Is technical talent truly inspiring?
I watched a live performance of Shadowplay by Joy Division from 1978 on Youtube the other day. The performance was raw, the playing was amateur and the vocals were out of key and..
it was still amazing.
I proceeded to read the comments below and was pleasantly surprised that 90% of the comments were also praising the performance. Only one person mentioned the lack of technical skill and everybody jumped down his throat.
Then of course everyone was dogging the Cover version of this song by The Killers basically calling them a bunch of hacks. Now technically speaking, The Killers version could easily be considered better. It was sonically recorded and mixed better, the instruments were well played and the vocals were on key.. but nobody cared. Now I’m not here to say The Killers are shit, but rather I want to explore why bands like Joy Division, Bauhaus and The Cure are practically worshipped despite their lack of what some would call musicianship.
Why are bands like these so well respected despite(or perhaps even because of) a lack of technical talent? What is that magic formula? Why is it that we excuse their lack of technical talent and in fact rate them much higher than bands that clearly have better musicianship?
Some of you reading this will simply say these bands are completely over-rated or popular for being popular in the underground. I’m going to have to say that I believe there is more to it and I would like to explore this a bit deeper.
Being a proud non-musician myself, I enjoy the idea of mucking about on an instrument like a curious child. If I already felt I knew everything there was to know, I probably wouldn’t be very interested in making music. I suppose what I do mocks people that slave over their instrument of choice, but I don’t think that is the whole picture. I, in fact, have slaved over music, but the things I am interested in are how to convey a vibe.
Sometimes pure talent shows little humanity.
Often times talent is something you hide behind. Nakedness and vulnerability can evoke much more emotion. I personally think it takes bravery to stand up on a stage with little but a handful of chords and some ideas that you want to get across.
Don’t get me wrong, there are times when you need talent to convey a complex idea and those are amazing moments, but those moments are not driven by the desire to “show off” talent but rather to get across your message as accurately as possible.
There is also something to be said about having pent up emotion and being a bit frustrated that you can’t express it accurately. I think I can hear this in bands like Nirvana and Joy Division. Those bands were very vulnerable and spoke for so many who were afraid to speak for themselves. Those who were afraid of their own normality. We can see ourselves in those who show themselves, warts and all.
It might be safe to say that those who are true fans of music don’t base what is good on pure talent but rather on how the music hits them whether it be Mozart, The Who or Velvet Underground. I think it’s likely that “musicians” might get off on complexity for complexities sake because having the skill to learn it can be an ego boost in the same way as mastering a difficult video game. However, music is in a completely different field altogether. Some of the best music defies logic. Sometimes the words are nonsense and the simple parts that construct the song is laughable yet we still find something intriguing about it.
I like to think that there is more that goes into music than just the instruments and vocals. I think there is something that gets recorded between the notes that weaves through the empty gaps. A sort of “ghost in the machine”. I believe emotion and intention comes through the music and those subtleties are picked up by those who really “listen” and “feel” the music.
Although all of my examples in this blog are talking about live bands, I think the same “ghosts” can come through in electronic music as well. All instruments whether played by hand or programmed are soul-less until the soul is injected into it.
I am beginning to get into another tangent, so I will simply leave you with this Joy Division video. I hope it intrigues you to reconfirm or re-evaluate your attitude towards music and the shallow definitions of talent.
Happy Music Making
another well turned article ,i f you are not a musician ,at least your words flows from your pen as very well beautiful and accomplished song to me !! i really appreciate your articles and your wise and deep point of view,it’s very difficult to not think of you as musician,lol,
I’ll say to the writer of this article – it depends what you call (or what you want to call) ‘technical ability’. Is it the ability to write catchy songs, meaningful lyrics, and play with obvious passion, or is it simply to be louder and more often to advertise yourself more? Probably the latter and for good reason too. If you don’t play, you won’t get heard, and won’t be considered for all your genius.
You can’t compare Mozart to Nirvana, and this is an infuriating comparison. Not because of technical ability, not because of musicianmanship, and not even because of your haircut, but because there simply was no access to instruments! Had not cheap guitars and music-making equipment been churned out in the sixties, it’s likely we’d never have had the Who, the Doors, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix or any of the big names, and musicians might have resorted to ten-minute solo accapellas or banging their brains out on their drummers’ kick drum to get the point across. Give Mozart a bag of weed and a left-handed $40 guitar and he’d probably start composing some rather interesting music too.
It’s not technical ability, but the chance to be technically able (let alone good) and this is something extremely new in music. ONE – you don’t have to be good-looking or a virtuoso. TWO – you don’t have to know extremely influential political or artistic figures. THREE – you now have the power to put Mozart to shame. The only reason these classics were so celebrated, perhaps, is that they had all the bacon, when we had only the pasta. No wonder they were making better carbonaras!
And as we’ve given instruments to more people, we haven’t made things easier – we’ve only made things more difficult. There are more types of music than there are notes on my guitar. More time and effort goes into categorising these genres than you may think; particularly the eventual fisticuffs when I disagree that Today Is The Day is simply Noise Rock. Music is powerful, but music production is an extremely powerful weapon that can suck anyone in just the same, and we’ve given it to everybody.
It’s not to say that “In The Olden Days” everyone was stupid because they didn’t have access to a stack of compressors, amps, equalisers, gates, mixers, and limiters. We’re just on different levels. In those days, a new instrument was introduced once a century. In these days we’re introducing new instruments every DAY. Not only that but we get the tutorials too! Has anyone else pictured Tchaikovsky spinning in his grave to the point he shoots out and decapitates the entire Pirate Bay administration?
My final point is that, cursed yee oh olde cretin, this argument is far from new; no doubt many a previous scholar (or anyone with access to writing equipment) has been up in the darke composing fierce statements while his lantern burns late into the night, haphazardly setting fire to the curtains behind him and consuming his living area. Some would notice and put out the flame. Some would carry on forever on this argument, not realising that it is destroying them. I think I’m going for a cigarette now.
@T I would consider that a well crafted reply with solid points that I mostly agree with. If you had a blog, I’d read it. We have to accept that times are different for musicians yet this doesn’t equate necessarily to better music.
I didn’t write this from the perspective of whether this was an old or new argument. I just write what is on my mind and hope it sparks some additional thinking on the subjects. I am also not criticizing those who have technical talent. I am only suggesting that everybody has a voice that is unique and if you are inspired to use it, talent or not, you may be doing the world a favor.
Yes, there is alot of garbage out there. But i’d prefer that everyone gets a shot at trying then to govern who is deserving of sharing their art and who isn’t.
god that’s getting interesting and animated here bravo to you both!!!! very interestingly argumented, shame my english is that low that i can’t get really into it too!!!Anyway,as usual, i found this blog fabulous!Take care ;D
Ultimately, it’s the emotion and power of the work that grabs me where music is concerned. I do pay attention to technical and talent chops- but the heart & gut trump the head. (Well, except for the ears, but I can put aside my audiophile tendancies if need be!)
I’m right at the beginning of the learning curve here. I’m not a musician, I’m a technical person with a skull full of sounds and ideas and riffs and things I’ve been living with for most of my life. Finally, form and fortune can enable me to free them in some fashion, for others to hear what I’ve been hearing myself. I am at a place where I will have to deal with multiple learning curves- from composition to creating sounds, to actually playing an instrument- on top of the technical things I need to learn about the hard- and software itself.
It’s a daunting thing. I’m just glad there are outlets for folks like me- people who for whatever reason have not had a chance to make music. Mine might end up being awful, but at least I will be able to say I tried!
nice work as usual… and great example using joy division. one of my favorite bands
Thank you Jason for another thought provoking article.
Keep up the good work and happy New Year!!!
Thanks Jason, thought provoking stuff as usual. I agree with a lot of the points you raise here. I would add though that ‘technique’ is a term up for debate. You cited Nirvana, one of my favorite bands. Kurt Cobain gets labelled as a ‘punk’ guitarist a lot, and people go on about how Nirvana and other so-called grunge bands brought back a raw sensibility to rock music that stood in contrast to the flashy technique of the dominant ‘hair metal’ bands of the day. But I would seriously challenge the idea that Kurt was a non-technical guitarist. (I know that’s perhaps not what you were getting at exactly but your post made me think of this.)
Sure, he was no Van Halen. But Kurt had a wide ranging technique that enabled him to express himself from delicate acoustic ballads to feedback drenched noise workouts (harder to pull off than it sounds). Ditto Lou Reed.
In terms of electronic music, look at the ‘technique’ that went into the late 80s work of production team the Bomb Squad (Public Enemy). To manipulate the rudimentary samplers and sequencers of the day to produce those insane, noisy, funky, abrasive yet very musical tracks took considerable technique!
Technique on its own without emotional content can suck. But I’d add that too little technique can lead to music that sounds immature, stylistically rootless, bland – even if it is conceived from a heartfelt impulse to convey a real emotion.
Very Nice Jason,
What you say is in line with the book The Music Lesson of Victor Wooten about the ten elements of music; its also about magic and Music as an universal being.
Do you know this book?