History is a Garbage Filter. Will Your Music Survive?

In the world of music (and almost every other world), we love to hate.


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Miley Cyrus - Robin ThickeIf you watched the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, you become painfully aware that what gets remembered is scandal and mediocrity. That may be more to do with society’s love of train wrecks than any kind of empathy; we seem to automatically look for, and macabrely relish, the worst.

We love to hate. That may be truer in the arts than almost every other profession, even factoring in politics and ambulance-chasing lawyers. We love the things that go right, like Michael Jackson’s famous appearance at the Motown 25th Anniversary special. But we especially love when things go wrong.

Some people’s fate in life is to provide horrific memories for the rest of us. Unless you’re a musical video historian/aficionado, you won’t remember the specifics of the bizarre performance by Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke a few years from now.

Some performers live on the cutting edge, craving the top headline of the world’s top news sites. And if they can’t get there from excellence, they’ll take it any way they can get it.

One hundred years from now, no one will be talking about Miley Cyrus or Robin Thicke. And in fact, when the history is written about the music of today, most of the people on the Billboard Hot 100 will be missing from that book. That’s because the further we get from a time period, the more we distil it until we are left with a small handful of representatives.

It has always been that way. When you read a history of classical music, you’d swear that Mozart and Haydn were practically alone in the mid-1700s, two of a small handful of people who were composing. In fact, there were many hundreds of composers in the mid-1700s. We’ve forgotten most of them. Historians know who they were, but you won’t see most of them on a compilation album of the world’s best classical music.

Time has a way of filtering out garbage. Yes, we love to hate, but ultimately we learn how to differentiate between music that shocks us and music that really matters. We love train wrecks, but in a book that covers the history of trains you won’t usually find a chapter of famous derailments. And even if you do, that doesn’t speak to our love of trains, but to our love of disasters.

As a songwriter, if you want to be remembered, excellence is the only way to reliably do it. If you aren’t working every day to improve yourself, you are going to be forgotten. It’s history’s nasty little law.

Shocking an audience will get you your proverbial 15 minutes of fame. But in music, you need to change the world, not just shock it, if you want to be included in the history that gets written up.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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