18 November 2022

Dr. Stange Tunes (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate the Music Culture Wars)

I am currently reading Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres by Keleefa Sanneh. It's a book I wish I had written. Only stupidly, I never took the plunge and became a music writer in the late eighties. Then again, my chemical hobbies were limited to beer of increasing quality and various whiskeys and rums. Not sure if I could have survived the rock 'n roll lifestyle, which is fully embraced by Sanneh's other six genres: R&B, Country, Punk, Hip-Hop, Dance, and Pop. 

Sanneh, a longtime music critic and son of a Gambian immigrant, is clearly in love with the job and listening to as wide a variety of music as possible. As a second generation American, he doesn't have nearly the cultural baggage the rest of us insist on piling on ourselves.

He begins with rock, then R&B. And while he loves the Beatles and the Stones, Aretha Franklin and Beyonce, he's a bit harsh on those genres' fans and musicians. The division between the two is sharply along racial lines. This is somewhat true, but he's almost gleeful in his descriptions of country music. Hard not to be when you lead off with Dolly Parton, Willy Nelson, and Waylon Jennings.And yet, one of the hallmarks of Nashville's country community, as well as country radio and its fans, is the purism Sanneh bemaons about rock and R&B.

Which brings me to an aspect of music - or rather listening to music - I can no longer tolerate.

"If you listen to this kind of music, you can't listen to that."

Excuse me?

Once it's out in the ether, I can listen to Miles Davis back to back with Black Flag, chase it with Blake Shelton before chilling out to Pink Floyd. I absolutely hate purism. I hate it with movies. And yet I'm guilty of it.

In my misspent youth, my entire love of rock was based on one band, Deep Purple. Deep Purple begat Rainbow and Whitesnake, as well as two forgettable line-ups of Black Sabbath, and had, for all-too-short a year, a versatile guitar player named Tommy Bolin. The cross-pollination lead me to Jeff Beck, to the Yardbirds, Cream, and Led Zeppelin. Couple that with an earlier obsession with the Beatles, and my rock had to be loud, with melodic bass, screaming vocals, and frantic drums. 

I was a snob. A girl who wanted to date me gave up when my obliviousness fixated on loathing an eighties romantic classic, "I Just Died in Your Arms Tonight." Things only got worse when I discovered Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Then it went to progressive rock: Yes, early Genesis and later Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, ELP, and Rush, who firmly kept a foot in in their heavy metal roots, and a bizarre, ever-changing band called King Crimson.

You think Crimson would have been a hint. "21st Century Schizoid Man" does not sound like anything on the more obscure Islands or the metal-leaning "Red" or the punk influenced sounds of Adrian Belew. (Chit! Chat! Chit! Chat!) Robert Fripp wasn't running a rock band, even a progressive rock band. Fripp is a tyrannical visionary who thrives on his bandmates hating his leadership and, paradoxically, improvisation. One line-up morphed into another band, UK, and the most recent spun off at least four bands. Fripp comes off as a humorless perfectionist, which, if you've ever seen his hilarious videos with wife Toyah Wilcox, he is most certainly not. 

So, if one of my favorite bands and its cast of thousands of ex-members loathe and despise purism - Let's be honest here, Crimson is a jazz band that doesn't play jazz. Much. - how could I be a purist? Purists are killjoys. I'll stop short of the worst criticisms and just say they have benign prejudices. 

For the past five years, I've gone to sleep to the sounds of country music. My wife loves country, is burned out on Rush, and probably wouldn't stay in the room beyond the first chords of anything off Three of a Perfect Pair. My parents killed country for me. (I returned the favor by playing The White Album. Over. And over. And...) But country has the same appeal to me as jazz. I don't know squat about Luke Bryan or Alan Jackson. Dolly Parton doesn't count since she is so open about her life, like a favorite aunt coming to visit. Similarly, I know little about Bill Evans or John Coltrane. The ignorance is refreshing. Contrast that with my experience with rock. I can tell you what Keith Richards had for breakfast. (Corn flakes, coffee, and an unfiltered Camel. Thanks for asking.) That sort of blissful ignorance lets the music wash over me. 

The only true musician working today

I occasionally run into someone who complains about my music choices. When I was in my twenties, those would be fightin' words. Now? Is the music too white? Too black? Is that the objection? Is there a political motivation behind the objection? It completely ignores the most important part of my music choices.

I don't care. I don't want to hear about cultural considerations or "selling out" (although I'd like a word with a few country bands who decided "country" means "throw-back to British synthesizer pop." I don't remember Buck Owens playing that.) 

There's only one reason to pick your music.

It hits the ears right. All other considerations are meaningless.


  1. Gotta agree with you, Jim. I play open mics, and I play a mishmash of old blues, country, folk, sixties rock (Beatles, Stones, Dead, Who, Kinks, Buffalo Springfield, etc.), Americana, and anything else that catches my ear. Basically, if I like it, I'll try to learn it, and forget the label/genre.
    Last night, I attended an open mic where the first performer did rap, the second was fifties Jazz guitar, the third played his own blues-tinged songs, and the fourth played Hank Williams. I opened with a Buffalo Springfield song, then did the Brothers Four's "Green Fields." We all sat at two tables and shared a pitcher of beer.

    It's the same with books. I write "Crime/Mystery/suspense," but I'll use ideas or techniques I found somewhere else, including Shakespeare and Wallace Stevens. I don't call the people "Purists." I call them "Narrow-minded," or even "Snobs." No genre or type is bad, only the execution.

  2. I've always said that if someone looked at my regular playlist, they'd assume I'm an African Asian Indian Irish Nordic blues-loving hard rock soft rock nun. I drove Spotify crazy before I dropped it. They couldn't figure out what to recommend.


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