Contemporary Music and a Not-So-Favorite Post Office

Ok, let me be clear, I dearly love all my erstwhile musical colleagues (well, most of them), and I dearly love the United States Postal Service.  However, like any relationship, it’s not perfect.

I was giving a talk on my book “Real Men Don’t Rehearse”last night and as is so often the case, someone raised their hand and asked me if I liked modern / atonal / contemporary music.  I said, “no.”  I then proceeded to explain how I felt about what I call “boop smeep” music (because it always starts with a low “boop”and a high dissonant “smeep”), and what I call “nonsense art,” I mean those “abstract” meaningless-without-an-explanation sculptures you see adorning our public squares.

In the Roman empire, public art was statues of the emperors and the gods.  This “art” emphasized just who was in charge.  Similarly, for a long time, the catholic church funded art that was all about the importance of the bible, again, emphasizing the basis of their power.  In the renaissance, wealthy powerful merchants paid for art featuring . . .themselves.  Again, showing who was in power.  (No wonder people thought van gogh was nuts for painting pix of poor people.)

Nowadays we too have lots of public art that emphasizes our modern power structure.  It’s not all fancy-dancy abstract stuff– I have yet to see a painting or sculpture of a dead president that didn’t actually look like a dead president.  And if you have gotten a new passport lately, check it out, it is filled with bland artwork of mythical americana– cowboys, eagles, buffalos . .  All nearly extinct.  Very much like the dead presidents.  There’s no missing or mistaking what it is.

Anyway, when I was talking to this crowd last night about modern music, I pointed out that the hardest part about it is knowing when it’s over.  Since it has no form, you just have to sit there and feel lost, and when the music stops, you have to hope that it really is over and not just a dramatic pause, because you don’t want to clap until it is truly over.

Now . . .

While I love the USPS, sometimes I run late and I can’t go to my local branch (which closes at 5 and never has a line).  So I had to go to another nearby bigger post office.  There is always a long line there, but this time, there was only one guy at the counter, and a line out the door.  Took me 45 minutes to mail a book.  Yeesh.

And then it hit me.

I suddenly realized that listening to modern music is a repeat of our modern experience of powerless frustration.  No one in line knew what was going on (turns out a bunch of postal workers had called in sick that day), the system made no sense, we all quietly groused about it but did nothing else, we had no sense or control of the time it would take to get to the finish (they even remove clocks from post offices now), and oh, my, we were so glad when it was over.

So now I see how these “modern artists” are in fact holding up a mirror and showing us ourselves.  In dealing with the modern bureaucratic power structure, we are lost angry powerless people waiting in line for an unknowable amount of time, hoping the aggravation will end, and, like beating your head against the wall, it feels so good when it stops.

© Justin Locke

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