behemoths now bring us Kraft cheese in France, Coca-Cola in Chad, McDonald's in Moscow and Starbucks in Beijing's Forbidden City. Where America's jazz once fired the imagination of the world, now her bland, pitch-corrected pop has stultified the cultures of other nations, driving out their indigenous music like an invasive species. In cafés from Kowloon to Cameroon, I've had to endure the same stuff that I would in my local New Jersey bar. What's disturbing is the tyranny of it, the ubiquity. We are not allowed to escape it - it is required listening wherever we go.
The forces of sameness are at work in education, too, where the push is toward ever more standardization, and away from innovation in teaching. Even the world of jazz, supposed bastion of unfettered imagination, is susceptible (theme-solos-theme formats, formulaic endings, the dreaded "everybody wear all black"). And thanks to deregulation and corporate greed, jazz has virtually disappeared from radio along with almost anything that isn't pop or talk. Radio stations once had live orchestras; now many of them don't even have local DJs, as programming is prerecorded from a prescribed playlist and piped in from corporate headquarters. This t rend began in the '90s with test marketing: test groups determine playability based on just 10 seconds of music. Playlists shrink, songwriters start "writing to the test" and sameness wins the day. Today, any sort of DJ autonomy has vanished from most radio, as corporations decide what gets played. There's big money in sameness!
What about the internet? There's been much to be thankful for, with independent musicians finally out from under the yoke of record labels and distributors who decide which music is worthy of release. But I see an ominous new trend coming: subscription services, which many say will soon replace downloads. For a monthly fee, listeners can access an entire library of music... but only whatever music the company chooses to provide. Even more unsettling are the new "acoustic personalization" services, which provide listeners with music matching the acoustical profile of whatever they listened to last - a virtual recipe for sameness! How would someone listening to Coltrane discover, say, Art Tatum by such a method, let alone Bartók's string quartets? The joy of discovering new sounds will be forever lost if we start allowing our listening choices to be made by a computer program whose sole criterion is that the next piece must sound the same, or nearly the same, as the last.
Why does uniformity have such a hold over us? Why do humans, those most creative of animals (in America, that most creative of nations), seem so eager to prostrate themselves before the altar of sameness? I have a theory: perhaps, like brute physical strength, creativity is becoming less critical for day-to-day survival. Where early humans had to use brawn and brains to find a way to stay alive, now most (in the developed world, at least) can simply pick up a pizza or buy groceries. Could we be in danger of losing our creative edge?
Certain species of birds have, through the centuries, lost the ability to fly. Consider the ostrich: does not such a flightless bird seem somehow less a bird, absent such a distinguishing characteristic? And would not a diminishment of our own creative powers make us, in some immeasurable but crucial way, less human?
If there is an answer to this dilemma, at least for musicians, perhaps it cannot be stated more simply or more passionately than what Mr. Anthony Braxton said to me years ago: "We have to keep playing music like our life depends on it - which it does!" He was speaking, of course, of creative, far-reaching music, music that elevates the imagination and transforms the listener. We musicians are often told that we must "give the audience what it wants"... but an audience can only want what it already knows. I believe that part of an artist's job is to find that which the audience never knew it wanted, that which it was not even equipped to imagine. This way, the music is allowed to evolve and grow, and perhaps take us humans along with it. Indeed, creativity - and creative music in particular - may be the most powerful weapon we have against the creeping tide of sameness and uniformity. Let us wield it often, and well. 


  1. I was born in the mid 50s but remember hearing everything from swing and cool jazz, to big band vocalists to symphonies and operas to Titos Puente and Rodriguez to Martin Denny's Hawaiian lounge to the Tijuana Brass' mariachi pop. And that was just in one house! Meanwhile, my friends' older siblings played doo wops and surfer rock, and my older relatives listened to crooners like Jerry Vale, Jimmy Roselli and Perry Como.

    I eventually listened to my own generation's pop and rock, as well as jazz from fusion to free. But having access to so many different types of musics as listened by the many different people in my younger life, gave me the open ears to appreciate practically everything musical as I grew older. It's a shame that such exposure is now a rare thing in today's world.

  2. Scott, surely you've flown to New Orleans. Last time I visited, they were playing Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong music at the airport. But I appreciate the metaphor.

  3. definitely an American (US) state of mind. In Mexico, every region has its own music and top 40. In a town of 50,000 they had a radio station that played everything from acoustic conjunto music to light classical by way of
    Sinatra and Pedro Infante in the course of a few hours.

  4. This essay should be considered a "canary in the coal mine" with regard to America's current ability to be culturally curious. If the values don't change soon, the future generations will only know "culture" as a series of "virtual postcards". The choice is ours.

  5. Scott Robinson's fears are certainly valid and I've had very similar experiences when I travel, both domestically and abroad. The march of history, however, is often towards assimilation. "Local specialties" are often the result of isolation or natural resource advantages. As the the world becomes more connected and technology overcomes advantages of location the field gets levelled... languages merge (no one speaks Cornish anymore), ideas are spread with lightning speed thanks to the Internet. There was a time when it was difficult to expose yourself to the fashions, ideas, and cultures of the rest of the world. Now it's hard to keep them away!

    I think, however, that creativity is on the rise, simply out of necessity. Technology has enabled inredibly high quality manufacturing at very low cost. Growing food, building houses, making cars, electronics, and the vast advantages of software and the Internet... quality is by and large not a differentiator anymore. More than any other time, now companies who want to survive need to humanize their products and services in order to cut through the noise and stay alive. This is a boon for artistic individuals who can think creatively.

    Where does that leave music? I'm still trying to figure that out. What I have seen so far is that pining for the days of old when jazz fired the imagination of the world isn't going to get anyone listening any more than they already are (or aren't). Looking back won't show us the way forward. It won't look like anything we've seen before.

    Certainly Mr. Robinson's nod to the advice of Anthony Braxton is right on the money. But I think jazz musicians need to go further. To engage a new audience is to make music that is relevant to THEM; is to make it, by definition, more "engaging." In NYC I'm seeing new approaches to live performance that involve multi-media, current events, and audience participation. Giving an audience a genuinely enriching experience they simply can't get on a CD is a good way to start this process.

  6. Last two paragraphs - starting with ostrich ending with the ending... brilliant and on the $$$. I'm living abroad and, trust me, the US isn't the only country with this problem of non-creativity.

  7. One could argue that a "creative culture" is a little bit like the process of natural selection in evolution. Those ideas which resonate for the masses tend to come back in various (if "evolved" forms). The insidious part about what the article is trying to convey is that America's current "culture barometer" is based on a faulty premise-that only culture which has some kind of corporate validation will in turn be well received by the masses, whereas those new ideas which are created in a vacuum will tend to stay there. It is up to us to recognize that being open to alternative kinds of artistic expression can only help us.

  8. Forum Link Buildinglocation de salle lyonWhere does that leave music? I'm still trying to figure that out. What I have seen so far is that pining for the days of old when jazz fired the imagination of the world isn't going to get anyone listening any more than they already are (or aren't). Looking back won't show us the way forward. It won't look like anything we've seen before.

  9. Your card is just beautiful -- and what a lovely gift. Any woman would be thrilled to receive this.

  10. This essay should be considered a "canary in the coal mine" with regard to America's current ability to be culturally curious. If the values don't change soon, the future generations will only know "culture" as a series of "virtual postcards". The choice is ours.
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