We can’t even sing anymore

January 5, 2007 | By | 13 Replies More

I’m in the middle of reading This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, a delightful work by Daniel J. Levitin.   I plan to write about this book when I’m finished reading it, but one thing he wrote in his introduction especially intrigued me.

Levitin writes that our culture makes a distinction between “expert” performers and the rest of us.  We defer to experts to produce music.  In most traditional cultures, it wasn’t that way.  In traditional cultures, everyone who could talk was expected to sing.  Singing and dancing were both natural activities involving everyone. 

Nowadays, expert performers command high prices for their often high-quality work.  “Two concert tickets can easily cost as much as a week’s food allowance for a family of four …”

It seems as though we’ve turned over many important functions to the experts.  Sports is now something that should be done by experts.  The rest of us pay to see them play sports.  This is true, even though many of us who pay the high prices for those sports tickets could really use a lot more workouts ourselves instead of sitting on our butts downing overpriced beer and nachos.

In fact, when most of us try to play music or compete athletically, we do so feeling decidedly inferior, because we have been convinced that we are nothing compared to those well-known performers, X, Y or Z.  Many woman have developed psychological complexes about wearing clothes, due to the constant notoriety given to professional models.  Those “experts” are intimidating.

The same goes for all forms of art, though Youtube and other Internet sites are starting to change that with regard to music and writing.  This site is one of the many blogs written by people who are not paid a living wage to write about these sorts of topics (in fact, none of the writers at this site has been paid anything at all to write at this site).  Bloggers are thus breaking a taboo of sorts. Is this a source of some of the resentment expressed against bloggers by some members of the mainstream media?

In some fields, it’s really not true that all well-known performers are far superior to all amateurs.  Perhaps the experts got an early break and perhaps their continued financial success is path dependent on that early break.  I’m especially thinking of music, where many high paid performers have mediocre talent while many local low-paid performers are superb musicians. 

The general rule, promoted by the media, however, is that the experts are the experts and the rest of us are the amateurs.  With regard to many of the relevant skills, this is literally true, of course.  Most of us couldn’t compete with the experts.  Most of us would look foolish if directly compared with Albert Pujols or Eric Clapton.  But it seems as though a harmful broader message has also been spread in the process:  amateurs shouldn’t even try.

We seem to be a culture that doesn’t simply admire the skills of experts. We give homage to them.  This makes me wonder whether there’s any connection between this general tendency give homage to experts and the willingness of so many Americans to defer to half-baked religious “experts” rather than doing the hard work to carve out their own meaning of life. 

I’m still thinking this one through.

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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, music, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (13)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    The broader issue is that entertainment has become something to passively absorb, in the last century. In "primitive" times (like Einstein's) entertainment was an activity. People played music, played games, and told stories. Books were sources of stories to tell. Concerts were attended to pick up new riffs, as well as to see superior performances.

    The twentieth century allowed performances to be prepackaged; instant fun. Stories of no real weight (pulp fiction) took its place on the shelves with literature, quickly surpassing the latter in popularity. Popular theater for the masses transformed from acting out elaborate stories to filling the spaces between commercial and political messages.

    Adolescent bands with electric instruments and 4 chords out-published seasoned musicians of real skill.

    Because of the broadcast and publishing industries, the public only needs a very small number of writers/actors/musicians/athletes to keep them entertained, compared to the previous millennia. As the demand vanished, so did the will to participate and perform. Expertise essentially got distilled into a smaller and smaller set of people. Each publisher has to set its group of experts above the others, creating a hierarchy of experts with the capable majority of potential performers actively discouraged from even trying.

    But this is just a random thought pulled out of my, uh, hat.

  2. Jason Rayl says:

    In this culture, the "experts" are those who get paid to do what they do. The question of whether they get paid because they do it well or do it only because they get paid may be problematic, but not at all irrelevent.

    We can all name those people in the arts we personally feel are shucking us all–top of my list is Rod Stewart, who cannot, in my opinion, sing a note worth listening to. Same goes for Mick Jagger.

    But people LIKE them, and so they get paid to do what they do. Are they "good" at it? Or is it purely an aesthetic reaction disconnnected from the concept of Good?

    Our problem is the pay thing. If someone is making money at something, the assumption is automatic that they are "good enough" at it to warrant the money, even when some other factor may be involved. Others who are demonstrably "good" at what they do get paid poorly if at all, so the assumption is–what? that they aren't good enough? Or that the public–pardon me, I mean The Public–simply devalues them for reasons having nothing to do with skill?

    When we encounter someone who is very good at something, often our reaction is "You should sell this." The assumption being that the natural condition of quality equals money. If they choose not to, then we are left with ambivalent feelings about the nature of talent and skill. This is made even worse when we realize that for many of us we cannot obtain that quality of art unless we pay for it. It sets up a bizarre social situation in which we probably would never consider going to someone's home to hear them play (for free) well or otherwise, but will think nothing perhaps of paying that very person's way to attend a (not free) performance that may not be as good as what that person can do at home. But there is no context to address this seeming gap.

    The question then becomes–is it the art? Or the fashion? Is it the quality? or the Celebrity?

    And how do we measure up in that scale?

  3. Scholar says:

    Actually, when compared with Eric Clapton, I think I am a better baseball player. Also, I am very possibly a better singer than Pujols. What I like to do, is try picking up one of these sports/games/abilities and see if these people really do have "special" abilities. In some cases, I fair well, in other cases, it becomes obvious that years and years of training would be required to acheive a high level of performance. Occasionally, I happen upon things which I could (seemingly) never be good at, whether it's because of physical or mental barriers, a product of environment, or "simple" heredity.

    One example from my life which I am proud is in the area of sport. I was often the shortest kid in class up until high school where I shot up to my current towering height of 5'9". Basketball was especially challenging for me as a child compared to the other sports (which I was better suited), because I was on the short side. Later, in high school, basketball kind of became a social sport, and we would play in the mornings, or after school. Eventually, with this continuous practice, I developed ball control skills, and athletic ability, and shooting ability. Still, as good as I was at playing with my group of friends, a quick glance over at the *real* basketball team would bring me back to reality. They would practice "ally-oops" and dunks and 360 degree reverse layups, etc. To say that I was envious would be an understatement. If I jumped as high as I could, I was able to touch the net under the hoop. Well, it wasn't exactly a dunk, but I knew I could improve if I focused my energy on jumping and leg strengthening. Years later, after hill running, thousands of attempts at jumping as high as I could, I am able to jump and touch the rim of a regulation basketball hoop (not to mention I improved my game tremendously). I have since conceded that I will not ever be able to dunk, in fact it took me a whole year to attain that last inch of vertical leap to be able to touch the rim.

  4. Rob Hutten says:

    "You know, we just buy music now. We don't make it any more. And that goes for just about everything. I think it's so important that people develop and subscribe to and have confidence in their own ability to make music, however rough it is."

    – Tom Waits

    "Everybody should do some music. Every creature and every material has the music inside, it's its energy; music is actually very easy, there's nothing to it, and everybody should search for his own."

    – Erkan Oğur

    "Music is music. Bach or the fat guy playing 'oh Susanna' on his armpit at the block party every July fourth, it's all the same basic language."

    – Pat Costello

  5. hogiemo says:

    I blame the Republicans. Our mass culture has been exploited and dumbed down to 15-30 second soundbites from Karl Rove and his ilk. Just witness now how the "decider" has become the "consulter", "hearing from many opinions". Panels of experts, corporate consultants to government on energy issues, or talking to anyone you claim is an expert gives you the insulation from having to be accountable for failings or mistakes. Oooops, I forgot, W doesn't make mistakes, his "experts" do.

    Next, I blame us. We've allowed them to get away with it. Until last November, that is. We need to reconnect with each other and cultivate communities where we support the arts, science and increased public participation. I see this site as that and the exchanges here a positive thing.

    As for stories, music and dance, I have my kids and spouse (who has "found" her musical voice after years of believing she couldn't sing)! We'll work on the rest of the world, soon.

  6. Joe says:

    A counterpoint from someone in the "expert" realm – within my friends, I'm notoriusly picky and enthusiastic about music, demanding the finest for my listening material.

    I'm from a musical family – my sister is a professional classical musician and I am classically trained in theory and multiple instruments as well. I have perfect pictch, so I can tell when someone is off pitch the same way that most people could tell if the red light in a stop light was pink. I have also worked in the music industry for a dozen years. The vast majority of the musicians I work with are not massively popular in pop music, but some of them are recognised as being at the top of the game in their small sections and there's an assortment of Grammy winners and multi-platinum sellers in them.

    In the grand scheme of things, I'm nowhere near the top of anything in the "expert" world, but I know and in some cases have worked with the best.

    Because of this, my friends tend to think that I look down on them musically and don't want to hear their amateur efforts, which is far from the truth. Just because I enjoy gourmet food doesn't mean I can't enjoy a good basic hamburger as well. Do I love hearing the best? Of course. But I'm involved with music because I love music, not because I love perfection. I've loved it when significant others have sung to me, regardless of talent level. Some of my earliest memories are of my mother singing me to sleep. Her talent level didn't matter, it was the love she was expressing through music that counted.

    I judge people's ability relative to the level that they should be at. A band may be great for a talent night performance but a poor choice as the opening act at an arena performance. There's no shame in not being the best at something. You don't criticize your 8 year old nephew playing Little League baseball because he can't keep up with a professional player. It's true that your talent level will affect how many people will chose to spend time watching or listening to you, but that's just the way it is.

    But I will never tell something they shouldn't sing, and if you want to sing, there's always a willing audience of one.

  7. I've noticed much the same thing. It's terrible when you think about it. Sport, and art, and music are ways of enjoying and expressing ourselves, and instead we outsource it all to other people. We are hiring people to have fun and express our personalities.

    Interestingly enough there are places where this tendancy is overcome on a wide scale. For instance, at the Burning Man festival lots of people do some form of art or other self-expression (and nobody is paid for it). The result is often much more interesting then professional work, and everyone can participate if they choose to.

  8. Sarah Boslaugh says:

    I think this discussion may be missing a crucial point. I know tons of amateur musicians and both my husband and myself belong in that category (we do occasionally get paid for playing, but it's not our primary income). But I bet you have never heard of us, because we are known primarily in the circle of people we perform with. And that's fine: we'd rather spend an evening making music than listening to someone else do it.

    I don't see the point in slagging people who do make money through music or baseball or whatever: they're really in a different field of endeavor than us parking lot pickers and weekend warriors. McDonald's must be the greatest restaurant in the world if you judge by the number of meals they have served, but no one confuses their product with that produced by a local restaurant.

    I do wonder why so many people seem to prefer to watch other people do stuff, rather than doing it themselves. It is a choice, although it may be made out of laziness or gnorance of the alternatives. St. Louis, MO, for instance, has a very lively amateur musical scene and there are all kinds of opportunities to get involved even at a beginning level. To take another example, my office partner plays in some kind of amateur sports more or less year-round, not because he's the greatest athlete but because he enjoys it.

  9. At the risk of being too bloggy tonight, here is a link to what Vonnegut calls the "greatest short story". I disagree, but it's still damn good, and ended up affecting me more than I could have predicted but less than I had hoped (try and figure that logic out).  Click here.

    For Christmas I received the book "The Cat That Walks Through Walls" by Heinlein. I ended up buying the James Morrow book "The Last Witchunter" for my mom, and "The God Delusion" by Dawkins for my dad. Really I want my mom to read the God Delusion but I didn't want to seem to pushy, and I know she will read it anyway since I gave it to my dad. I look forward to reading all three books. Has anybody here read "Slaugherhouse Five" by Vonnegut? The internet buzz on it seems good, but I would like more input before I read it.

  10. Jason Rayl says:

    The ideas and basic story in Slaugfhterhouse Five are terrific. I personally can't abide Vonnegut's writing, though. He made a conscious decision long ago to write at the level of his audience, which at that time he somehow determined to be fifth grade. I resent the tone and therefore have a real problem with him (For a contract, see his very first novel, Player Piano, wherein he shows he can write for adults.)

    The Cat Who Walked Through Walls was one of the most frustrating of Heinlein's novels. For me, at least.

  11. Erika Price says:

    When we do see "normal" people singing, dancing, or involved in physical activity, we usually see them in the frame of the reality tv show. And how does such "reality" tv portray the common person? People with average or mediocre abilities become mocked relentlessly on whatever incarnation of American Idol the networks have on at the moment. I think such portrayals send a clear message to the majority of the public: you have no place dancing, or singing, or displaying any of your unimpressive "talents"; you should instead sit in your cubicle and consume. Since so many of us feel unfit to display our own abilities, we must devote our lives to watching the performances of others.

  12. Sarah Boslaugh says:

    OK, Erika, you just answered a major question for me. People whose only experience of "ordinary" people making music comes through the tv will think there are no such people, or that they should be made fun of. People who are actually making their own music are not watching American Idol and know that what is called "Reality" on tv is far from it.

    Oddly enough, I know people who love watching the Reality shows and making fun of the people who appear on them. So I guess the networks have tapped into a basic human source of pleasure, which is feeling superior to other people. Can't blame them: they're a for-profit business.

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