The Lasting Impact of MTV

On Saturday, August 1, 1981, MTV skyrocketed into everyone’s lives with the opening words “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.” At the same time as these words were being spoken, footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing was being shown. The Apollo 11 moon landing was the first time mankind had ever stepped foot on the moon, and as such, had a huge impact on the future. Neil Armstrong is famously quoted saying, “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” By including this footage in the launch of the channel, MTV is implying that it, too, is revolutionary to mankind. And indeed, it was.

MTV was revolutionary to the music industry because, for the first time, a cable channel provided 24-hour access daily to music videos. At the time, music videos were not very common because there was no accessible medium through which viewers could consistently find them. Before 1981, people got their music typically through listening to the radio, and as a result, the radio airplay drastically (and directly) impacted the sales of a given record. However, with the advent of MTV, the “visual radio,” songs were able to climb the charts even with “little or no radio airplay” (Baldwin and Mizerski). Many studies have proven that visual stimuli is “superior to audio in terms of developing affect, recall and recognition,” suggesting that through watching music videos rather than simply listening to music, people are able to better recall song lyrics and names (Baldwin and Mizerski).

While this better song recognition may not directly correlate to record sales, as Baldwin and Mizerski find in their study on the impact of MTV on the consumer market, the “initial awareness and memorability” of a record that is a result of combining audio and visual cues, is essential for introducing new music (Baldwin and Mizerski). Today, it is widely acknowledged that MTV has had a long lasting impact on the music industry and revolutionized the medium with which we as an audience listen and appreciate music.

Works Cited
1. Lori Baldwin and Richard Mizerski (1985) ,”An Experimental Investigation Concerning the Comparative Influence of Mtv and Radio on Consumer Market Responses to New Music”, in NA – Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 476-481.

Want to make a hit song? Here’s how

Image result for tin pan alleyDuring the late 19th century, the music industry consisting of the publishing houses and music stores in lower Manhattan were known as Tin Pan Alley. The idea of Tin Pan Alley was popularized to sell more songs through advertisement from popular singers. The system involved the selling of songs to performers who could then popularize them so they could sell more copies, thus make more money. Having a song succeed in Tin Pan Alley was virtually a popularity contest – which singer can you convince to perform your song and do they have enough stage presence to take it to the next level. This role or selling the songs to singers with more stage presence was the job of song pluggers. Throughout the height of Tin Pan Alley, these song pluggers could be seen under every street lamp singing a piece in an attempt to attract the attention of a popular singer. They can be described as pushy salesmen, at times trying to force their product (the songs from the publishing house they represent) onto the singers.

The publishing houses lining Tin Pan Alley cannot function without the multiple other businesses around it. If the singers do not advertise the compositions that they write, they will be unable to sell copies of the music and no longer make money. Now here is an interesting piece about the industry – it is said that if 5-6 songs out of 25,000-50,000 songs a year become hits then the industry is having a good year. These figures are representative for the late 19th century and do not accurately depict the current state of the music industry, however it the trend of having only a few songs out of the more than a million published each year is still occurring. However, the way in which songs are advertised has shifted. The days of song pluggers huddled under every street lamp trying to push a song onto a popular singer are gone.

With numerous technological advancements that have come after the era of Tin Pan Alley, music is advertised so widely that it encroaches on nearly every aspect of life. Movies, tv shows and ads are all outlets used to popularize songs. With the likes of video and music streaming services Youtube and Spotify, the music contained in their ads can be heard by millions. These technological additions have made reaching a larger audience and getting your music out there so much easier. Having a song that is advertised in so many places does not mean that it will become popular. A bad song cannot be pushed to popularity, a good song with the right exposure can take off. That being said, there is no explicit formula for writing a hit song. Motown singer Lamont Dozier said: “I’ve written about 78 top ten songs, and I still don’t know what a hit is” (Lindvall). So while technology has enhanced our ability to create music, it has not provided us with a way to constantly make instant hits. If that were the case, wouldn’t we all become artists?

 

Sources:

Lindvall, Helienne. “Behind the Music: How to Write a Hit Song.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 14 July 2011. Web. 07 May 2017.

Tick, Judith. “Charles K. On Writing Hits for Tin Pan Alley.” Music in the USA: A Documentary Companion. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. 361-65. Print.

Napster’s Lasting Effects and Tidal: The Failure of a Virtuous Idea

The public sentiment over musical ownership drastically changed after Napster’s unforeseen success in 2000. The program, developed primarily by a college dropout, shared music between hard drives of Napster users for free. Essentially, Napster was a way to subvert the recording industry by listening to music bought by others on a massive scale, reportedly reaching 80 million users at its peak (Harris). Of course, the industry fought back, and after a lengthy court battle stretching to mid 2001, Napster was ordered to cease all operations. Although it’s run was short, Napster changed the way the public viewed musical ownership.

Before Napster, people would have to go to a record store and purchase a CD to listen to their favorite artists. The songs themselves had a physical presence, which was essential to marking it as an item of value. Napster introduced the digital medium of a songs existence the the public at large. Now, instead of a physical disk, songs were nothing but a string of ones and zeros saved magnetically on a hard drive. This change, seemingly subtle, changed everything. Music was now seen as information, not a physical product, and information should be free and public. Although digital sharing platforms like Napster were illegal, people still ignored the law based on this new sentiment. Music piracy was hurting the industries bottom line, and in order to keep control, industry leaders made a deal with Apple to split profits as long as Apple’s Ipod kept piracy (excuse the pun) at bay.

Today, streaming services like Spotify and Pandora reign supreme. Unfortunately, although more people are listening to music than ever, not all is well in the recording industry. Spotify’s practices a ‘freemium’ model, meaning that users can listen to music for free, but are restricted by ads. Spotify pays out labels through the ad revenue they receive, and labels then pay the bands.

This model has put strains on the entire industry. Nobody, not even Spotify, is making money; Spotify continues to report losses, even though they are cited for taking money from the rest of the industry. Spotify pays out almost hilarious amounts per stream; some artists say that they are getting payed $0.004891 per stream, meaning off 1 million plays, they are making shy of $5,000 dollars (Resnikoff). Small artists are suffering from the business model, and are forced to leave music all together to stabilize financially.

Enter Tidal. The new streaming service had a lot of momentum going into 2015. It was backed by a litany of big names, Including Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Rihanna, and boasted that it would give more to small artists.

(L-R) Usher, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Madonna, Deadmau5, Kanye West, JAY Z, and J. Cole onstage at the Tidal launch event (Getty Images)

Now two years later, Tidal is the joke of the music streaming industry. There are a few major problems that lead to the service’s public failure (Freimark). Firstly, the marketing was poorly aimed. Tidal reasonably assumed it would be a smart idea to emphasize the backing of big and well known artists. In most cases, celebrity endorsements help a product succeed. Unfortunately, the context of Tidal’s existence was not accounted for by Tidal’s marketing team. While promoting all the big names involved in the project, Tidal concurrently promoted that artists would get better payouts. Rather than showing that Tidal’s business model would help small artists, it appeared to be a service for already famous artists to get a bigger payday. The public saw the platform as greedy rather than benevolent from the get-go. The streaming service had a rocky launch, and the user base was only supplemented by the promise of exclusive first rights to albums of partnered artists (a promise that was never followed through on). The combination of broken promises and a poor marketing campaign lead to a weak and inactive user base. In fact, the user base isn’t big enough to support small artists like Tidal promised.

The recording industry’s success is precariously placed in the public’s sentiment, not only by the quality of music, but how people get it. As the industry adjusts, it must be careful to clarify its message, if only to avoid another, as one might say, Tidal disaster.

 

Works Cited

Freimark, Joel. “Tidal nears one year of mediocrity and failure.” Death and Taxes. February 25, 2016. Accessed May 06, 2017. http://www.deathandtaxesmag.com/282165/tidal-one-year-anniversary-failure/.

Harris, Mark. “The History of Napster.” Lifewire. April 21, 2017. Accessed May 06, 2017. https://www.lifewire.com/history-of-napster-2438592.

Resnikoff, Paul. “My Band Has 1,000,000 Spotify Streams. Want to See Our Royalties?” Digital Music News. April 24, 2017. Accessed May 06, 2017. http://www.digitalmusicnews.com/2016/05/26/band-1-million-spotify-streams-royalties/.

 

EDM Music and Drugs

Electronic Dance music has been around since the 1970’s. This brought along the rave culture that originated in Europe but has come across the pond into America. It was not always called Electronic Dance music or EDM, but in the 2010’s the music industry was trying to rename the rave culture in America. EDM and raving is now associated with many festivals across America like Electric Zoo and Electric Forest. While these festivals headline major stars such as Skrillex and Diplo, it has negativities with it due to EDM music being associated with drug use. Festivals like Electric Zoo give audiences the opportunity to listen to music for hours as Djs can play tracks by pushing buttons and working sounds with computers rather than playing instruments and singing which puts strain on the musicians. At the festivals however, illicit drug use has been prevalent because it offers ravers to listen to out of body music with an out of body experience. Being able to immerse themselves in the music and dance for hours requires for a lot of festival-goers drugs to connect themselves with the beats. The huge audiences and lack of tight security allows many people to access and distribute drugs. With rave culture coming from underground scenes, drugs have been synonymous with the rise in mainstream rave culture.

While people flock to these festivals, experiencing the music and using drugs makes people feel more connected to each other while interacting with the social setting they are currently in. The counter-culture in EDM reaches to youths because they feel the need to go against the establishment. “Association with drugs reinforced rave’s group solidarity and oppositional identity, as drug use often relieves the feeling of being immobilized by mainstream institutions (Anderson 1998)” (Kavanaugh/Anderson, 185). With roots to underground scenes and illegal activities, people feel the need to join the culture and immerse themselves in everything. This means interacting with the music by dancing and taking illicit drugs. Solidarity is important at these events because it is better to belong with a group and enjoy the festivities than being left out. With every new group exposed to EDM and raving, the rise in drug use as people feel the need to belong and be a part of a youth movement that gets in the moment of the festival and immersing oneself into the culture.

 

Philip R. Kavanaugh & Tammy L. Anderson (2008) Solidarity and Drug Use in The Electronic Dance Music Scene, The Sociological Quarterly, 49:1, 181-208

The iPod

With the invention of the 5GB Apple iPod in 2001, the entire music industry prior to this point in time was changed forever. Rather than going to stores to buy records or cd’s, buyers of the iPod may now simply download music and have a digital copy on their iPod. This also created the ability for people to not only take their music wherever they wanted to go, but to also be able to listen to their music privately. The original iPod offered “1,000 songs in your pocket” but was met with intense criticism by the public who believed that the device was too expensive and did not do enough to constitute its high price tag. The second generation was introduced in 2002 and featured a 10GB as well as a 20GB model. By this time, there had been 600,000 iPods sold. The second-generation iPod had a wheel to be used for navigation instead of the older version and was now Windows compatible, so songs could now be synced with a computer. 2003 was an absolutely critical year for the massive explosion of popularity for the iPod. The third-generation iPod was released with a few varying features but this is the year that Apple releases the iTunes Music Store with songs running at 99 cents a piece on a controlled and legal site. iTunes sells over 1 million songs in its first week. This created incredible enthusiasm in the public and people rushed to buy iPods at incredible rates. By the end of 2003, the amount of iPods sold had risen to over 2 million. The iPod mini and the fourth-generation iPod, with 20GB and 40GB versions, are both released in 2004 and iTunes goes international in the U.K., France and Germany. The number of iPods sold through 2004 has skyrocketed to 10 million and iTunes has downloaded top 200 million songs onto its services. The iPod shuffle is introduced with the iPod nano and the iPod with video in 2005. The iPod with video allows buyers to not only take music with them but now their videos and pictures are now able to be taken wherever they want. iTunes now integrates videos into the store as well, they sell one million videos in less than three weeks and now the number of iPods sold has raised to 42 million. The next major innovation comes in 2007 with the development of the iPod touch, which enables the user to view songs, video, pictures and access the internet where wifi is available. Sales of the iPod are now at 141 million. Through 2010, the sales of the iPod had reached 275 million with 10 billion songs sold. The unprecedented success of the iPod is a testament to the ability of Apple to inspire major change in technology and the desire of people to advance their personal media experience.

Works Cited

Kahney, Leander. Cult of Mac. 23 October 2016. 4 May 2017. <http://www.cultofmac.com/124565/an-illustrated-history-of-the-ipod-and-its-massive-impact-ipod-10th-anniversary/>.

https://www.apple.com/pr/products/ipodhistory/

Music Streaming Services: helpful for consumers and detrimental for artists?

As almost anyone who keeps up to date with American celebrity news and popular culture knows, Taylor Swift removed her entire works from the streaming service, Spotify, in late 2014, after claiming that she was not “willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists, and creators of this music” (Rolling Stone). Swift and many other high profile artists claim that music, and the artists who create it, are thoroughly devalued through being offered to consumers for free, with ads or for a small monthly fee, whilst musicians receive a minute $0.006 to $0.0084 per-stream (Flowers).

As discussed in class, the key distinction between buying physical copies of records and music streaming is that on services like Apple Music or Spotify, you are buying access to the music, rather than outright purchasing the song or album itself. Streaming, rather than ownership, is increasingly becoming the future of music. As The New Yorker put it, “nothing is for sale, because everything is available” (Seabrook). However, there is a new fissure or disconnect between parties in the music sector; consumers now have almost unconstrained access to music, whilst artists are still paid through the same model. Friction still exists between streaming services’ use of micro-payments per stream and record-company royalty collection per stream – they aren’t equivalent or equitable.

Today, Spotify pretty much dominates the music streaming industry. The Swedish company is not yet cash flow positive but has been valued at roughly after $8.5 billion going public. The key to their future success is upping the number of advertisements they push out to listeners, as their free and paying user-bases increase (currently over 100 million users, 40 million of which pay $9.99 a month). Overall, the industry is thriving: there are more than 100 million paying, streaming subscribers and, in the US, the sector is on course to hit a second consecutive year of growth, which has not occurred since 1998-1999, when Napster launched (FT.com). For example, Universal Records, who receive royalties every time Drake’s music is streamed on Spotify, earned $1.1 billion in streaming revenues during the first nine months of the year. Such a huge income windfall from streaming royalties offsets the decline in physical copy music sales and digital downloads, that has been perceivable across the industry over the past fifteen years (FT.com)

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-09-20/spotify-apple-drive-u-s-music-industry-s-8-first-half-growth

As we have discussed in class, the key distinction between buying physical copies of records and streaming is that on services like Apple Music or Spotify you are buying access to the music, rather than outright purchasing the music. As The New Yorker put it, “nothing is for sale, because everything is available” (Seabrook). There’s no denying that streaming services do cause numerous issues, such as little monetary remuneration for artists, a drop in the number of digital downloads and physical purchases as well as making the industry more album-averse and more fitting for single hits. But, Spotify and other streaming services do encourage listeners to discover new music, which they most likely wouldn’t have come across before. The personalization and curation of playlists through psychological techniques and specially-designed algorithms feed consumers new yet similar music to their previous tastes. More artists are able to break through and gain major popularity, as listeners spend more time clicking and shuffling through the streaming service’s app and listening to more varied music. In this sense, streaming revenue can be looked as helpful, additional (albeit small) revenue from consumers who wouldn’t have necessarily listened to certain artists’ music before.

Projected streaming revenues to 2020 (FT.com)
Comparison of micro-payments on different music streaming services (FT.com)

 

Knopper, Steve. ‘Taylor Swift’s Label Head Explains Spotify Removal.’ Rolling Stone. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 May 2017.

Nicolaou, Anna. ‘How Streaming Saved the Music Industry.’ Financial Times. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 May 2017.

Seabrook, John. ‘Spotify: Friend or Foe?’ The New Yorker. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 May 2017.

Wells, Nick. ‘Spotify Not Killing the Music Industry: Research.’ CNBC. N.p., 4 Nov. 2015. Web. 4 May 2017.

Censorship of Disco

With a repetitive and catchy beat, disco quickly became one of the hottest dance genres of the 1970s. The Philadelphia born category laid its roots in both jazz and funk, quickly having its popularity artificially inflated before coming to crash in the early 80s, not too long after its inception. During its peak popularity, it allowed for a suppressed group to hide in plain sight, and live without being persecuted by society: Gay Machos. By parodying society’s perceived notion of masculinity, these men took advantage of this heteronormativity and created a culture in which they could effortlessly come out of hiding. This subculture flourished in these conditions (as seen by the vast popularity of The Village People). Their music was so covert that, at one point, their song “In the Navy” was even being considered by the US Navy to be used in their recruitment efforts.

While macho allowed homosexual men to openly exist in society, it could also be argued that having to take these covert methods of becoming macho could also be considered a form of censorship. As noted in Alice Echols piece, the only way to discern a homosexual macho from a heterosexual macho were the handkerchiefs and keychains hanging from their back pockets. This was such a subtle change to appearance that only people that identified with the subculture could notice and comprehend the meaning of the acute modification. While this may have allowed them to freely exist in society, there is still a suppressive nature to their actions. It is likely that not all homosexual men would want to follow this new trend. This easily could have crowded out any creativity (in the disco realm) that could have come from them. This essentially censored those who wouldn’t conform, and restricted them from participating in the vastly popular musical culture.

While disco had already fallen from its peak popularity, the Chicago White Sox disco demolition night in 1979 was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Since disco music was very closely intertwined with the gay community, and since gay men were considered failed men, many considered disco music to be failed music. To extrapolate from this, disco music was to be suppressed and pushed out of popularity as had been done to these men through societal pressures. Through their event, the owner of the Chicago White Sox succeeded in applying a grassroots form of censorship by encouraging members of the city to attend the baseball double header at a severely reduced price if they brought a disco record. These records were then collected and destroyed, a symbolic destruction and suppression of the disco genre. This action was an active attempt to censor the music on a smaller scale. By holding this event attended by over 50,000 people, the Chicago White Sox used their influence as a major player in the entertainment business to spread their message across the country. They created an atmosphere of distaste for the genre that soon helped to sweep disco out of popular culture.

Sources

Echols, Alice. Hot stuff: disco and the remaking of American culture. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2011.

Vettel, Phil. “Steve Dahl’s Disco Demolition at Comiskey Park.” Chicagotribune.com. December 05, 2008. Accessed April 21, 2017. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/politics/chi-chicagodays-disco-story-story.html.

Narcocorridos

Music for decades has had a big impact from the drug and crime community. Rap and hip hop music have become increasingly based off of these drug partaking lifestyles. Rappers seem to praise drugs and people who do drugs the most. Perhaps the founders of these glorifications come from songs referred to as, “Narcocorridos”. These songs come from Mexican artists who tell stories about drug runners who are depicted as legends for their effort when in reality, their lifestyle is transporting these illegal substances, with a likely goal of selling them to others. This irony of glorifying criminals seems unjustifiable but audiences love hearing about rebels, the same way people love “bad boys”. These narcocorridos place a magnifying glass on people who may be doing the wrong thing, but use their ability as an artist to frame it so the people in the songs are legends.

These narcocorridos songs are greatly influenced by a hierarchical power, similar to artists today being controlled by record companies. The artists of narcocorridos are often found by different cartels and told to write a song about one of their members who made it to the United States with all of their amazing drugs, or was killed as he worked so hard to help his family. The problem with this opportunity for the singer is that it is a very binding contract. Once one cartel has approached you and you do their song, you are essentially a member of that cartel. Artists all around the world also struggle with this, as recording companies sign young artists and have a firm control on their contracts so that if the artist ever goes big, the recording company is the one who will always have the control. With the narrocorridos, it is much more life and death for the artist, but in a similar fashion, the cartel will always be in control.

Another comparison of these narcocorridos to the hop hop music of today is the blatant statements that defy the law. In modern pop music, artists talk about smoking marijuana, or doing other illegal drugs and promote it in a very supportive way even though it is illegal. This sends a very bold statement about how “tough” the performer is, and maybe used as a way to make the artist look better. Narcocorridos are performed in a similar way, where the artist talks about drugs but also about the defiance of borders as a much more positive thing. The cartel uses these writers to talk about how easily they can make it over the border with their drugs, which is completely illegal. This statement of utter disregard for the used to once again create a better image for the cartels and prove that they are the best, similar to rappers who want to be seen as the best.

Narcocorridos are used to influence their audience in the same way all music attempts to mold the opinion of the listeners. The major difference between narcocorridos and folk music is that while folk music glorifies stories of people and what they’ve done, narcocorridos want what they have to be known, and they want it to be known so they can continue the line of work that is explained in the song itself.

How Censorship Can Make New Music

Censorship has been a very hot topic in the American music industry throughout most of the 20th and 21st centuries. The 1950s saw public concern over sexually explicit songs in the R & B genre, as well as a new wave in music about drug use and other actions seen to be immoral. Heavy metal and punk rock garnered plenty of concern in the 1970s and 1980s, and hip hop is still openly criticized today in the mainstream media and other outlets. Most often, these songs are being censored because a lyric or section contains material seen as dangerous or repulsive; Spiro Agnew, President Nixon’s Vice-President, even went as far as to claim that young people were being brainwashed into taking drugs through rock and roll music. Agnew’s comments in the 1970s pushed the FCC to create a pamphlet that would suggest broadcasters could lose their license if they played these types of songs on air, resulting in very little music from certain genres on the radio.

 

Of course, some censorship comes in the form of changing lyrics and is generally more common today. Some cases of this, like ‘Fuck You’ in CeeLo Green’s hit song “Fuck You” being censored to ‘Forget You’ in radio versions, seem less far-fetched than Agnew’s suggested mind-controlling rock songs staying off air completely. A mother driving her young children home from soccer practice would probably have serious immediate qualms with her children singing along to the catchy tune of “Fuck You” word for word, but she probably wouldn’t mind them singing the censored version at all.

Due to the very nature of a song like “Fuck You”, the censored version is quite different from the original. Unsurprisingly, when the entire chorus is changed to have a similar meaning but a less vulgar tone, a song seems quite distant from its original. I remember listening to “Fuck You” in the uncensored format for the first time in middle school and hearing what seemed to be an entirely new song. The way CeeLo pronounces such a hard and concise ‘fuck’ in the original that changes to a smoother two-syllable ‘forget’ has a large effect on the flow of the song as well as the shock value, and really seems to create an entirely different song with a different tone when censored.

In another recent example, the song “Drop the World” by Lil Wayne contains many uses of the word ‘motherfucker’ in the dirty version that are not present in the clean version. When I was in middle school I could once only listen to the clean version and had a completely different idea of how the song’s pacing acted from the original, of which I didn’t even know existed. In this particular instance, words were removed entirely from the song rather than rephrased in a less explicit context. The awkward spacing that came from this censorship made a song with not only a cleaner meaning, but now a new pace and chorus. The censorship had essentially created an entirely different piece.

While cases like this are often far and few between, it is hard to argue that these songs are a variation of the original rather than a new song in and of themselves. When censorship actively takes away a song’s meaning, or at the least dilutes and changes it, and then disrupts the flow and rhythm the creator intended, the censorship has made a new song. It is not fair to the artist nor the listener to pretend these songs are actually the same; because at the end of the day, the artist had a message and the censoring changed that message beyond recognition.

 

http://performingsongwriter.com/censored-songs-in-american-history/

https://www.rockhall.com/rock-and-roll-vs-censorship

https://books.google.com/books?id=4pXsV06JjY8C&pg=PA202&dq=agnew+bans+music&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiaysnC5bTTAhUMwYMKHeWLD6sQ6AEIJzAA#v=onepage&q=agnew%20bans%20music&f=false

What is a Virtuoso?

Over the course of our discussions this unit, the term “virtuoso” has come up multiple times, with questions of whether or not it is applicable to the figure under discussion. Are the noises Hendrix makes on his guitar virtuosic? Is the music we listened to when discussing Bikini Kill virtuosic? For some, the answer to these questions is “of course!” But others would be hesitant to agree with this. To look more deeply into this question, we’ll start by considering the word by itself.

One dictionary definition of a virtuoso is “one skilled in or having a taste for the fine arts.” But this definition quickly appears too narrow — is it impossible to be a virtuoso while playing the electric guitar, since this instrument is not often categorized with the fine arts? At the same time, we must not get overly broad in defining this term, since it would lose all useful meaning if it could be applied to anyone playing an instrument at any time. Perhaps a useful definition to start with then would be “an experimenter or investigator especially in the arts and sciences,” particularly “one who excels  in the technique of an art.”

With this joint definition in mind, let’s start by examining an artist who is perhaps most often called “virtuosic,” and see if this word should really be applied in this context: a solo classical music performer, such as a violinist or a pianist. Perhaps the word makes sense in this context even at face value: the word virtuoso is originally Italian, the same language used for many musical terms in classical music (piano, crescendo, fortissimo…). And it would be hard to argue that any of the great soloists do not “excel in the technique” of their playing. But it is interesting to consider whether these performers are “experimenters or investigators” in their music. After hundreds of years of being played, much classical music remains beautiful to many listeners. At the same time, the fact that this music has been played hundreds of years means that likely very few musicians today will do something truly innovative or will really experiment with that music, which suggests that we probably overuse the term “virtuoso” in the realm of classical music.

If we turn now to Jimi Hendrix (looking specifically at his performance of “The Star Spangled Banner”), we see very few similarities to our classical performer. Can virtuosity apply here? Clearly, Hendrix is “an experimenter and innovator” in his electric guitar playing — the sheer variety of sounds he is able to create purely through feedback and his guitar playing is astounding. Does Hendrix also excel in the technique of an art? In some ways, this question is actually more complicated than it sounds, because I would argue that Hendrix has practically created a new art of guitar playing, and is at the time he’s playing the almost only person involved with that art. So he can’t really excel in that art relative to anyone else, but I think it makes sense to say that he excels because he was good enough to begin this new type of playing. Overall then, Hendrix is most certainly a virtuoso, and Tick’s chapter heading (“Jimi Hendrix: Virtuoso of Electricity”) is quite accurate.

Finally, we will look at the Riot Grrrl movement, and specifically the band Bikini Kill. This was another area where the subject of virtuosity came up, since the style of singing present in this band is quite different from what has traditionally been accepted as “good” singing by Western societies. An example is below, which is similar to, but not the same as, the example we saw in class. To some (and to be perfectly honest, this includes me), some of this seems more like yelling than singing. Can it still be virtuosic? Like with our Hendrix example, I think there is definitely experimentation happening here. Precisely because it is so different from what is traditionally considered good, this music is innovative, and goes out on a limb in its experimentation. And while the lead singer would likely not win any awards in most singing competitions, I don’t think she’s trying to excel in the type of singing that wins such competitions. Instead, she strives to excel in this new and innovative way of singing. And the positive reception of this band within the Riot Grrrl movement suggests that she has achieved such excellence. Therefore, Bikini Kill can be considered a virtuosic band.

Overall, examining closely the question of “What is a Virtuoso” demonstrates that our notions of virtuosity are often far too narrow, and align more closely with what we think is excellent than to what is excellent and innovative by more subjective measures. While such ideas can be difficult to measure while removing as many prejudices as possible, such an examination can often be done, leading to a reworked view of virtuosity and excellence.

Definitions from “Virtuoso,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Merriam-Webster (2017). https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/virtuoso.