DVD Review: Before The Music Dies
Directed By Andrew Shapter, Mango Media, Inc.
Picture yourself trying to explain how Herbie Hancock not only altered the face of jazz, but helped usher in contemporary hip hop and rap in a very modest way that few people recognize anymore. To try and tell most audiences today that Xzibit, Fifty Cent and Kelis owe Herbie a debt of gratitude just by pointing out his most noted song, “Rockit,” from 1983, will likely leave you blue in the face. Forget trying to mention that Head Hunters is a fundamental jazz and funk album every real music fan ought to own.
If that isn’t frustrating enough to you, read carefully the look of astonishment on the facades of one of the interviewers on the documentary film Before the Music Dies who asks a group of Ashlee Simpson fans if they’d ever heard of Bob Dylan, only to receive dumbfounded and clueless expressions in return. As painfully as these young girls exhibit their naiveté by declaring Simpson a valid artist in today’s music scene, it underscores the point Before the Music Dies boldly drills home: the corporate music machine is after your children and you, if you blind yourself to its presence.
Commend yourself if you support genuine artistry in music. You are a rare breed. So easy it is to flip on the radio and submit to what emanates from its rigid, prearranged format that triggers Pavlovian responses from listeners with ordinary tastes leading ordinary lives with ordinary opinions about any topic you might breech them with. Some people are fully satisfied in the round-the-clock, on-the-hour repeat plays of songs that are going to grow old within weeks, because it’s how the typical American consumer goes about his or her daily existence: live and breathe through what’s offered in the immediate, right-here-right-now proximity until the next cyclical trend happens along. It’s that simple.
Corporate music and radio relies on listeners with unsophisticated tastes in order to push product by players demonstrative of artificial machina. On “Before the Music Dies ,you’re given a glimpse at how mainstream music is generated—no, fabricated—starting from the unsung hero writing a tune that is gobbled up by an inevitable flash-in-the-pan hand-picked by a boiler suit as the next big “thing” in music.
Seriously, you’re being duped by watching American Idol, folks. If you can’t see you’re being exploited as a mass test market (in one of the more ingenious ways to go about finding a focus group, I’ll admit), then be happy in your humdrum existence because you’re feeding the machine! Would you like fries with that?
At the expense of many true artists in the music world today—particularly the powerful American music scene—it’s sad to watch people with hopes and dreams fail to reach a plateau of reasonable acceptance by a fickle American market, much less to see an artist or band enjoy success then watch their careers fall into the discount bin.
The message perpetrated by Before the Music Dies and its considerable heavyweights lending testimony, such as Elvis Costello, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Erykah Badu, Les Paul, Dave Matthews and Branford Marsalis, is that music in today’s society is more of a recreational commodity instead of a privilege we enjoy as human beings. The value of today’s musician in America is nearly on par with a garbage collector, depending on what sales level the artist has achieved.
Too many times I’ve interviewed bands who bear witness to being treated with reverence overseas, like actual guests of honor, instead of wandering troubadours looked upon as beer revenue generators as they’re frequently treated in America. You may chuckle, but I speak true.
Granted, our population per capita has tripled since even the eighties, so there are that many more artists and musicians begging to be heard. It therefore becomes important to provide a stable market for them to compete in as opposed to a dominating pop standard that crushes the environment in which a musician can find his or her audience. I always think of Johnny Hates Jazz and their one-hit-wonder prophecy “Shattered Dreams” when discussing this topic, and the shattered dream is what “Before the Music Dies” is trying to appropriate.
Andrew Shapter and Joel Rasmussen operate with a maverick’s spirit ala Michael Moore, but without the overt propaganda that muddles his veracity. Before the Music Dies resonates with legitimacy and integrity, and it’s something those with a real value of music have been thinking about for years. How do the bona fide artists of the world make it when most of the airwaves are tollboothed by a conglomerate?
One of the biggest heartbreaks I’ve been witness to was to take a tour of a Clear Channel radio station and learn that the deejay’s role is to merely to provide voiceovers to a pre-selected batch of tunes that was, in more cases than not, prepaid for (i.e. “payola”). Before the Music Dies takes you on the same kind of tour, so much that it’s affecting to watch authentication by deejays held hostage by program directors’ playlists and how they were ousted for trying to wedge in other songs to break up the monotony, much less expose an up-and-comer not on the guest list. It’s a sad state of affairs to know that a country that boasts democracy like a phallic symbol still shows flaccid, limp-noodled communist theories in many pockets.
If you have a care in the world about music, Before the Music Dies is going to piss you off, which is a good thing. From the show-stealing sarcasm of Erykah Badu to the criminal major label defragmentation of a clearly talented individual such as Doyle Bramhall II, Before the Music Dies is required viewing, not only for its historical value, but more importantly, its sociological significance.
Regardless of the technological advances that have created a piracy network, the music scene is perhaps healthier than ever, at least in terms of its practitioners. It’s their fighting chances that are in question when you have labels who nurture flavor-of-the-week cash cows that stir up imitators and imposters, all leaving those with a genuine voice to flounder in the bars and coffeehouses with their souls intact.
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