Sean’s blog: then school and new school

I may be getting old. But I would never consider myself old school. Each of us has our nostalgic placeholders—those “better days.” For me, the eras and decades and have their own indelible place in my journey. The games, the people, the fashion, the shows, and yes…the music.

For me, music serves many beyond a rhythmic and melodic stream for a set of earbuds. It puts life into some kind of perspective by validating or contextualizing my own experience. It is therapy. A song can reach out to me and say, “I’ve been right where you are and can say it better…or differently.” When I pick up my guitar late at night on my deck or get behind a mic at a wine bar, I grow a little. I discover something around the lyrical corner that was unexpected and good. I do play or listen just for the hell of it at times. But music generally has a purpose for me, even if a small one.

Which leads me to this morning.

Every couple of saturdays I sit down early in the morning at my favorite cafe in my little village—Rush Espresso—and order up the greatest latte on the planet and select and purchase some new music. I gravitate towards singer songwriter, R&B, Americana, Indie, and World. But I dig most all of it. This day I was looking for a new work out set…spirited and full of beat.

I opened the home page and scanned the top albums. It was then that I had a “then school” moment. Of the top 10 albums, 4 of them were labeled with explicit content warnings. I jogged to the hip-hop category and 9/10 had the same warning. In a moment of irony, the #1 album, the Empire soundtrack, has no such warning. The rest just pissed me off and I actually began to have one of the correlation arguments in my head. “And we wonder why some kids—and adults—have manners and respect and dignity erosion.” I heard my dad in my voice and in my head. Yikes!

Then I paused and faced it unapologetically. This has nothing to do with being old school or out of touch. Vulgar is vulgar; hate language is hate language; disgusting is disgusting. Every once in a while there is art to it. I doubt many will agree with me, but I have case in personal point. Eminem, to me, is and was an artist…a poet with a story that could only be told in some cases through the lens of the tragedy and pain of the Detroit streets. His experience bled through his lyric and his beat. You could feel the streets and the crime and the struggles.

The list of albums with the explicit warnings seems to be less about art and expression as falling in a cultural pattern of shock expectation. It is the iTunes equivalent of Wolf Blitzer’s “BREAKING NEWS.” This guy can’t begin a show without breaking news, even if it was breaking yesterday. The programming assumption—based on my entirely uneducated guess—is that without breaking news the average Situation Room viewer will switch channels.

A striking, but even less interesting corollary here. Most of these “artists” have cleverly found a way to offer a mechanical rhyme of explicit content to appeal to a growing herd of shock-feeding sheep. Eminem offered anger mixed with sadness and a drive to get out. Extreme as it was (and is), it had certain place among its more tame community of song. Most of the posers today offer vulgarity in order to create a revenue stream through shock and “awe-t.”

As I winded through my disappointment and wrote it off to a desperate clip in musical history, I dropped in on several artists whose vibe was up and spirited and fun and lyrical and didn’t have to go off color to make a point. What a concept. I landed on and downloaded the Empire soundtrack (the only one on the hip-hop chart without a warning) and then moved over to grab Olly Murs’s new album—which is a blast.

It’s one thing to express. Its quite something different to wrap your rhyme in crap and sell it as art. That’s not old school thinking. It’s an opinion about a troubling pattern that shadows the real artists out there who can say—and sing—what they have to say without a rating.