27 July 2008

Rock on, Keith ... Urban

I read a comment from a young music fan on a forum over there somewhere who wondered why rock music just has the same instruments over and over. My brain played that back for me while I was thinking about "What is 'country'?".

I think that in part, "rock" is defined by the standard instruments. Certainly the music we call rock was shaped by the instruments it started with:

Maybe the reason that rock & roll caught on was because of the sound of the instruments. Maybe the reason we like the sound of the instruments so well is that we are used to them because of rock & roll. It doesn't seem like it matters anymore.

It's not a simple equation, that "Rock" = electric guitars, electric bass, & drum kits.

Bob Wills caused a commotion when he added those to his nominally-country Texas Playboys in the 30s and 40s. (When they played at the Opry, the drummer was hidden behind a curtain. Snrk.) (A surprising amount of the music you all listen to today comes out of stuff that Bob Wills did back in the day, by the way. He also introduced the guitar + steel guitar pairing that signals "country" for a lot of people.) Those instruments show up in jazz, blues, soul, gospel, country, all over the place.

Other instruments appear all over rock, too. Keyboard instruments are common. In the last week, I've heard accordion, violin, autoharp (although I confess I did search for "autoharp punk"), ukulele, didgeridoo, and mandolin:

You can all probably spin out your own list.

I think that the differences between the genres we hear so much about is as much social as it is in the music. If you listen to a lot of different music, you realize that those boundaries don't mean much to musicians. Brad Paisley plays on a Snoop Dogg track, Solomon Burke does a country album, Dylan goes electric! It is so common for them to work together in unexpected combinations, take influences from all over the place, and generally do what they think sounds good. That's how we ended up with rock in the first place: rockabilly and blues and all those strands coming together in Sun Studios. That process has never stopped.

This afternoon, I listened to Keith Urban's Love, Pain & the whole crazy thing and something struck me. On most of the songs, you could swap out the instruments (banjo and fiddle out, synth in e.g.) and otherwise leave the songs and arrangements note for note, and it would have been an awesome rock album instead of an awesome country album. The only traces of country left would be Urban's singing style. But were the instruments all that made it "country"?

That makes me think about all the stink about Shania Twain's apostasy. She recorded pop! She was produced by Mutt Lange! She wore the wrong kind of clothes and hair! Instead of being judged as a pop artist, she was judged as a country artist who behaved badly. How did she get stuck with the label "country", then? If nothing about her music and performance was "country", why was she?

These questions are what make me think that a lot of the differences are social. "Country" and "rock" as categories are about marketing. The people who identify themselves as the people who buy country shape what the country labels deliver to them. Artists that get tagged "country" because of the label they came into the system under have pressure to make music that the people who buy country will want to buy. Keith Urban is in the country pipeline, so the people who are likely to hear his music expect steel guitars and all the other standard markers (like topics and standard phrases and all). I believe that Urban probably likes his music the way it sounds and isn't forced to make it that way, but Twain's experiences shows what can happen when the artist's vision strays too much from the genre expectations. Most of the time, an artist has to declare Crossover to try to get away from that, but it's a risky path. You can easily lose your old listeners without attracting new ones. And the music biz establishment only loves you as much as your last album sold, right?

Maybe it all comes down to habit and group identity. We have habits as listeners. Musicians have habits of work. Kane (a group that keeps itself on the edge of country and rock) has a line: "Everybody's got their own definition of 'just their kind'." We all need to have a way to distinguish Them from Us, so those steel guitars end up mattering so darn much. Country is a state of mind. and "country" is the music that marks out that kind of "just my kind".

This brings me around again to the changes in music coming from the changes in distribution. We don't have the big labels exerting as much influence on what is produced. A relatively small and widely-distributed group of listeners who like "surf punk bluegrass"

can form itself into a market through YouTube and social networking services. This is what has always happened along the boundaries, but now the border is bigger and busier. It's making music a lot more fun for me, that's for sure.

Future related rants: How this has brought us uke-mania and so many EPs

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