…And speaking of Music: David Byrne’s “How Music Works”

Son Neil gave me a genius Father’s Day gift: a set of audiobooks, including David Byrne’s “How Music Works”. The book, by the former Talking Heads frontman, is a thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis of how music and people interact, how the business of music is changing, and how technology has shaped music production and recording. He weaves his own experiences writing songs, recording, and performing with Talking Heads, as well as his myriad solo projects.

Byrne’s influences are widespread–sometimes almost bafflingly so–and his career has bounced from minimalist art-pop to afro-cuban-infused dance music to full-blown Latin salsa/cumbia band/singer albums that had to have left more than a few fans of his previous work scratching their heads. That said, he clearly knows his music, and he’s had a lot of time to think about it.

One of the things Byrne has going for him is that–though highly intellectual–he mostly avoids the trap of lecturing the audience about the correct social and political points of view, preferring to ask pointed questions instead of merely browbeating the audience into accepting his views. He’s also fairly objective about the mechanics of the recording industry’s various profit-sharing schemes–warning about the dangers of certain recording contract and advance arrangements, while acknowledging that there are trade-offs in regard to promotional budgets and marketing exposure. In short, that the record business is actually a business, with all sides needing to see advantage in an arrangement in order to succeed. It’s not solely comprised of noble musicians and greedy record company executives–a cartoon view espoused by too many others.

That said, he does allow flashes of anger to color his commentary from time to time, and clearly sees the usual suspects: Bush and Cheney, as horrific people for doing the things that he silently accepts–if a little uncomfortably–from his new hopebringer Obama. He also singles out liberal bete noir David Koch as an awful person for…contributing to the funding of an art center–to his mind, an act of expiation for the moral sins of… he never says. It must be assumed that the crime Koch must be assumed to be atoning for is that of being David Koch. Still, Byrne avoid the sort of long tirades that would turn a musical treatise into a political one, and manages to preserve for the most part, the observational tone of the book.

Byrne comes off as generally insightful, but there are a few suspect bits (were disco mixes actually specifically mixed to sound good on amyl nitrate?) and he credits the “disco sucks” feeling on anti-gay and anti-black sentiment on the part of traditional rock and pop crowds. I have a far less sinister explanation from my personal experience as a teen at the time in question. The modern racism/homophobia explanation is revisionist nonsense. None of the people I knew were the slightest bit concerned with it being “black music” and most of us didn’t really know what gay was–much less have a phobia of “gay music”.  We simply didn’t want to have to look like idiots trying to dance in front of girls.

Sure, most of us jeans-and-t-shirted young men could emphatically head-bob and even do a slow foot shuffle when we were really getting into the latest Led Zep or Van Halen tune, but the idea of having to bust out some sort of shiny clothes and play Jr. John Travolta on the dance floor was frankly terrifying to us. Girls will  happily dance to anything (and look great doing it), but competing in this brave new musical arena involved a host of new skills that few of us were equipped for, and at which we knew we were unlikely to succeed.

We welcomed disco about as much as union auto assemblers welcomed industrial robots. And the auto assemblers wouldn’t have to face the additional humiliation of having the girls they’d been oogling laughing at them, then going home with the robot. Little wonder that the idea of slam dancing or headbanging seemed infinitely preferable to many of us. There’s no need to invent a motive of racism or homophobia for male teens, when sheer terror of looking bad in front of girls was a near universal phenomenon of the times.

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