Evolution: Studying the Engine from Music’s Slipstream

Newport Folk Festival, July 1965

You Can’t Stop The Future, thought Bob Dylan as he glared back into the harsh, stunned gawk of the crowd. Like an ocean of earthy colours and unwashed beards they froze in the bloated summer dusk; bloated like the ozone of a blistering stormcloud. They twitched as  Dylan, all black leather and loud, ‘fuck you’ orange shirt, armed himself with an electric stratocaster and jammed a buzzing lead into it. Charged with sizzling defiance, Dylan and his band (recruited at the last moment, upon hearing festival snobs heckle the electric Paul Butterfield Blues Band) gritted their teeth and hurtled into a squawking, feverish ‘Maggie’s Farm’.

The audience howled like a huge, spurred beast as the raggedy speakers shrieked and thundered with lusty vigour. Pete Seeger, an architect of the world that Dylan had just declared war on, grabbed an axe and stomped towards the soundboard.

Or, so they say.

Music is not a static phenomenon; it’s constantly evolving. It writhes like a snake as it slides through time, one eye on its dust trail but always moving forward. The relationship between two forces defines its motion – innovation and recreation. Both these occur because of different, but equally human tendencies.

Our tendency towards repetition is not just due to a lack of cosmic, revelatory inspiration. We are an expressive consciousness, and make no bones about it – we cherish our expression because without it, we have nothing. Others’ expression becomes our expression – the gloomy teenager squinting through his dye-smudged fringe finds catharsis in screamo music because its screams become his screams when his voice can barely croak - if it wasn’t for this power to make music our own, it would be useless to us. This leads us to be defensive, even possessive; specifically, of whatever output we associate with ourselves - musical styles become the delegates for communities or sets of ideals, and whether they like it or not, the expectation of musicians becomes to represent these with honesty and integrity - in an ‘authentic’ way that can be understood in the same way as its predecessors. David Huxley goes on to define ‘authenticity’ as centring around a ‘pure core’ of a style’s early and original version, to be denied to later ‘debased’ forms, which are often considered inferior.

Bob Dylan, clearly a victim of such an attachment, endured the crowd’s predatory hissing for just three songs before he ran out of fight. He sulked off and returned with an acoustic guitar and his tail between his legs. The crowd glared like a stern schoolteacher who had just ironed out the misbehaviour of a mischievous pupil.  The interesting thing was; the music they mollycoddled such that any bending of its shape was considered blasphemous, was not even their own – these were city kids, most of them had never even seen the Appalachian wilderness or the feral Delta floodplains where their music had first drawn breath.

The folk revival scene blacklisted Dylan shortly after Newport. However, artists are often rejected before they even start. There were howls of laughter in the grotty linoleum-floored dives of Memphis when Elvis first presented his goofy black man impression. And as the first white rapper to hit the mainstream, it took time for Eminem to be taken seriously. But just look at the technicolored rock and hip hop of today – all boundaries are broken in time.

And those who break the boundaries - the devisers of fresh ways to express and celebrate humanity - become our saints. A new music will eventually take a position as the ‘pure core’ for a new authenticity to encircle, but until we understand them, and have build communities around them to feel safe in; they are the enemy. We are threatened by change until after it’s happened – but although innovation may seem subversive, it doesn’t require the destruction of the past – for example, when punk came it may have seemed to redefine rock and roll, but just a few years later the nostalgia for those earlier clichés it supposedly laid to waste was already manifesting, swollen and exaggerated, in its descendants.

Although we attack those who have nothing new to bring to the table, Hugh Barker suggests that authenticity is often seen as an artist’s ‘sine qua non’. They are under constant surveillance to prove that their loyalties are with the audience and the music, not with themselves and their own success. As that success is usually an artist’s true agenda, it’s not difficult to see why the ideal most often betrayed is materialism.

Nashville, Tennessee. Rosie-cheeked, glossy men and women drift in and out of the shiny corporate buildings of ‘Music Row’- the industrial conveyor belt of Nashville’s chief export: slick, pre-packaged, chart-ready country music. Inside one such building, Chet Atkins - godfather of ‘The Nashville Sound’ - is being asked exactly what that sound is. He jangles his change-heavy pocket.

“That’s what it sounds like. It’s the sound of money.”

You would think, with its rustic origins replaced with generic session playing, over-production and commercially minded compromise, that Nashville country would suffer from poor credibility– and yet it dominates the US market. We shouldn’t be surprised however, in the pop media’s age of power, that the Nashville Sound has come to define what ‘country music’ actually is.

“Authenticity is a relative term that is generally used in absolutist terms” Gilbert & Pearson

The Spider Web

Alex Ross, in ‘Listen To This’, proposes that musical history moves in a 5 stage process –youth rebellion, followed by a ‘bourgeois pomp’ period, a rebellion against the bourgeois pomp period, an avant garde stage that takes the rebellion too far, and finally a nostalgic period, romanticising the earlier stages. Whilst it is compelling that the histories of classical, jazz and rock & roll can be seen to fit snugly into this model (for example, the bougeois pomp phase; romanticism, high class swing and progressive rock, respectively), I think it grossly underestimates the complexity of musical evolution. If the model can be used at all, it must be very loosely – stages must be able to break off and start new cycles, merge together and be used in observation from a variety of points, as a vague idea fitting into one, harmonious movement of musical evolution. Using it as a strict formula, with mortal stages that appear as if by magic and wither into nothing, defies common sense – every movement comes from somewhere, and every movement becomes something else.

I prefer to observe the evolution as a matrix of progressive and reactionary movements – those of innovation and those that (often) champion authenticity. The revolutionaries always take time to be understood, especially by the mainstream (of course, they then cease to be revolutionaries – hence the confusing change of terminology from modernism to postmodernism). They are often subject to hostility from people who are offended by them - even the spectrum of acceptable tonality shows this; there was a time when the interval of an augmented fourth was actually considered to be satanic. In the field of popular music, artists such as Jimi Hendrix and his trademark E7b9 chord, have also made society flinch with their tonal choices. But music doesn’t move without controversy and without movement we become bored. To cite Ruben Figaredo, “in time music that strives for the security of the tradition will be an opponent to a new, stimulating music”.

Yuppies singing along to ‘Teen Spirit’ in their BMW’s had been Kurt Cobain’s worst nightmare since the moment Nevermind reached number one. Whether or not he had ever expected to have wound up so far from the iron weather and flannel shirts of Seattle is debatable, but whether the people who stubbornly chained themselves to his roots resented him for doing so is perhaps less so. But for the most part; the flocks of MTV watchers, high street shoppers and yuppies in BMW’s who bought Nevermind were barely even aware that Nirvana had crawled out of a swamp where they didn’t like nice, clean people. Grunge had died.

The Seattle scene, like most underground scenes, became paranoid as soon as the major labels’ ears pricked up (see what I mean about possessiveness now?). In fact, this was a golden era for mainstream avoidance - just look at the paranoid naming of ‘Indie’ music. Reverse snobbery is commonplace in audiences – artists are often expected to exhibit totally vernacular, even rudimentary skills – any sign of musical training can be an uncomfortable trait (other than the obvious punk rock, another clear example is the fierce reprehension Nashville’s flawless session playing received from their enemies). Reverse snobbery is also present in artists – a denial of commercial recording techniques, having originated from Sun Records and Sam Philip’s deliberate botch jobs in the 50’s, has been weaving it’s way further into guitar music’s creed during the last ten years or so. This denial, fitting snugly into Alex Ross’ fifth stage, he describes as having “no special claim to musical truth; indeed it easily becomes another effect – the effect of no effect.”

When grunge reared it’s dirty, scabby head, it was not from the vanguard of revolutionary, revelatory inspiration, but from the dregs of an existing scene - hardcore punk. Hardcore punk was just a step away from the first wave of ‘punk’ around ‘77, which evolved from earlier 70’s proto-punk like Patti Smith and the New York dolls, which in turn was derived from New York’s underground rock scene in the 60’s - see The Velvet Underground or The Fugs. Hm, what? How does that fit into your five stages, Alex? Moreover, when you consider that, for instance, the Velvet Underground also influenced, say, Kraftwerk, who practically invented popular electronic music, and that punk also evolved into (to name just a handful); new wave, alternative rock, thrash metal, emo, stoner rock, gothic, the new romantics etc; it seems obvious to me that the relationships between progressive and reactionary movements are intensely complicated. In fact, arguably all movements are progressive and reactionary – part of a singular evolutionary movement.

‘Roots’ music is another style that is persistently reclaimed, and reinvented. Even just one album – Harry Smith’s cult mixtape of field recordings; ‘The Anthology Of American Folk Music’ - continues to provide the foundations for whole areas of music, which it has done solidly since the 50’s. One of today’s interpretations, free folk, has both progressive and reactionary written all over it. Whilst it is clearly a ‘folk’, and therefore a retrospective style, its experimental nature has led it to be latched onto mostly by fans of the avant garde.

More often than not, a progressive movement in music is the expression of a wider social progressive movement. For example, Jamaica’s declaration of independence coincided with the birth of Ska – its uplifting, celebratory vibe is clearly connected with Jamaica’s political mood of the time.

The flux of musical evolution shoots spider webs through time – trying to separate, define and classify its parts, rather than accept its holistic interconnection, is a pointless and destructive endeavour - much like it is in the study of anything. But that’s another essay.

Mecca for invention

Music’s engine shifted gear when Thomas Edison discovered he could capture a moment in time on a small wax-coated cylinder. A momentum in its evolution picked up like never seen before. As the process (and cultural integration) of recording developed, so too did musicians. Simply having a reference point, and the ability to listen to themselves revolutionized how they played, as well as revolutionizing the importance of authenticity. Today, recording equipment is so easily accessible that not only does it play a central role in artists’ development; the ability to understand it has become a prerequisite of being a musician. With such a huge range of music available through recordings, it’s not hard to see where the complex system of possession and representation described earlier comes from.

However, the advent of recording also provided a new Mecca for invention. Magnetic tape allowed Stockhausen to collage samples into experimental sonic landscapes – a hugely influential technique, perhaps most notably heard on Sgt Pepper and Pet Sounds. Hip hop is another style that originated exclusively from the manipulation of pre-recorded music. And when you see how many styles of electronic music have twittered, bleeped and fizzed their way through the last hundred years - everything from Acid House to Aquacrunk – the distance we’ve travelled is dizzying.

iTunes, Spotify, Youtube and music’s move from the sacred to the omnipresent have all been devised to bring all music out into the open, for everyone to hear, all the time. Inadvertently it has also destroyed our attention spans. We are hurtling along at such a pace now that artists barely have enough time to get an album out before some whippersnapper has snatched their guitar off them and the audience have jabbed the ‘shuffle’ button on their iPods. But has this change prompted, perhaps, less reliance on the notion of authenticity? Has file-sharing culture, and our ADHD iPods twitching from John Lennon to John Legend to John Coltrane to John Martin, banished pack mentality to the history books?

No Music Is Authentic

Hugh Barker, in his book ‘Faking It’, asserts the firm belief that “every performance is to some degree faked – nobody goes out on stage and sings about exactly what they did and felt that day”. Although this statement fails to take improvised performances into account, it is true that the majority of performances use some sort of emotional tracing paper to create intense, meaningful music even when they are not necessarily feeling emotional. Picture an old timer on a come back tour – how likely is he to care about the heart breaker who inspired his first single, after weeks of hard touring? Yet he may well sing in a husky or gravelly voice – a simulation of emotion (our voices only naturally go gravelly when we have been screaming or crying). He may also play an instrument with some form of distortion effect – this is a simulation as well; a simulation of carefree, raucous rock and roll character, derived from the serendipitous accident of Ike Turner’s amp-breaking accident on the way to record “Rocket 88” in the 50’s.

Yet I would challenge the notion that all performance is emotionless, if only on the grounds that if this were true, nobody would go to gigs or buy records. Plus, the attempt to rekindle emotion through song doesn’t necessarily result in dishonesty – it depends on the performer and the song.

Alex Ross rejects the aphorism ‘Music is a general language’. He draws our minds to all the mothers terrorized by their teenage son’s deafening hip hop, illustrating that we cannot all relate to musics in the same way. Here he has punctured a dubious myth, but if music didn’t act as a language at all it may well not exist - at least not in the way it does. Different musical communities speak different languages, but without them we would have no connection through which to share musical experience. Arguably a great deal of emotionally barren music has value solely because of this communicative aspect. Through this importance we can conclude that authenticity, and therefore recreation, is of paramount importance, despite appearing to be a parasite on the underbelly of innovation. Perhaps, as Ruben Figaredo puts it, “pleasure rests in a correct balance between the known and the unknown”.


Barker, Hugh “Faking It – the quest for authenticity in popular music”, WW Morton & Company Inc, New York, 2007

Figaredo, Ruben “Today’s dissonance, tommorow’s consonance: a new pact between composer and public” Interntaional Review of the Aesthetics and sociology of music”, 2010

Huxley, David “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated: anarchy and control in ‘the great rock and roll swindle’”, from “Punk rock: so what?” Routledge, New York, 1999

Lankford, Ronal D “Folk Music USA: the changing voice of protest”, Schirmer Trade Books, New York, 2005

Petrusich, Amanda “It Still Moves: lost songs, lost highways”,  Faber Inc, London, 2009

Ross, Alex “Listen To This”, Fourth Estate, London , 2010

Sandford, Christopher “Kurt Cobain”, Orion Books Lmt, London, 1995

Simpson, Dave “The Guardian Book Of Rock & Roll”, Aurnon Press, London, 2008