Is This the Golden Age of the Amateur?

Categories: The Upsetter

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It's nearly impossible for me now to pinpoint the exact moment my own dream of pop stardom died. That phase seemed to fade interminably, the way adult contemporary songs do. But I'm sure I've been a better music fan because of it. No longer do I measure my feeble songwriting efforts against my favorite records, and vice versa; nor do I presume a collegial bond with Goffin and King. Amateur ways suit me, I've learned.

But more happily, 21st Century ways suit the amateur. You might even say we live in a golden age for amateur musicians. It starts with technology (as these kinds of arguments have to, by some columnists' decree). I am one of millions of non-musicians who fight a nightly struggle, always trading files in and out of my laptop to clear more hard drive space for personal works-in-progress. My more talented peers might form bands from their archive. Or they may even cobble together tours, sign to small labels, and build audiences in the four- and five-digits -- without ever leveraging the accrued buzz into a living wage.

Then, of course, there's the Internet. Who was it that said, "Van Halen only sold 80 million albums, but everybody who bought one formed a band?" It might have been me, after I recently stumbled upon page after page of Van Halen covers uploaded by their fans on YouTube. At first blush, there's something embarrassing about these performances. They play like incriminating evidence of some felony of the imagination. But on second thought, isn't the technical attention these fans lavish on deep cuts from Diver Down evidence that this audience is something impressively more than just an audience?

The irony is this: Whether it's the hottest trio of baristas on Pitchfork or the best impersonator of Eddie Van Halen, most amateurs today would be aghast if they were identified as such. Though the hurt feelings say a lot less about their pride than it does the fallen stock of the word. I say amateurs should embrace their status. It's a stronger one than it might seem, with a proud lineage. Amateur, after all, comes from the latin root for "lover."

Before the industrial age hit full steam -- before phonograph records, really -- to be an amateur was to take part in an informal guild, of sorts. You were a proud keeper of culture; one of the most astute members of the audience; one of the most selfless, too. And you were more essential to the health of your favored art than were the professional critics, who functioned more like partisan hacks of taste. You were art's truest public.

It's difficult to define how and when the amateur's stock began to fall. In his 1949 essay "The Indispensable Amateur," Jacques Barzun suggested the cause was the increased specialization of higher education throughout the 20th Century. In music, the proud public of chamber ensembles and plonking pianists seems to have been broken up by the record boom, that time at the end of the 19th Century when the music industry began to reorganize itself, investing in "recording artists" and catering to listeners, rather than publishing sheet music for amateurs. By 1905, the power of Enrico Caruso -- his celebrity as much as his voice -- was unleashed on the culture at large. There was no turning back: the hobbyist wilted under the radiance of the pop star.

But amateurism never left the music industry. In truth, it's played a crucial role in the history of pop. Nearly every musical revolt after Caruso was founded upon the amateur's values: their mix of moxie and naivety, or what Barzun (by way of Henry Ford) called the novice's unfamiliarity with the impossible. The spirit rises again and again throughout pop's grand narrative, whether in the so-called "race records" that filtered into the distribution stream of the 1920s and '30s; the birth of rock'n'roll that resulted from the earlier consummation of different blues styles; or the emergence of hip-hop in the '70s.

In rock music alone, rhetorical sleights of hand have folded amateurism's untamed passion into terms like "garage rock" and "punk" and "DIY." EDM, when it was synth-pop in the early '80s, flouted its lack of skilled musicianship. Though times have changed.

Today could be a golden age for the amateur. The tools are most definitely here. But the generation best poised to fill the informal guild of the past is distinguished largely by our pretentious careerism. We seem all too aware of what is and what isn't possible within the industry. And as a result, the art suffers. Must every fun-loving duo possessing a basement and an ASS_N_9 name hire a publicist to arm-wrestle journalists into submitting to the band's mythology? Where's the fun in that? Where's the passion, too?

Since I was 14, I've kept up a sporadic songwriting partnership with my best friend. It's been years since we've considered what we do to be anything more than a way of finding out how music works. We've made a lot of embarrassing noise together, for sure, and in these failures, which I expect we'll repeat until one of us dies or turns Republican, he's played Bouvard to my P├ęcuchet. But I'm sure I've gained more as an amateur than I ever could have as a professional. I've gained something as a friend, too. I'd like to think the profession of music has also gained, by having four more discriminating ears to play to. Though, of course, that's not really for me to say. Still, there's hope we've done right by our passion, as teased through Barzun's claim: "If the amateur did not exist it would be necessary to invent him."

-- @AnStou




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