“Everything is permissible but not everything beneficial.”
1 Corinthians 6:12
Entitlement is slowly degrading much of culture and society, and that extends to music; that’s my premise here. And my proposition is that it’s not out of line to consider creating for oneself a type of “musical morality,” a code by which to experience music conscientiously, responsibly, showing care for the thing we as musicians and rabid music fans say we love so much.
This won’t be a religious writing, per se, but allow me the vanity of using religion allegorically to set up my premise, if you will:
In the waning days of my Christian faith I began looking for the more open-ended or even subversive verses within even the Bible. Being a book composed over hundreds or thousands of years by dozens or hundreds of authors with varying viewpoints on God (if you count all the editors), it wasn’t that hard to find some passages that seemed to almost contradict the more conservative, strict or close-ended dictums being promoted by some Christian leaders. Like the one about “I have other sheep not of this sheep pen” (John 10:16), which allowed me to believe that either there were Christian aliens scattered across the galaxy or that Jesus was cool with people of other religions and belief systems and would save them, too. I hadn’t felt I had much choice in life so far, so I was hungrily searching for any level of choice I could find.
As I moved from my small town and its dominant traditional views on conservative interpretations of the Christian Holy Bible, and entered a liberal arts university in a bigger town, I met people from different geographies, cultures, races, faiths, creeds, thought systems, and a galaxy of choice opened up to me. Choice about the way I interpreted my original religious text of choice. Then choice about whether I accepted that text as the be-all-end-all word of God. Then choice about whether I even believed in God at all.
I increased in open-mindedness, tolerance and ability to quickly consume, analyze and take the bits that worked for me from any Eastern religion like Buddhism, secular philosophy like Utilitarianism, Transcendentalism or Existentialism, down to film theory movements like Neo-Realism or musical debates like Genre Study versus Genre Blending. I didn’t plan to forever throw away anything I’d learned from Christianity, but in my initial phase of rebellion, I pretty much did. I was open-minded to anything but that.
I extended what I’d now call a terminally consumerist style of open-mindedness to food of all varieties, the excesses of partying, music and film of every genre and fusion of genre and sub-genre, and perceptions of personal relationships of all degrees from acquaintance to “frenemy” to transactional to…my longtime girlfriend Lauren, my high school sweetheart, who soon after graduation from UT became my wife.
Now I have to stop and say the love I have felt and grown in and learned from in my relationship with my wife has been the great allegory or gateway, crucible, divining rod, that informs my understanding of the entire concept of love and life in general. The fluctuations and seasons in our relationship inform my opinions on matters of faith, art, politics, everything! It’s like we together have grown in a vacuum where, alone together, we are like Sebastian and the Child-Like Empress near the end of The Never-Ending Story when they are in the green-screened empty white room that is Nothing and Nowhere, after the supposed death of Fantasia. We experience, process, and interpret reality together in a way that almost makes two consciousnesses appear as one.
Anyways, here’s where I will get back to music. Well, almost.
In the interim between leaving the hometown and our settling into marriage life, both my wife and myself and many of our friends, and I’d argue many of our Millennial generation, like the Gen X and Baby Boomer generation in their youths, had embraced a thinly veiled attitude of entitlement towards all pleasures our bloodshot eyes surveyed.
And really, many could say it was the fault of New Age parenting, which told us we could be anything we wanted to be (we were “special,” probably too special), or high school literature we read like Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Trust thyself,” “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” ““Speak what you think today in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.”) or Walt Whitman (“I celebrate myself and sing myself, and what I assume you shall assume”).
Maybe it was the pop and hip-hop music (“Girls just want to have fun,” “We’re living in a material world,” “I want to f*** you like an animal,” “F*** the pain away,” “fight for your right to party,” “it’s the freaking weekend, baby, bout to have me some fun” et al).
Whether I always acted on them or not, little entitlement mantras sprung up in my head, as I am sure they did in many of yours:
-I am entitled to travel.
-I am entitled to party.
-I am entitled to be promiscuous.
-I am entitled to any food I desire.
-I am entitled to any type of media anytime I want it – Ah hah! Here, the delving into musical morality.
Download and streaming culture added this crucial entitlement to the Millennial Entitlement Checklist. Since I discovered Napster, Kazaa and CD burning in freshman year of high school, I was never the same. Music was never the same. An album used to make a musician rich and was respected as a complete masterwork. People gathered to listen to Sgt. Pepper’s in its entirety. An album was a revelation. Now people are lucky if they can name more than two songs by who they claim are their favorite bands. It’s touring, merch or commercial licensing that makes musicians their bucks. Musical life for many now is one long Spotify playlist, Pandora station, iTunes shuffle.
Each piece of an artist’s catalog that we decided fit our fancy became another chocolate in a massive chocolate box to gorge on at our leisure. A chocolate box that we either stole or paid cutthroat rates to stream, a chocolate box that never has a flavor that challenges our taste. A chocolate box we never have to stop gorging on.
Now, in my musical life, again around this time of my marriage (2007), I was gorging on my entitlements nonstop. I had an unbelievable first job at AC Entertainment. I gorged on all the free albums I got (basically any album of note that came out was sent to us to help us prepare to promote their show or to try to get us to work with them). I could attend a show of a nationally recognized touring act almost every single night of the week, and after wards I would see small touring acts and local bands play late-night after-party type shows at the local bar. I could do Bonnaroo or other festivals and do a real Millennial Entitlement Checklist binge, traveling, doing drugs, and watching 30 minutes or so of 30 or more major bands in a weekend. I played in bands and we gorged on writing as many songs and playing as many shows as we could but we didn’t focus on making quality music. We didn’t want to work hard or be refined. We wanted to jam, party, get our feelings and thoughts out as if the first draft of each was a masterpiece. We often sounded bad.
I had drifted from my small town, the balance and cautious moderation my parents had taught me, the faith I’d been raised in, all considerations of physical or mental health, and I put my mouth to the trough and gorged, on music, movies, books, alcohol, food, everything.
I woke up in my late 20’s with a massive moral tummy ache.
A decade or so of full-on slothful, gluttonous consumption of anything can do a number on a person. I was a little overweight, a little mentally unstable, a little addicted to everything I liked, and I was realizing I’d become unable to approach life with any sense of responsibility or duty towards anything; rather, my life had become service to instant gratification of my entitlements, a kind of slavery to pleasure that I didn’t realize could exist or be a bad thing.
I began to remember that one Bible verse, now a common-sense governing principle of consumption and other choices in my life: “everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial.”
The concept of “duty” was something myself and my generation were fervently avoiding. We marry later, we jump from town to town and job to job, we don’t commit to parties until the last second and have a backup plan for a second party to head to if we don’t like the first. We flake out on plans via text like it’s our job.
Duty to music? Music is about fun, me, what I want, right? Why attach something like morality or duty to music?
Because it had become the closest thing I had to religion.
Over the last 10 years, I taken to calling music my religion. In a way it was. The concept of the mysteries and infinite possibilities of music was my god, my admission of awareness of the possible supernatural in universe. The artists I loved were my high priests and prophets. The concerts were the worship service. The tickets, contributions to album Kickstarters, tips to street musicians were my tithes and offerings.
But most religions have some structure, some guidance on behavior, and I came to realize with even Christianity’s moral system, there were four possible reasons for most moral guidance found in religious texts:
- To control the believer (what I initially thought was the only reason).
- To humble the believer into accepting and embracing something greater than themselves and thus forgoing jealousy, greed, selfishness and other vices.
- To give practical wisdom to the believer about choices that will make he or she happiest long-term.
- To teach the believer how to get along with others.
I realized that the concepts of duty, morality, and responsibility weren’t always to control me, or keep me in line, though that is the primary purpose many politicians and some more crooked church leaders use religious morality for.
Sometimes my will to cede my choices to my entitlement-focused impulses towards instant gratification was ruining my chances towards long-term happiness. Some self-control, perhaps informed by a moral system, could be practically helpful.
Sometimes humility was needed to see where I should redirect my tastes, my attitudes, and my choices, to better suit and serve others around me and myself, for better utilitarian long-term happiness for all of us.
Sometimes I needed practical advice on how to live my moral, and musical life prudently.
As I have grown deeper in maturity of love with my wife almost a decade into our marriage and we are about to bring a life, our daughter, into the world any day now, it has been less and less difficult to see the beauty on the other side of duty, responsibility, morality. My band mate Matt and I in Southern Cities have had a creative marriage of sorts that has spanned over 10 years and has required some of the same work. As has my day job as an educator and this craft of writing. It’s a series of choices that show your reverence and thankfulness for the incredible luck you’ve been given. Its choices that show your humility — you’re not the only will that matters to you any longer. You will others’ wills and desires and needs to be met. Selflessness comes into the picture. “You Can Grow,” to quote one of my own band’s songs.
Youth’s concept of freedom is the freedom to be selfish.
A more adult concept of freedom is the freedom to choose what and who you give yourself to.
So, with music, film, literature–let’s just call it all art– as my continuing guiding light towards seeing and understanding the world (as my religion), I developed my morality around the way I process music. It’s a musical morality, and it can be conversely symbolic or allegoric to a life system of morality towards treating others in the world around me. In the same way religion helps some be conscientious citizens in life, this might help you become a conscientious citizen in your musical life.
A taste of this musical morality I will try to encapsulate, via the original Judeo-Christian schema I was born with that still governs some of the way I talk about even secular thought, in a Ten Commandments of Musical Morality.
Ten Commandments of Musical Morality
- Thou shalt PAY for the music. Have some respect for the insane investment the band made in the music. Most bands are paying to play. They are constantly in the hole and they risk debt, eviction, relationships on making this music. Find a way via iTunes, Kickstarter, paying the cover at the door or buying actual merch like a t-shirt or CD.
- Thou shalt listen to the WHOLE album. Appreciate the months or years that went into this and sit still for 45 minutes and just listen, at least once, to the album all the way through, without distractions, actively listening, in respect for all the band went through to make it. THEN form your judgments about it and decide whether to listen more or less in the future or which singles to focus on and put in playlists.
- Thou shalt stay for the WHOLE show, even if your band or the band you follow was the opener and there’s a cool after-party or better show somewhere else. You were lucky enough to be on this bill or score these tickets, use them. Even a painful or over-lengthy show can become a meditation. Staying with music for longer in the recorded or live form wears down your defenses and walls and makes you susceptible to the lessons it might teach, or if you are religious, the spiritual effects or messages that might result. I have never felt as religious in church or in secular life as when enveloped in passionate original music. It’s a meditation, a prayer, a shout to the night, a question, and an answer. When absorbed in music you can imagine being absorbed in the presence of pure Energy, Light, Knowledge, or God/Allah/etc.
- Thou shalt be a good show CITIZEN. Say “sorry” and “excuse me” when you slide by to go up closer or to the bathroom. Help fallen dancers. Dance in such a way that you don’t bother others. Keep your cigarette from ashing onto people or into their cups. Tip your bartender. If it’s a small local show, help the band carry in their gear or break it down. Offer to buy the band a drink or if they’re touring, a spot to crash. Make friendly conversation with your fellow fans. You know you’re seeing the same 15 faces at most of the stuff you go to? Well, those are probably 15 potential CLOSE FRIENDS that have almost the exact same taste as you, so go meet them!
- Thou shalt support thy LOCAL SCENE. In my AC days, I was spending a lot of time checking out the imports, the big critically-acclaimed indie darlings and pop stars that toured through. That was like giving money to a bank. These bands are perfectly acceptable to like, but if that’s all you’re seeing, you’re not seeing the beauty of local music, where each band you see each time NEEDS you and your support, thirsts and craves for it, appreciates it so much. Unlike someone well-known, a local musician is not bothered if you want to come up to them and talk. You will spend less money on hungrier, more passionate music, in a more intimate environment, in a way that stimulates originality and the local scene. You will make friends, you may even join a band.
- Thou shalt support thy local venues, festivals and alternative media outlets. Besides supporting local bands, support the structures and institutions that attempt to create an environment where local music is possible. Pres Pub, the Pilot Light, or a new fledgling venue trying to support local music like Open Chord–these places need bodies in every night. You may only see a band you love on the lineup every month or so. Try dropping in more often and just checking out what’s there. You may be pleasantly surprised and find a NEW favorite. Contribute to WDVX, WUTK, WUOT, Knoxville Mercury, etc. You are funding the things that promote the things you like.
- Thou shalt NOT trash a band because they don’t fit your taste. A reviewer or casual listener saying “Dave Matthews Band sucks!” for example, is not showing themselves to be a fair-minded musical listener. His style and genre and even vocal timbre may not be your taste, but this is an accomplished songwriter and bandleader who has guided a group through 20 years of studio albums, sold-out tours, and helped lead musical non-profit cap-stone events like Farm Aid, he can’t be all bad. Practice this, “BAND X is not my taste, but if you like BAND Y or Z you would probably like them.” Think of music in terms of how well they are doing relative to what they are trying to do–how well is Dave being Dave, for example, not how well is Dave being Radiohead, because that’s not a fair approach. For this reason I attempt to keep taste out of musical reviews and articles and instead describe the music, what it sounds like and how it compares to other music like itself. Its also a way to be considerate of others around you who may not share that taste or opinion and you can avoid hurting feelings or starting arguments.
- Bands on the rise: “Freely you have received; freely give.” You’re getting big because the gatekeepers let you in. A bigger band let you open for them or introduced you around to some music writers or venue owners. A music writer or venue owner gave you a chance. Don’t act annoyed when a younger, smaller band needs the same from you. Pay it forward; mentor younger bands. Talk them up. Help them out.
- Thou shalt SHARE the music. Not literally the music itself–encourage your friends to buy the CD as well instead of ripping it from you. But share awareness of bands. Turn your friends onto bands you like. Introduce a band you know to another band you think they’d like playing with. Play your music for your parents or your kids, and explain why it touches you so; they may be able to get something really great from it as well. If you play, give some lessons. Pass around a book like Victor Wooten’s The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music. Tell everybody about the cool music doc you recently saw on Netflix like Jaco, What Happened, Miss Simone?, The Wrecking Crew, 20 Feet From Stardom, or Muscle Shoals. Share articles about what you love musically on Twitter and Facebook instead of political rants. It will be a much more positive world that way, all of us turning each other on to great stuff.
- Thou shalt ever SEEK NEW MUSIC. Music is a life journey. You are never a teacher or master of music, only a fellow student. You are never too old or experienced or great to get turned onto a new band or sound. Never stop buying stuff or listening to the radio or going to shows of bands you haven’t seen or heard of before. Your favorite new band may always been waiting around the bend.
So those are some governing thoughts of my musical moral life that transcend and apply to my overall life because they have something to do with helping others, showing gratitude and humility, caring for each other and so much more.
I am always learning and have so far to go. I hope this helps you and if you see in reading this something I need to learn, or think of a band you think I’d like, or a philosophy or thought you’d like me to consider, please look me up and let’s connect and share and let me learn from you.
This life is music to my ears.