Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Book Review: The Trouble with Music by Mat Callahan


There's still plenty of good music to listen to, but pretty much everyone can agree that music, in the general sense, is in a sort of crisis. The harbingers are everywhere: the RIAA suing its own customers by the thousands, payola is rampant and monoculture overwhelms radio and television. Turn on American Idol to see what I'm talking about. Most of the music the modern world now hears is less inspired and more manufactured than ever. And while disaffected youth and ego-stricken hipsters seem content to simply bitch and moan and go on listening to their iPods, one man has raised a loud and poignant voice against what he describes as a plague of 'Anti-music'.

Mat Callahan is a music industry veteran who has seen and heard enough. In The Trouble with Music, the author makes a meticulous and impassioned argument for a new understanding of music in the 21st century. The book pivots on the premise that capitalist excess and celebrity worship have eroded the true power of music on both a social and personal level. Not just a manifesto for the musician of the future, this text is a survival guide for music listening in today's postmodern culturefuck.

The first couple of chapters drive to the heart of Callahan's discontent: quantity has replaced quality in the music industry. To facilitate mass consumption, listeners have been stripped of the ability to differentiate between music as an experience and music as a sonic product. He makes an important distinction between 'Pop' (originating from the industry and sold to masses of people) and 'The Popular' (originating from masses of people and sold by the industry), favoring the latter. He illustrates how celebrity obscures artistry as the masses tragically purchase music based on how it looks rather than how it sounds.

Citing philosophical, political, historical and sociological sources, Callahan then lets loose a winding diatribe, exhaustively exposing the vital relationship of music to technology and providing a biting critique of contemporary radio. He illuminates the role of dance and festival in the listening experience, arguing that music ought to be a party attended by all; a communal experience instead of an individual purchase. This is followed by an appraisal of the power of music to reflect and change society, and how this power has been hijacked from the community and exploited by the industry.

The most prescient passages are saved for last as the final chapter delves deep into the implications of digital music. Pulling quotes from both Thomas Jefferson and Prince, Callahan questions the basis for ownership of music in a world where technology allows one to have access to all music without having to own any of it. As throughout the rest of the book, the author alternates between half-full and half-empty glasses, tempering healthy optimism with frank discussions of the sorry sonic state of our musical input and output.

With dozens of sources and lengthy footnotes, The Trouble with Music may put off the casual reader but it's deeply rewarding for the initiated. Any musician with even a passing interest in pushing the art form forward will find this to be a holy book. Likewise, motivated music fans will glean a great deal of wisdom and come away with a much deeper appreciation for their aural passions. It's unfortunate that the average music listener may be put off by the intellectual involvement of Callahan's heady prose because they're exactly the ones who would benefit the most from digesting his message. One can only hope that the musical vanguards that are awakened by his text will carry the torch onward and burn down the old music industry so that we all might turn off our radios, put down our wallets and hear music for exactly what it is.

The book is available from the fine publishing house of AK Press. This review will appear in the upcoming issue of Altercation.