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June 04, 2004

Mixed But Unequal

Several months ago I missed an opportunity to exercise my public speaking skills. I was going to stand up at the local School Board meeting and invoke the spectre of Eminem. In fact, I was going to rap and drop a few curse words in. The reason? The school district was cutting back on music education.

A point that I'd like to emphasize over the next week has something to do with what happens when we allow people to fail. I think the principle stands for just about every relationship I can think of, and I find it to be a very powerful idea.

Aside from fuzzy notions of altruism, this point was slammed home to me a couple summers ago when I was the first casualty of an IT project meltdown. As a contractor, there's a sort of work called 'at will employment', which basically means you can quit at any time for any reason without giving notice. It also means they can fire you at any time for any reason without giving notice. The latter happened to me. I had a job on Friday, I was told over the weekend not to go back to work. I practically had to threaten to call the police in order to get my property from the office.

The lesson I took from this is Cobb's Rule #7. An enemy is someone who doesn't mind if you fail. There are all sorts of ways to qualify that assertion, but I leave it plain. You'll find it comes in handy if you ever find yourself wondering how you're going to pay the rent while surrounded by smiling faces.

What has this got to do with music lessons for elementary school kids or any larger examples? Here's the bug for your mind. The next time you hear a car with a booming system playing offensive lyrics you should get mad. You probably already do. The more refined your tastes are the more likely you are to be offended. Not every booming system spews rot, but you know it when you hear it. But you shouldn't be too mad at the poor knucklehead who actually believes Biggie Smalls to be a role model. Some of your anger should be directed at the public school system which never taught that kid how to appreciate good music.

My point is that we have let these kids fail, and although the occasional annoyance of boom boom clack (or an exposed tit for that matter) is not about to grind our civilization to a halt, it illustrates that we cannot escape this failure. We are all the public, mixed in together. We are unequal and we are enemies.

Posted by mbowen at June 4, 2004 12:57 AM

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I don't see that you failed at all. The project you were working might have failed to meet customer needs, or cost more than anybody was willing to invest. That's no proof that anybody failed except the management.

And any educational cutback ('cept midnight basketball, maybe) falls hard on the affected ones. Again, that's no proof that anybody failed except the management.

But the presence of a great school music program does little or nothing to keep gangsta rap off the street. I'm a huge traditional jazz nerd, and I do all I can to lead the horse to water, but it's his job to drink.

Ultimately your (my) success lies in persistence.
Read some Kipling.

Posted by: True_Liberal at June 4, 2004 10:59 AM

Clef, I appreciate your commentary. Really I do, and I hope that you stick around. Cobb is starting to become more of a community and that's all good. But I don't think you quite grasp where I'm coming from or what I'm trying to present. In other words, I detect a hint of patronizing in your tone.

I know exactly why that project failed and having 17 plus years in the IT business there's hardly a body anywhere that would dispute my analysis. I may travel incognegro, but by anybody's standards, I've got it goin' on.

So if you have a suggestion like 'go read Kipling' or 'go read Sowell' I would appreciate it greatly if you adjusted you rhetoric to something suitable outside of frosh general ed. Preferably you might illustrate the impressions such authors have made upon you as to enlighten others peripheral to our dialog. Thank you.

I think the presence of a great school music program would have made a tremendous difference if only for those boom boom clack pop stars who can't read music themselves. And I think anyone with a good appreciation for the skills of rap itself would agree in a heartbeat that a serious review of poetry would have saved us all from more claptrap.

I subscribe to the belief, and I suppose I could go on and on about it, that the music industry failed rap by not having an adequate supply of critics who understood the art. By the time that enough writers and aesthetes found places to write, the commercial potential of gangsta overwhelmed the system. I still have a copy of the edition of Spin magazine guest edited by Spike Lee. I can still remember when college grads were trolling the spoken word circuit trying to elevate hiphop and get published in the New Yorker. So I know there was a time when hiphoppers aspired to greater hights of highbrow, and I know there are many here in cyberspace who still bemoan its degenerate direction.

I've given up. I am, by my own definition, an enemy of hiphop. But now it is too big to fail commercially. It is out in the culture surviving and mutating and changing America, and we are all worse off because of our collective failure to push it higher.

It is facile to dismiss the primary victims of this failure despite their own responsibility. That is because we know that you can't nourish a healthy body on junk food. So it's our responsibility, analagously, not to let the market for junk food get too big.

Posted by: Cobb at June 4, 2004 01:35 PM

i remember that lee edition of spin as well, and i think i MIGHT still have it.

music makes mellow maintains to make melodies for mcs that motivates the break.

as clear an example of alliteration as i can think of. and i'm almost positive that rakim was intentional here. you mix an understanding of the dimensions of mc'ing (or dj'ing for that matter) with a deep understanding of traditional musics and you've got a powerful combination. it speaks to the failure of the commons that we don't quite recognize it (or more accurately that SOME of us don't quite recognize).

Posted by: lks at June 4, 2004 03:00 PM

Man, rap was just a spontaneous phenomenon like curbstone a cappella. A&R cats recognized its huge commercial potential, and they ain't paid to be censors. I don't like it any better than you, but if punks got $500 for sneakers they can sure afford a couple CD's.

Who picked the music that made G. Clooney's aunt a millionaire fifty years ago? It was a guy who was classically trained, played oboe under Gershwin, and became an evil genius when he had her sing "Come On-a My House". History is repeating itself.

And I've known plenty of jazz greats who didn't know a semiquaver from a triplet on paper. If nothing else, look at Shearing (who joked he was a lousy sightreader) or Tatum or Ray C. - all blind. I don't know how it's done, but you can't beat the results.

Further - I've known ONE great musician who started out in PS music classes. Of course, his dad was a symphony violinist. The others were all privately tutored.

But to further your point, PS music ed is where the audiences of the future come from. The more they know about the nuts and bolts of music, the more they recognize real greatness when they hear it. I watch about 90 seconds of American Idiocy, hear the level of stupidity in those judges, and I want to send them back to remedial major scales.

Posted by: True_Liberal at June 4, 2004 03:48 PM

What we need in the grade schools is a bit of the MUSE (Musicians United for a Superior Education):


And the MUSE in the school needs to be hooked up with those out in the community on the 12/8 path:


Posted by: Bill Benzon at June 5, 2004 09:56 AM

And if you want to know what can be done on the 12/8 path, here's a sample:


And Cobb, yes, that's about an anti-war demo, anti the most recent war in Irag, but wasn't anything dainty about the music. The music was simple and slammin.

Posted by: Bill Benzon at June 5, 2004 10:00 AM