Music as Junk Food

It would be a lie to say that I’m not biased, or that I’m not opinionated. We watched a streaming concert tonight from The Decemberists, one of my all time favorite bands. And watching and listening, I’m reminded of the distinction between art and product. The Decemberists are a band made from the traditional mold, with a relatively small number of members, who’ve been together for a good long time, who’ve worked together, toured together, and written together for that time. As in most cases, there is not a perfect creative balance there, as Colin Meloy is decidedly the lyrical genius behind the band. I remember an interview on Fresh Air with Colin shortly after the release of their album The Crane Wife in 2006, which is how I came to hear of them, and when asked about some of the more obscure language he used in his lyrics, he spoke of a desire not to be limited by the fraction of the language that was in common use.

Their songs spring from the mind of this super creative artist, and the band puts together inspired music, with a mix of traditional rock instruments and other less common ones as well. This sits in stark contrast to much of pop music today, which is often written by committee and composed by computer. It strikes me very much as akin to the difference between junk food, which is manufactured of highly processed food-like substances, and which is designed by committee to please a very broad palate, (so lots of sugar and/or salt), with very little that’s unusual or likely to offend. It is designed to be consumed by a large audience, and be inexpensive to produce, so that those who produce it can become wealthy on the razor thin profit margin by producing and selling billions of units. This kind of food, and/or music, provides you only with the basic needs for survival, and nourishes (barely…) only the body, and not the soul. Contrast this with eating a meal at a gourmet restaurant, where the meals are crafted by a chef, who is inspired to find unique and intriguing combinations of flavors, using fresh and local ingredients where possible, and where each serving is created with the care and attention of a professional, in an atmosphere designed to help you relax and enjoy the art.

Anyway, while it is a poor substitute for the in-person concert we were first supposed to attend in 2020, then 2021, then never; seeing them perform is always a treat. They appear to genuinely enjoy each other, and play off each other musically. They play their instruments live, the tempo varies, there is no backing track. Bravo to them, and we will look forward to seeing them perform in person next time around. Here is a sample from a couple of weeks ago: