I was pushing my cart down the cereal aisle when I became aware of a specific drum pattern playing overhead on the Wal-Mart radio network. I had to stop and listen carefully but sure enough it was the military beat intro to Jefferson Airplane’s song, “White Rabbit.” I shook my head in disbelief. A company that bans explicit music from being sold in its stores was playing the drug anthem of the sixties. All in an effort to encourage shoppers to buy more stuff. It is especially ironic in that much of the music I grew up with was anti-consumer, anti-establishment and anti-war. Now it’s being used for all kinds of commercial enterprises.
I won’t be around to hear it, but I amused myself thinking about current popular music playing in stores at some future time. I’d hate to be the parent trying to explain to my children why “Smack My Bitch Up” and “To the window, to the wall, to the sweat drop down my balls” were popular lyrics for a generation.
Music has a long history of impacting humans, their moods, celebrations, and economics. Once mass media (like radio) became ubiquitous, retailers discovered that particular kinds of music encouraged more spending by customers. But each generation has its own trigger music. Rhythms, instruments, and lyrics that literally move one group of people has no effect or even a negative effect on the next group coming up. Artists who resonate with a large segment of their generation are rewarded financially, first by tickets sales then by mass production and then by the commercialization of their work. And thus we have seventy-year-old musicians anchoring Las Vegas shows or even touring the world.
Music used to be a much bigger part of my life than it is now. I was very much a child of the sixties. I first heard “White Rabbit” on a crappy school record player in the cafeteria at Mitchell High School. Each section of the lunchroom had its own record player and amateur DJ. Sometimes there was real tension between the country music folks, the R&B crowd, and us “hippies” over musical selection and volume. But it never became violent, probably because of the ex-cop who watched over us. Physical fights over music came later when I was in the Army at Ft. Sill and again in Vietnam. Oklahoma, in August, is pretty good preparation for Vietnam. I can remember lying on top of my bunk at midnight when it was 95° and 95% humidity when a fight broke out between the rednecks, who had played Johnny Cash’s I Walk the Line a dozen times in a row, and the black soldiers who were trying to appreciate the sweet strains of Smoky Robinson’s “Tracks of my Tears.” The hippies sided with the R&B crowd, and several people ended up with fat lips and black eyes before cooler heads got control the situation.
I was always close to my own source of music and was an early adopter of cassette players and headphones. I fashioned my own headphones out of a Huey headset and had quite a sideline business making them for other people. My pride and joy for many years was the high end Panasonic stereo system I bought while overseas. I once had hundreds of records, reel to reel, and cassette tapes. But as storage media changed so did my tastes. Exhibit A is that while I still like hard core rock and roll, my IPhone playlist has some Eminem, Trent Reznor, and Assemblage 123 on it. It’s hard to find new music I like. I have to wade through lots of chaff to find any sounds I enjoy. My sons help a little but the K-Tel music collections that once helped me are relics that can’t be found on late night TV anymore. Finding new music is a lot of work that I lack time, motivation or energy for.
Most people want familiar music. It comforts and relaxes them. And while I find that true to some extent, I get bored and want the thrill of hearing new music that speaks to me in a way I haven’t heard before. It’s probably the same reason that Donald Trump trades in old wives for new ones. Or maybe it’s that music presents the culture we identify with. Roger Daltrey of the Who famously sang, “I hope I die before I get old.” And maybe that’s my problem. Saying that I used to be a hippie isn’t the same as saying I am a hippie. I have outgrown my youth culture but can’t identify with current pop culture. I don’t feel old but the mirror says I am getting there.
Zhuangzi wrote about the music of nature. And when I’m standing in a trout stream listening to the water, wind, and wildlife, I know exactly what he was trying to convey. It is a music that speaks to me more clearly than anything by the Stones, the Beatles, or 50 Cent. Unfortunately it can’t be captured on tape, CD, or record. I know. I’ve tried.