An elliott live video that I hadn’t seen before popped up on youtube today. Dated 1998, it really made me think about how cool it is that these guys had such proficiency at what they were doing at a relatively young age. ..and not only that, but they had also gone a long way to develop their own artistic style – I was going to say art form, but rock music wasn’t new, and there was a whole community even in just their geography.. but still, what they were doing had some new elements. I think that’s got to be a really fulfilling situation to be in. Very self directed.
There’s some allure for me in music attached to a geography that I also am attached to. Last week I watched a documentary called “It’s Gonna Blow: San Diego’s Music Underground 1986-1996“. It was pretty good. I’ve gathered some “dots” of information about the San Diego music scene past, but this helped me connect them and make a little more sense of it.
Hearing about some of this stuff in a chronological context reminded me a lot of some things that I saw and heard about in Lafayette. In my formative years (1998-ish) there, I ran a local music website, and at one point around 2001, my friend Pat was kind enough to write me a fairly comprehensive history of the Lafayette music scene from his vantage point. It coincides with the timespan covered in the aforementioned movie quite well, and I’d guess that similar other stories across the country match too. Kind of a Dischord Records to post-Seattle era. I can’t tell if this was a particularly good window of time for music, or if I’m just partial because it’s when I was young and into music.
Anyway, here’s Pat’s history of Lafayette music: Continue reading
As I’m trying to establish myself here in San Diego, I’ve found that I’m gravitating towards music again. I’m just a few blocks from a great concert venue that a lot of locals and larger names play, and I think that finding myself in that fray reminds me how much accumulated knowledge, and maybe even skill I have in the area.
While I’ve been thinking more deeply philosophically about music, expression and identity, I bumped into a couple of interesting articles. The first, The Assault on Intellect: How Popular Music’s Lyrics Perpetuate American Idiocy cites work by Andrew Powell-Morris on the topic of “Lyrical Intelligence” wherein the author uses some rubric to determine the reading level of lyrics on the billboard charts over the past 10 years and graphs it all out. The takeaway is that lyrically, pop music is getting dumber.
I don’t necessarily agree with the metric – I think I’d like to somehow measure the depth of the themes of the songs as well as the instrumental maturity.. but nevertheless, it’s a pretty interesting idea, and one that has crossed my mind in the past. Notably, I remember a paraphrase from a friend back in Lafayette on the topic of local bands – “I don’t like local bands; They all try to make their music difficult”. The last half of that certainly has some salience to me. I remember playing in one of my longer running bands, Summerfield, and trying so hard to create something original and challenging. I’ve come to understand this as something of an appeal to ego, but doesn’t make me value it any less. I think the flip side is a band that can go play a three chord song that people enjoy dancing to. Both are valid in their own ways.. Why I’m attracted more to the former, I don’t know. Leaving a lasting mark? Advancing an artform? Self fulfillment from conquering a challenge?
Back to the literature review though.. I saw another article around the same time that referenced a GZA interview on the topic of the absence of lyricism in modern hip-hop. I’ve heard a little of this material before in other interviews with the rapper, but this was a broader collection of ideas. GZA’s criteria of quality aren’t that well organized, but I’ll attempt to capture them in bullet point format here:
- discussing the art of MCing
- good analogies
- good wordplay
- good sentence structure
- good visuals
- not about negative things (?)
- having a message
- telling a great story
- grabbing you / pulling you in
- understanding life
- smart rhymes
- clever rhymes
I see three main themes in these items.. The first is embracing a kind of “meta” culture – describing your rapping skills, and maybe even bragging about them. This is definitely a prominent element in most music styles, but I’m not sure if is really a strong thread in what makes lyrics “good”, at least not for me, from a critical viewpoint.
Storytelling is another theme mentioned by GZA. This one definitely resonates with me and I’ve often cited a good story as the main driver for my preference of hip hop songs. In an era of popular artists bragging about material possessions and success at dubious endeavors, hearing a good story can make a difference.
The last, and largest theme in GZA’s list of preferred qualities seems to be a general intellectual depth and thoughtfulness. Both in terms of being a person with a broad knowledge to draw from but also displaying an aptitude for abstract thinking. This, I think, most relates to the example I cited above about local bands. GZA’s motivations to be creative, innovative and intellectual may be ego driven, but they do also push the envelope of what other artists are doing.
Looping back to the Lyrical intelligence rating, I suspect the criteria used there would probably call GZA’s works less intelligent since the main metric is application of grammar rules – something that is less important to the artist than the wit and craftiness he imbues.
I guess I wrote this all out to start a conversation with myself about how to make smarter music. I’m going to forego the question of whether challenging music is better or worse than simple music. What is “good” to me? and how would one integrate the conversational tradition of most music lyrics with something more heady?
This past weekend I attended the Industrial Designers Society of America, Midwestern Design Dialog Conference. This was the first design conference I’ve been to, so I really didn’t know what to expect.. Unfortunately, our school-provided transportation didn’t run early enough for me to check out the workshops, so really, for me, the whole thing consisted of a bunch of 25 minute talks. I have to admit that I was pretty bummed out that all I got for my $175 registration fee was a “live” version of watching TED talks on Youtube, and free beer at an after party put on by my own school. I suppose I should acknowledge some other benefits though:
Of the approximately 6 total vendor booths, one of them was useful. They were promoting a new software that the marketing material suggested was named “Evolve”. It is both NURBS and parametric, which is particularly helpful for industrial designers; saving the step of translation of a pretty Rhino model to a manufacturable SolidWorks model. The spokesman told me the software was free for students, which is awesome because neither Rhino or SolidWorks are free. When I got home and tried to find the software, I couldn’t find anything called Evolve, but further review of their handbill sent me to the site of a company called solidThinking who have a product called solidThinking, which I assume is what they were actually advertising? I couldn’t find any free student downloads so I sent them an email inquiry.. still haven’t heard back.
Another benefit, albeit not design related, was getting to chat for a bit with Dave Mucci from the moto mucci blog. For the uninitiated, his blog is mostly about nice looking motorcycles including his own CX500 project, which I snapped a photo of in person. It turns out that he is an Industrial designer and works at TEAMS, the design studio where we had our senior show.
Getting back to the talks.. There were a handful of good ones, some boring ones, and a few that totally seemed like ego trips. (Sorry Motorola) The theme was “Exploring creative fusion”, although from what I took away, it should have been “The rise of the design proletariat”. Perhaps my personal leanings steered me towards this perception, but I think it was backed up by Chris Pacione’s talk “Design Literacy: Why Design is Emerging as the Next Pervasive Human Literacy” and Zach Kaplan’s “Bringing the Factory to the Desktop”. The latter yielded a great find in Zach’s Inventables.com which is kind of like a hardware store for the modern DIYer. Joe Graceffa from IDEO had a nice talk regarding the necessity to include fun in the design lifestyle, that interestingly referenced a “for fun” project that his office outsourced to an Etsy seller.
There were other good topics, especially “Mobile apps must die”; a call to kill off ultra specific, redundant apps, and replace them with a system of local area service discovery. I guess I’d like to focus on the idea of DIY encroaching on design though. I’m pretty new to this game, only really knowing what Industrial design is since 2009, and only now starting a graduate program regarding it. I get the creeping feeling that “professional” part of it is about to fall out, much the way it did with computers and IT in the 90’s. Now, as then, the tools are just becoming more readily available. Then it was the IBM PC, now it’s the 3D printer. I feel like maybe the design industry should be thinking about how to collaborate more readily with the DIYer. Certainly there can be a synergistic relationship.
So yeah.. My first design conference was an interesting experience, and quite a bit different than the Independent music conferences I’m used to. There were some valuable tidbits to be had, but at the same time, I really don’t think it was worth $175. I doubt I’ll go back next year. Until then, I’ll just keep watching TED talks for free.