Tchaikovsky, Drake, and how music dies

One of the most popular moves in popular music is to make everything about love. This is sweet, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But the problem is when music fails to recognise what this move entails: the death of music. Let me explain.

Art to an extreme.

Music in the modern age begun with the 18th century, when the modern state, democracy, and capitalism were beginning to be born. More broadly, a ‘commercial society’ based on the intricacies of class conflict and trade competition was emerging from the ashes of Christendom. This included the rise of a new kind of music, baroque music, with intricate harmonic concords and discords based on overlapping melodies and constant rhythms. The signal composer of this era was J. S. Bach. Then, classical music regularised and formalised the elaborate structure of baroque, simplifying the elaborate counterpoint harmony of Bach into the rolling bass-lines and song-like melodies of Mozart. Following this gross simplification of baroque complexity grew a new power: the power of passion, of romantic loss and desire. This culminated in Beethoven’s reinvention of musical technique with the flourishing of newfound artistry, in the wake of Mozart’s last work, Requiem. But after Beethoven, artistry was let free from technical constraints. Attempts to recover baroque technicality in such romantic composers as Felix Mendelssohn did not endure. Eventually composers like Verdi and Tchaikovsky made a living from essentially ripping off the technical and melodic ideas from Mozart and Beethoven. Bach’s technique was lost in the artistry of his successors. Music died as art was set free from technical constraints in the abyss of romanticism.

But technique returned, in the form of jazz music, which synthesised rhythmical complexity with harmonic complexity. Rock music simplified the structure again, like the classical answer to baroque music. Hip hop then set free artistry, but not without first laying a technical foundation of ‘beats and bars’ in the 1990s. Kanye West unleashed artistry upon popular music with his 2010 My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But the preceding albums Graduation and 808s and Heartbreak set the stage for the technical standards of popular music in the last decade. Synthesisers, off-beat drum patterns, and auto-tuned vocals soon became a norm across hip hop and popular music (genres which are increasingly becoming indistinguishable). In hip hop itself, technique was recovered by Kendrick Lamar, who draws on jazz and rock music to made highly refined beats and bars, echoing the artistic inspiration of Kanye West in his own pursuit of a kind of technical perfection. But even Kendrick is now running after the artistic lodestar on his latest trauma-concerned Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers.

Popularised hip hop is dominated by Drake, who has built his career on the auto-tune, synthesised record 808s and Heartbreak by the greater artist who he takes after. Kanye West got hip hop out of the streets and into the shopping malls. Kendrick Lamar and Drake both agree with this move, but dress it up in different attires: Kendrick makes bougie music seem street-like again, while Drake makes bougie music sound even boogier. But the movie still follows Kanye’s bourgeoisification of music: in losing technique and prioritising artistry, Kanye is expressing the fundamental lack at the centre of bourgeois society — the lack of any constraint on the pursuit of money other than money itself. Kanye doesn’t like this, and therefore subverts his own middle-class turn in music, by allowing middle-class music to be self-critical and aware of its limitations in a class-divided society, where the middle class is usually aligned with the ruling class and not with the working class. On the album Yeezus, Kanye takes aim directly at this structure on the song ‘New Slaves’, a critique he has tried (and failed) to develop into a political strategy since. Art can bridge from technique to politics, but not on its own. It needs philosophy, too. A heart needs a head.

Drake takes this contradiction to its absurd conclusion: a love-obsessed, mania-stricken, thoughtless mass of drives and desires, with no particular direction or logic. Drake paints a portrait of ‘pictures of jealousy’, echoing the 18th-century pattern of Jealousy of Trade. There are ‘no friends in the industry’, Drake claims. Perhaps there are no friends in market society, as a whole. And in that sense, the Hamlet of hip hop expresses something worth recalling: that no one individual can save the world, especially if they’re not even trying, or can see that it needs saving. Love is not the problem. Love without care, an impartial concern with the welfare of all people, including the ones we love, is. Take Care, Drake asks of us. Perhaps he should ask it of himself. When we take a look at the man in the mirror, we can hold a mirror up to nature, and let love live again. First, we must make music ‘new again’, as Kanye asks of himself. Artists like Kanye and Michael Jackson are endlessly self-critical. Drake couldn’t care less, because he only cares about someone else. But if music is to be made new again, we have to concede something to the nothingness we confront in romanticism. Then, we have to move on. And try again. Drake ‘tri-tri-tried’. Let’s try better. Or, to echo Yoda’s advice to Luke, let us do, or do not. There is no try. That, perhaps, is how music dies.

Disclaimer: Any similarity between names mentioned and actual individuals is purely accidental and largely theoretical. These are fun ideas to entertain but, as always, I may be mistaken. After all, what do I know?

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