A few years ago, I met an A&R guy from London right here in Los Angeles at a place called the Snakepit. We had a few drinks and talked about a subject both of us were fond of– music. The band Muse came up in our discussion and he said something I will never forget and totally agree with: “Muse creates the kind of music that Beethoven would be making if he were alive and making rock and roll today”. They are epic in the range and scope of their creativity and imagination, translating this into powerful, moving sound. Sometimes their music is delicate, sometimes it swells, sometimes it thunders– but it is always dramatic, turbulent, and emotional. The word “muse” can be defined as “guiding spirit” or “source of inspiration”, and in this case, the band Muse seems to live up to its name, as it seems to be inspired by something transcendent, otherworldly, and even spiritual.
For me, there is possibly no greater muse than music. I am highly sensitive to music and a song that I enjoy can uplift, inspire me, or move me to a depth of emotion. A bad song is sheer torture to me. How do I differentiate between good music and bad music? Good music makes me feel good, even if it’s sad or angry. Bad music is bland, vacuous, and leaves me cold. Bad music lacks heart and soul and the bulk of it just melts together into one big undifferentiated “song”, since after a while most of it sounds alike anyway. But good music is sometimes great music. For example, Dancing in the Moonlight, by Thin Lizzy makes me want to believe in magic. It’s full of joy, the pleasure of being young, and the dizziness of romance. When I hear it, I think of a big, full, pearly moon, palm trees, a soft breeze, the sound of the ocean, the smell of jasmine, and dancing in the sand under the stars. What can be better than that?
Bad music, on the other hand, is anything that requires Auto-Tune in order to make it– well— halfway listenable. (Note: Time Magazine refers to Auto-Tune as “Photoshop for the human voice”!) For me, much of the music that’s been played on the radio in the last 10-15 years falls under this category. It appeals to the masses at the lowest common denominator– it puts people in the party mood, makes them want to dance, or be cool– just to sell records. It doesn’t inspire people to greatness, make them feel something in their souls, or change their philosophies. It takes little thought, creativity, energy, work, or talent to create music like this. Can you imagine if a song like George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord was created using Autotune by one of the slick, shallow music industry producers like the ones today? It wouldn’t be the same song and I doubt I’d be able to detect the love and devotion Harrison felt for the god he was singing to. The bitter heartache of Shelby Lynne’s Your Lies would be sanitized and watered down into thin, superficial drivel. The boyish, playful, sexuality of the Faces’ Stay With Me would be sterilized or worse– offensively sexualized, just to be provocative in order to sell more records.
When I write, I want to hear songs that pack the biggest emotional punch. When I need to connect with something deep and powerful, I listen to Changing of the Guard by Chris Whitley and Jeff Lang. To capture a character’s anger or need for vengeance, I turn to Welcome to the Jungle by Guns ‘n Roses, or Vow, by Garbage. Bye Bye Love, by The Cars makes me feel nostalgic for the 80’s– skinny ties, power suits, and spiky hair. If my character needs a little vintage-style soul music to find the right mood, he might play Slow Dance, by John Legend or Stone Rollin’ by Raphael Saadiq. Birdland #3 by Takagi Masakatsu captures the delicate fragility of dreams. And nobody can transport you to the jazz age like Louis Armstrong or Jellyroll Morton if you’re working on a period piece set in the 20’s and 30’s.
I realize that my opinion might be a little too strong for a lot of people. I know that music is subjective and not everyone is going to agree with me. That’s okay. This is my opinion and I might be the only one who feels this way. However, I see music as an art and like other types of art, it comes from the spirit and something greater than the ability to make money, or be played by a DJ at a nightclub. I want more from the music I hear. I want it to elevate my soul and remind me of what being alive is all about– to inspire me as an artist. After all, isn’t that why it’s called “music”?