‘Contemporary music has no artistic value.’ Is this a fair comment? (A-level, Nov 2008)
by Steven Ooi, retired GP tutor
It is common to see older people shaking their heads at the kind of music young people listen to today. “Such rubbish,” they often declare. “Just a lot of noise.” While some contemporary music – think of the strident, violent messages of gangsta rap or the screeching and screaming of heavy metal – may be loud and disconcerting, they do not make up the whole of contemporary music, nor do they necessarily lack artistic value. What is art? I believe it is any personal human expression that is original, creative and meaningful. There is much music being made today that has all these qualities. Hence it is very unfair to say that contemporary music has no artistic value.
Today’s music is not only about loud, screaming singers and electric guitars or about commercial, trashy pop. There are also a significant number of musicians who are artists in the truest sense of the word – Rachael Yamagata, Nerina Pallot and Angie Mattson, to name just three. Their music is original and creative, without doubt. Beyond that, their tunes and lyrics are so touching and meaningful that they can reach the deepest core of your being, the way that a poem by John Donne or a painting by Vincent van Gogh could. Not only does such musicians’ work have artistic value, they possess it in abundance.
Take Nerina Pallot’s song ‘Idaho’. Its beautiful, haunting piano refrain aside, it features lyrics that are highly poetic as well. “In the back of a car on a road in the dark/ in the stillicide, silently falling snow/ I’ve packed everything that I own in a bag/ And I’m driving, I’m driving to Idaho”. She not only crafted an evocative setting and a lovely rhyme, but even created a new word of her own, “stillicide”, which is highly original and open to artistic interpretation. Possibly it combines the words “stillness” and “homicide”, suggesting that the protagonist in the song finds the sheer stillness in the lonely, snowy scene so unbearable that she feels she could die from it. In this song, Idaho is not only a place – it stands for a state of mind, of being. It represents the elusive meaning in life which most of us search for.
Rachael Yamagata’s music features the finest use of modern technology married with traditional instruments to create a whole new emotional and even spiritual experience. The song ‘Sunday Afternoon’ opens with an electronic hum that starts slowly , and then builds with gradually growing intensity and vibration. It evokes in the listener the image of a shimmering light on the distant horizon that grows and grows. Then the electronic instruments are joined by a rich, soulful acoustic guitar. The song is a dark reflection on troubled love, something that many people can relate to and find solace in.
What, then, of the mainstream “commercial” artistes who dominate the airwaves and the pop charts? Surely these are more prominent and profitable in contemporary music today. However, I contend that “commercial” and artistic may not be mutually exclusive. The incredibly popular Lady Gaga is a case in point. Her hit ‘Bad Romance’ begins with “I want your ugly/ I want your disease/ I want your everything/ as long as it’s free/ I want your love/ love love love I want your love”. It is creative and original in that it uses “ugly” as a noun. Also, the “ugly” she refers to can be fairly interpreted on many levels, just like any work of art. Perhaps it refers to ugliness of the heart, ugliness of the face, ugliness of the soul, or even the ugliness of one’s past. The song is an imaginative, sexy exploration of the dark, self-destructive romance and attractions that most of us go through at some point in our lives. Like many other works of art, it drives us to ponder the mystery and fallibility within our very nature. It is deeply meaningful in an artistic way.
Art also frequently takes up a cause as artists seek to make the world a better place. Contemporary music is no exception in this regard. The Indonesian trip-hop band Everybody Loves Irene has a profoundly thought-provoking song titled ‘The Big Bang Prophecy’ which makes the radical suggestion that since human beings refuse to stop destroying their environment and all our efforts to protect Mother Earth are doomed, we should obliterate the human race with nuclear weapons to save the Earth. Of course we need not take their message at face value, but the provocative approach taken by the band makes the song not only meaningful, but impactful as well.
To be sure, there are some pop and rock songs that are very lacking in meaning. Some of Britney Spears’ or the Pussycat Dolls’ songs, for instance, have little substance or meaning. Some of their songs are meant only to entertain or titillate, for example the Pussycat Dolls’ song ‘Buttons’ which is focused on undressing your lover. But to say that all contemporary music is like that would be like saying that all newspapers are like British tabloid The Sun.
Therefore it is very unfair to say that contemporary music has no artistic value. Contemporary human beings are not so different from people of the past. Some of us just want to be entertained by music. Others want music to make a connection with our heart and soul, to take us to a higher realm of feeling, of existence. In contemporary music, there is a song – or a few hundred songs – to suit every taste and sensibility.
All rights reserved Steven Ooi 2010
No part of this work is to be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder
The blogger, a First Class Honours grad from NUS, retired from a distinguished 14-year career as an English and GP tutor at the age of 42.
To view tutors recommended by the blogger, please click on ‘Recommended Tutors/Testimonials’ above.
If you are an English or GP tutor keen to be listed on this website (consistently ranked top 10 on Google for GP tutors) as a Recommended Tutor, please email Steven Ooi at stevenooi18 @ yahoo.com (remove the spaces).
For more GP model essays, click here.