Bring The Noise : Why Cacophony Matters
We all know the stories of Elvis – how his shocking hip movements and distorted guitars brought a wave of anger and fury into the hearts of American parents. According to them, it tore families asunder, and ripped the very fabric of our American morality into shreds. Parents called it noise and teenage girls called it true love. With a few twitches of his hips and a few instruments that were playing a bit too loud Elvis ushered in a whole new era of music and culture. Today, it’s the textbook story of how a revolution in sound and dance changes everything about popular music. After Elvis, we hear about The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and maybe a Bob Dylan here or there. But before Elvis – nothing. It’s as if youth lived in eternal musical harmony with their elders. And that sounds awful. Thankfully, this pattern of angry adults started trending before the Beatles, before Elvis’ studly voice, and long before the television even had an inkling of chance to kill the radio star.
So without further ado - let’s take a journey, loved ones.
Our first stop? 1918. A time when men were adorned in tip top tophats, women wore ankle length skirts, and the nation had never in their wildest dreams heard of the glorious ‘twerk.’
At this point in our nation’s great history, the following style of music was in heavy rotation.
Now, if you are like me, every aspect of this song – except for the song itself - upsets you deeply. Overbearing melodramatic vocals, tubby horns tooting along clumsily in the background, and a weird, awful bell sound that some 1918’s producer must have been delusionally in love with. The tune alone is great, and it’s one of my favorite pop numbers, but if Marion Harris’ wavering vocal rendition of this song was our nation’s syncopated backbone, our backbone was horribly bent, bruised, and permanently locked into a non-danceable wheelchair.
But let’s fast forward roughly 20 years – past some underground ragtime artists and, of course, the radio edits of the underground ragtime artists – to a slightly more evolved rendition of the song we just listened to.
Again, you may be underwhelmed. Crying out in anguish to yourself, “Stephen, this song has medium grooves, some mildly overarching hot jam potential, and my foot is tapping at a semi-interested rate but still I definitely cannot twerk to this.” I understand. But before you lay down an angry tirade straight to my email inbox I’d like to ask you to go back and listen to the first version of the tune. Now, listen to the second version of this tune. Now close your eyes. Imagine yourself as a parent of 1930’s 16 year old who stays up late and repeatedly blasts this Benny Goodman rendition of the song on the family phonograph. To you, this is noise. And I’m glad I’ve now forced you for the sake of my narrative to agree with me because, historically speaking, this genre of Swing sounded to 1940’s parents precisely how Skrillex sounds to your Great Uncle Jeb who lives in Alabama. Benny’s noisy popularity grew so huge that he became first ‘pop’ act to ever play Carnegie Hall, and when tickets went on sale they sold out almost all the seats to a crowd of raucous teenagers almost instantly. A story strangely similar to a how the thick-rimmed Sonny Moore, constantly pegged as noisy and unlistenable before his ascent, was selling out stadiums by mid 2012.
This cycle of angry parents and dancing youth happens is precisely what happens over and over in music history. It happened with Swing, it happened with Rock N’ Roll, it happened with EDM, and it’s going to happen with some yet unnamed, unthinkable genre in the future as well. And after we all think it won’t happen again. It will. And we will all be made fools of again.
What I’m trying to say is that sometimes the most important movements in popular music come packaged as noise. And sometimes the songs and dances that confuse you the most will go on to become the songs that consume you the most. And on note you’ll have to excuse me - I have a twerk date planned with my bedroom wall.