The Times They Are a-Puritanical

Feeling the need to veg, I flipped through the DVD collection last night and settled upon Sixteen Candles, a guilty pleasure which I haven’t indulged in since I can’t remember when. I’m a total sucker for the film’s soundtrack: The Revillos, Spandau Ballet, Thompson Twins, The Specials…the list goes on and on. However, what struck me most while watching the ’80s flick was how puritanical things have become since the film’s heyday over 20 years ago. Back then, it was just your average high school picture with plenty of frank talk about sex and drugs, lots of cursing, and stereotyping. This movie would never receive its PG rating from the Motion Picture Association if it were released today, at a time when Capitol Hill is raising broadcast indecency fines from $32,500 to $325,000. Thank you very much, Janet Jackson. Ugh, it’s mentally exhausting to keep track of how off-track this country really is.

Yet, at the same time, it seems that music is benefiting from this wave of conservatism. Composers are writing melodies again. It’s now even safe to bring your mother to the concert hall on world premiere nights. Now that I realize it, this shift has been happening under our noses for a long time. Yeah, the Lowell Liebermanns of the world have been hocking their neo-romantic wares for a long time—more power to them. But the shift to melodic beauty has a seedy underbelly, and it’s crept its way into some unexpected places. From those buried heavy metal tunes inside Francisco Lopez’s swelling noisescapes to the hypnotic techno song that barely surfaced in Anna Clyne’s more recent Rapture, which was performed at the Bang on a Can marathon last weekend, the signs of unruly chaos pacified into orderly insipidness are everywhere. It’s in the music dubbed as totalism, a term I barely have a grasp on—like dark matter, I’m not sure how or why it even exists. I’ve even embedded a Sarah McLachlan cantus firmus into one of my compositions. Could dire political times, the strain of prolonged capitalism, and the surging bigotry inside our country today be fueling a revolutionary musical renaissance? Can conservative values that negate the freedoms of various subgroups, spawn a more palpable musical landscape and actually advance modern composition’s spot on society’s totem pole?

Alright, I’m getting carried away here. But I do feel somehow shaped by my cinematic encounters with Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Ally Sheedy, and the rest of the brat pack. Personally, I shudder to think of today’s youth as they look back at the saccharine High School Musical. Concert music with all its seriousness is, for the most part, on society’s collective periphery, but the music we write is in dialogue with the larger scheme of things. As for me, right now I’m composing with a confused muse: upset about the present, wary about the future.

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