my music history class this past semester covered composers and pieces from the twentieth century. while there was a heavy amount of attention rightfully given to giants like copland, gershwin, and stravinsky, and even to early jazz icons like armstrong and ellington, the part of the course i found most relevant and stimulating was a section we were only able to cover for a week and a half: experimentalism and minimalism in modernist composers. in short, we were looking at composers like john cage and philip glass who completely eschewed the conventions of western tonal music and instead chose to focus on different timbres and the resulting relationships between instruments through constant repetition or subtle manipulation. what i took away from those discussions was that this music favored mood over melody, and strove to be even more programmatic because of that.
as i am wont to do, i started looking for obvious parallels between minimalist composers from the 1960s and 1970s and contemporary artists in the pop realm today. one recent acquisition of mine particularly stood out. i’ve recently converted back to an ardent admirer of hip-hop and r&b, and among all of the artists that i’ve been spinning as of late, the weeknd has gotten the most attention. i guess i was drawn to his music simply due to its sleazy, electronically-textured nature that lends itself well to any situation that occurs after nine p.m. all three of his mixtapes are available for free online, which wound up saving me the fifteen bucks i would have spent on the reissue collection trilogy, and what struck me the most while listening to his songs was that they’re not strong at all from an analytical standpoint. the lyrics are sub-par to mediocre, depending on the track (personally, i enjoy house of balloons far more than the other two tapes) and there’s no hook or melody that fights to ensnare a listener. after some consideration, i came to the conclusion that the weeknd purely thrives on timbre and mood alone; if those two elements are successful, musical prowess becomes obsolete in the the eyes of consumer aesthetic.
about half of my class was quick to discard experimental music as pure garbage compared to the tonal masterpieces we had been groomed on up until that point. i think it’s interesting that many people also place less musical credibility on acts like the weeknd and sigur rós, who strive to set moods at the expense of displaying much in the way of musical prowess. what most people don’t realize is this: classical music was rooted in melody and harmony and catered to the “wow factor” for hundreds of years before a new way of thinking slowly started to edge out the age-old standard. the same thing seems to be starting to happen in pop music, and i’m personally pulling for it. there’s only so much straight-ahead rock’n’roll and unabashed wailing society can take before artists like grimes are forced to step in and show the world how to function in a more ambient state of mind.