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What Happened to Good Music?

by Don Robertson (1962, unpublished)

“It was 1962. I was twenty-years old, and I was in the Navy. I had given up my habit of listening to the AM-radio music fare of the day and was picking up from where I had left off in 7th grade, when I was experiencing the radical changes brought on by puberty, abandoning my childhood love of classical music that I felt was probably ‘not cool.’ But it was 1962, and I was now back to classical music, studying theory, harmony and counterpoint from books that I checked out of the Long Beach Public Library, and I was composing my four-movement symphonic work Moments avant de partir, to be performed for me in rehearsal by the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra. Below is my very first article.”

     Rock and Roll is ubiquitous. It can be heard from millions of tiny transistor radios pressed tightly into the palms of our younger set; it can be heard from our AM radios at home as we scan the dial. Even now, our venerable dance bans are occasionally condescending to the “twist.” What has happened to good music?
     I may not be correct in my definition of Rock and Roll, but I affix this appellation to any form of music that our young public seems to be buying, with a few possible exceptions. Great quantities of this music are being sold throughout the nation under many different labels and by many different artists. Thousands of young groups have recorded and sold voluminous amounts of their endeavors. And what is the big selling point of this product? What is the attraction of Rock and Roll? I will attempt to give you a basic outline of my conclusions.
     Not long ago the popular music market was dealing solely with the traditional popular-music products: good arrangements that backed good vocalists with mellifluous songs. The recording industry was proud of the quality of its music. Slowly, however, a few hit Rhythm and Blues and Country Music tunes entered the Top Forty lists of the popular field. At once, the recording industry took notice of the great number of sales that followed; before you knew it, these songs swamped popular music.
     Now, popular music has been completely overrun with inferior music: music that panders to the desires of teenage adolescents who are unfamiliar with, and untrained in, the art of music appreciation.
     Anyone who might come across the latest Top Forty list might think that they are reading a page from the script of Vincent Price’s latest horror movie (“Monster Mash”), or a lesson on voice control (“Sh-Boom”). Never has any form of music utilized the quantity of insensate lyrics and titles as those found today. You may raise a few laughs by reciting from a copy of the latest hit-tune magazine on sale at the corner drug store. In it, today’s crazy lyrics are carefully spelled out onomatopoeically for the young, aspiring vocalist.
     I term Rock and Roll music as inferior; allow me to elucidate: any song that falls under my category of Rock and Roll music is analogous to any of its contemporaries. The chord progressions are all basically the same in each song, and so are the melodies. The very basic form that the song is built upon is banal; no exalted or complex musical forms will appear in this music. This is the reason why any young kid can pick up a guitar and start playing his favorite Rock and Roll tunes.
     The majority of Rock and Roll performers would be useless in serious music. Some have no musical talent, and, in the case of the vocalists, they have not developed a good voice. In other words, they can’t sing! Then, how do they make records? The answer is: the wonder of electronics. It takes but a few electronical appurtenances to refine the human voice to the level that is required for Rock and Roll purposes. It takes nothing more than a well-equipped recording studio to multiply and echo the shaky voice of the young recording star.
     Why is Rock and Roll such a best-selling product? This question is an easy one to answer, but I do not intend to go into it deeply. First of all, the youngster, in order to maintain his status with the crowd, must dig it. If he doesn’t, he will be termed a square by his playmates and immediately ostracized from his clique. Secondly, the young ear is easily deceived; after continuous exposure to Rock and Roll, the youngster feels that this is the only true ramification of the music world and will convince himself that all other forms of music are unlistenable. Another reason is the fact that Rock and Roll is easily imitated by the young set; therefore, they feel that they have accomplished something when they are able to play or sing a popular song ‘just like the record.’ Thus, their confidence is boosted, and they feel as though they are at the door of professionalism.
     Who is responsible for this anathema? I believe that most of the blame can be attributed to a select few disk jockeys who have pushed Rock and Roll onto its present pedestal.
     If this noxious prostitution of music continues, the cultural endeavors of the youngster will dimmish into limbo. Can’t you see your son or daughter sixty years from now listening to Elvis Presley’s immortal favorites as they sit complacently in their rocking chairs? Or maybe Chubby Checkers’ nomination into the hall of fame?[*]
     If anyone feels that they wish to preserve the cultural values of music, or simply wish to put the big band or the good vocalist back into the picture, they are going to have to go to work on this now. Public schools will have to institute a well-rounded program of music appreciation, to reinterest the student in better music. More fine music should be brought into the home with records or the radio, but not forced upon the youngster. If a general interest could be created, the music world could be saved; but it will take a lot of surreptitious work on the part of the quasi-indifferent adult.


[*] Chubby Checkers’ “The Twist” was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, four years short of 60 years.