No Theory, No Problem: A Defense of DJs
I was at a big EDM concert recently but I must have been grumpy or sober because I couldn’t help but thinking that the whole thing was dumb. All these people were going crazy for what was basically a guy pressing play on a Macbook Pro. It’s funny, I listen to a lot of electronic and pop music, it’s probably little under half of my musical diet. But for some reason sometimes I find myself thinking that this kind of music somehow devalues instrumentalists or undermines the art of more traditional live performance. But it really doesn’t.
Here's a completely irrelevant video of karaoke. This is pretty much all I do in Asia. Anyway...
I think there’s understandably a lot of push back from that kind of anachronistic type of thinking. People that are into rock/metal/classical/jazz are generally the ones who fall into this camp. These are genres that put a particular emphasis on instrumentality, technique and the authenticity of the live performance. But I understand why people get offended when DJs press and button and make millions, when their favorite jazz fusion musician that has devoted their entire life to their craft is struggling to get by.
While I don’t think that this kind of gap is fair I do think it illustrates differences in the creative process. Sometimes I think musicians are held back by their instrument. Instruments are complex and take lifetimes to understand let alone master. Many musicians spend their whole lives attempting to understand one aspect of one instrument, many of which don’t even succeed. Some of the greatest classical pianists of all time could never even touch jazz, and vice versa. My point is that for some musicians their instrument is not the best way of expressing themselves. I’ve certainly have felt held back by my own understanding and technical abilities.
There’s also a lot of baggage that comes with knowing music theory. It colors the creative process, it can make the whole process of creation more mathematical, more deliberate. Which if you subscribe to the artistic philosophy of the Jackson Pollocks or Sex Pistols of the world isn’t necessarily a good thing. Working with more theory oriented musicians can tend to feel like you’re solving a problem rather than creating art.
I’ve known a number of musicians through the years that didn’t know anything about music theory. This puzzled me for the longest time. I’ve always likened it to a chemist not knowing anything about chemistry but just fooling around with chemicals. I still don’t quite understand how people do it. I think I rely on theory a lot less compared to other trained musicians, but I still use it to think through my ideas. The idea of not knowing any theory at all is crazy to me. I feel like it would be so tedious, but people do it.
Generally, though not always, these types of homegrown musicians make electronic music. Electronic music tends to be more sample and remix oriented so you don't need to really know about the nuts and bolts of what you're creating. The emergence of high powered production software has really democratized music production. Not but 20-30 years ago you would need to be a “capital M” musician to have the time and resources to put together a decent studio, now a similar rig can be put together for comparatively cheap. Not to mention that now you don’t have to put in hundreds if not thousands of hours learning an instrument to make music.
For the record, I’m still a proponent of learning theory if you want to make music. The odds of you making good music greatly increase when you understand it and don’t rely on the hope that you have money in your brain. But I think there’s something to be said for these types of virgin minds, untainted by the baggage of knowing music theory or trying to understand an instrument. It’s a pure creative form.
Obviously I’m not saying that all, or even most, of the music that is produced this way is any good, but I think that we should keep our minds open to the idea that some of it could be good. It’s simply a different creative vector. Simultaneously, I think just because you know music theory doesn’t mean that you can come up with good music either. Otherwise every music professor in the country would be a Billboard 200 artist.
I feel a lot of the genres that used to push the envelope have largely stagnated in the last decade. I can’t really speak for jazz since I don’t know enough about it, but I feel like most of classical and progressive music either sit on their laurels or resort to gimmicks. Artistically it’s important to think outside the box, even if it’s not really thinking at all. There’s room in the world for cohabitation between the Jacob Colliers and the Cash Me Outside Girl (which by the way, can we talk about that? Jesus, why… ugh).
I mean this is the least demeaning way possible, but I like to think of the old saying about the monkeys in a room with typewriters. Eventually they’re going to make Shakespeare. But I’m not looking for Shakespeare. Shakespeare already did Shakespeare. So while what the monkeys come up with might not be Shakespeare, I think it’s still worthwhile. And conversely, there are about a million people out there that have studied Shakespeare their entire lives but still can’t write like Shakespeare, so maybe it’s worth giving the monkeys a chance.