I was pleased to sub for Woodstock Day School music teacher Peter Dougan. This offered me an opportunity to work with Peter’s talented Advanced Ensemble, kids aged 14 to 18. Watching them was thrilling, and really transported me to bygone days. Peter had not only tutored them on individual instruments – guitar, drums, bass, keys, vocals –but he’d also taught them to read music.
“I don’t read music, Peter,” I told him.
“That’s okay,” he said. “Just have them run their set, and make sure they behave.”
That I could do. The set was wildly eclectic: XTC’s ‘Senses Working Overtime,” The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” King Crimson’s “Starless,” and Esperanza Spalding’s “Judas.” New-wave pop, California rock, prog, and jazz. These kids had it all down.
I was particularly excited about “Senses Working Overtime,” which I’d never heard played live. I’d learned to play bass by intensely studying that and other XTC tunes in my mid-teens.
“I had the album this song is from,” I told them as they tuned up. “English Settlement!”
Their interest was tepid at best.
“You ever see their videos?” I asked. “They were like cute librarians.”
They had not seen the videos.
“Would you like to see the videos?” I asked. That was something I could definitely teach them: Eighties style.
They did not care to see the videos. Turned out, except for Esperanza Spalding, not one student had any idea what any of these bands looked like, and so what? We watched the “Senses Working Overtime” video anyway. They were mildly amused, mostly, I think, by my goofy enthusiasm.
Their disinterest neither surprised nor disappointed me. Having raised a digital native, I’ve long since realized how music consumption now resembles the pre-album era: once again, it’s all about singles, and, as in radio days (pre-TV), artists are generally more faceless. If there’s ever a visual component, some digital packaging, it’s usually miniscule, especially if it’s an independent band. Videos exist, of course, but they’re not omnipresent, as in my day.
I grew up on albums – my mom’s, then my own – and I was 16 when MTV came to town. The visuals of music presentation were of paramount importance, more so than at any other time in history. It’s in my blood, for good or ill.
I first noticed how far we were from those days when my son Jack attended Phoenicia Elementary, and walked around the house belting out “Livin’ On a Prayer,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and “Eye of the Tiger.” All songs with strong visual components for me, because I’d seen the videos – actually made fun of the ludicrous videos – innumerable times in my youth.
“You know what these bands look like?” I asked.
“Did you know one was labeled ‘hair metal,’ another ‘corporate rock,’ and another ‘MOR rock’?”
No, and WTF?
Jack just loved those songs. And so did their friends. When Jack’s own music entered the house – Sufjan Stevens, Death Cab for Cutie, The Mountain Goats – it was most often enjoyed on subpar earbuds or laptop speakers, and with no flickering images on a screen searing these artists’ faces and hairstyles into my kid’s impressionable mind.
In some ways, that’s all good.
Yes, I get nostalgic for the many hours I pored over liner notes, and the untold time watching MTV and VH1, and yes, I know the digital revolution of which I speak has made it even harder for musicians like me to make money. (Do I ever.) Nevertheless, I am heartened by the undimmed power of the song as a standalone entity. Clearly, it is unkillable.
Regardless of the tyranny of cool, the banditry of the business, the cut of the trousers, or the style of the hair, the song is alive and well and doesn’t care how it looks.