Sunday, March 21, 2010

the Music Police

This is a difficult blog post for me to write. In fact, I have put it off ever since I began this blog over a year ago. It's a subject that people often feel strongly about, and unfortunately it tends to make people angry no matter what their views are.
All I can do is write about my own thoughts and feelings on it, and hope that whoever reads this will be able to read it with an open mind and heart, at least consider what they read for a moment or two before dismissing it.
This post is about the concept of the Music Police.

I first heard the term "Music Police" when I was just starting to play music in groups. I was an insecure beginner player, and I would bring my little 1910 Wurlitzer mandolin to a local folk jam. There were lots of very friendly welcoming people there, and many were singer-songwriter guitar players eager to sing well known folk songs or their own compositions enthusiastically. This was fine by me, since I could plink along in the background and make my numerous mistakes without attracting too much attention. It was a nurturing beginning for me, and everyone there was happy to help and encourage me. Sometimes one person or another would make a comment like "I don't think the Music Police would approve of this version, but I like to play it this way..." , or "The Music Police would have you arrested if they heard you play that chord.". Comments like this always made me wonder, but I figured the Answer would reveal itself to me one day when I was ready. I didn't want to appear stupid by asking about it.

I began to play clawhammer banjo and I did a lot of reading on Banjo-L where the old-time banjo players and the Bluegrass banjo players were regularly seeing things from two different vantage points. I noticed that the two terms 'Music police' AND 'the Banjo Police' got thrown about on occasion, when the two sides were not in agreement about...whatever. I also noticed that it was usually the folks who liked older styles of playing that got called 'the Music Police' when discussions got testy.

Later, I was drawn towards old-time music and old fiddle tunes, and I met my wonderful fiddler husband. My playing and my enthusiasm really took off and I just couldn't get enough of that old style music. I began going to old-time fiddle tune gatherings, where I heard more references to the elusive and ominous "Music Police", also sometimes called the "Tradition Police". I began to understand that the term referred to anyone who thought their way of playing a tune was the right way/traditional way, and anyone else's ways of playing it was the wrong way. The other seemingly essential part of the definition of Music Police was that usually this term was applied to someone who liked to play in a traditional style.

I heard stories about obnoxious 'music police' musicians who insisted that tunes should only be played a certain way (their way or the traditional way) and who went around telling others how WRONG they were, saying rude things like "THAT'S NOT HOW IT GOES!". Interestingly, the villains in these stories invariably had no name... they were always about 'some guy' (usually from parts unknown) who joined a session and was never seen again after that. It never seemed to be about someone who anyone actually knew by name. And it wasn't unique to dulcimer circles, it was the same among banjo circles, fiddlers, guitar players, you name it.
Mind you, it is usual in old-time fiddle gatherings for folks to discuss how the various versions of a tune differ or are the same, and where the tunes came from. It's not uncommon to hear some fiddler saying "Well Rayna got that tune from the old Salyer recording but Salyer didn't play that part like she does, he played the high part more like this..." followed by a demonstration. Now a statement such as this might be overheard by a novice musician and they might easily interpret and retell this incident as the fiddler having told someone they played something THE WRONG WAY. In reality, experienced musicians with a passion for their music usually enjoy discussing different versions and talking about the old sources of tunes and how they were played, how they changed as they got passed along from one person to the next. But that sort of material never makes for interesting stories.

I am not saying I have never heard anyone say anything actually rude or obnoxious to someone else about their version of playing something...I have! There are rude people in all types and genres and levels of music, young and old, both experienced and beginner alike. But the few instances of rudeness I have observed over the years had more to do with someone just being plain rude and ego-inflated overall than with any purist quest they might have been engaged in to 'preserve tradition'. The fact is that person would just as likely be rude when ordering coffee in a diner if they were having a bad hair day. They tend to think they are right about everything and that everyone else is misguided...but their superior notions apply to things far beyond just their music. I don't really think of them as the "Music anything", much less as the 'Music Police'. They are just impolite or thoughtless people. Well enough about rude people, this post is not about them.

There is another interesting factor at work here that I think reinforces the idea that the infamous Music Police mostly consist of traditional players.
Imagine two people who love to eat ice cream. They both eat ice cream with a passion. Margaret loves any and all flavors of ice cream. Jenny only likes chocolate ice cream. One week they go to the ice cream parlor and they both get the flavors they ask for and both go home happy. The next week the parlor is out of chocolate ice cream and Margaret thinks Jenny is a difficult snob because she doesn't want to eat some other flavor. When they leave, Margaret is happily full and Jenny is disappointed. The next week, the parlor only has chocolate ice cream. They both go home happy. The last week, the parlor is out of all ice cream, and they both go home unhappy.
Maybe this sounds silly, but I think that musicians who like to play a wide variety of music are often seen as being more reasonable, more good natured, more open minded, more accepting, and just generally 'nicer', while musicians who like to focus on and play one type of music are often automatically seen as being closed minded, snobby, anal, curmudgeonly, difficult, and egoistic. Jenny is perhaps labeled a difficult snob because she only likes chocolate ice cream, while Margaret is seen as more reasonable person because she likes any flavor of ice cream. Margaret proclaims that "It's all good!" and suspects that Jenny looks down her nose at her and feels superior. Meanwhile, Jenny agrees that 'it's all good'...but she doesn't actually want to have to eat it all. lol!

I think it's kind of natural human nature to see someone who likes many flavors as a positive person, and conversely it's human nature to see someone who only likes one or two flavors as a negative person. But I happen to believe that both people are perfectly justified in liking everything, nothing, or anything in between. Some people don't like ice cream at all! Human beings are all different, we all have different likes and preferences, and no one's preferences are better than someone else's. Neither Jenny nor Margaret are better. It takes Jennys and Magarets and Lucys and Emilys and everyone else to make this world a wonderful, diverse, and positive place.

Do people who behave like actual Music police even exist at all? I believe they do. But such people are so few and far between as to be insignificant. The problem is that the term is thrown about all too frequently to include just about anyone who talks about how they like a certain way of playing something. It's being applied to those who enjoy playing music in a traditional way, always accompanied by the implication that they think their way of playing is the only 'right' way and everyone else's ways of playing is the 'wrong' way. In reality, very few people ever declare themselves right and others wrong. Such people are as rare as hens' teeth. Yet the concept of Music Police lurking in every alleyway, bullying and pouncing self-righteously on other players persists.
Using the term 'music police' at someone is an easy and thoughtless way to dismiss and demean them in a musical discussion or disagreement. It's a cheap shot that almost never has any actual basis in fact. Yet it hurts people and does damage. For me at least, it's time to take a stand against characterizing people unfairly.

My own way of dealing with this unpleasant conversational cop-out is this: every time I or anyone else gets called the 'music police', 'tradition police', 'dulcimer police', or whatever... instead of feeling annoyed or frustrated and letting the term slip by without comment, I'm just going to ask the person who used it why they used it used in that instance? I'm going to ask for a clear explanation about why that person thinks this. I believe that being open and straightforward about this will go a long way to make everyone aware of their choices of words and it will foster better understanding in discussions between music-minded people. If we understand why we all feel as we do about such issues, it will serve to bring people together rather than pushing them further apart.

It's time to blow the whistle on the overused and hurtful term "music police".

continue reading the rest of this post here...