That Infiniti Commercial

Several years ago, I wrote a blog entitled “I Hate American Idol” for Education Week. EdWeek changed the title to “Music Teacher Hates American Idol”—lest they be accused of trashing one of America’s iconic entertainment boondoggles—and it drew thousands upon thousands of readers and a whole array of nasty comments, which could be summarized thusly: Grow up, whiny music teacher.

Here’s the lede:
I hate American Idol. I really do.

I think it’s an insidious and destructive force on the American media culture (which– let’s be honest–needs all the help it can get), an omnipresent televised influence causing Americans to believe that unless your voice and public persona meet some amorphous standard of style and quality, you should just shut up and stop singing.

Or maybe I should just lighten up. But still.

Everyone who can speak can sing. Really. Singing is just extended, rhythmic speech. Singing is a great gift–a fun, wholesome activity that builds community, expresses joy, sorrow and humor, entertains and binds us together in life’s transitional moments. There is no activity that is not made richer or better illuminated by music.

Community singing around a campfire got ragtag groups of settlers across the prairie, and singing has comforted those who remain behind, bereft, when lives are lost. Music releases emotion far more effectively than words. While it’s wonderful to listen to exquisite vocal harmonies, nothing is more satisfying than actually singing yourself. It’s what we were meant to do as human beings.

And that’s what I tell my students– they are born singers.

If you watch television, you’ve seen the Infiniti commercial where Rich White Lady inexplicably drives her luxury vehicle into a tiered room where children are filmed simply holding—often incorrectly—orchestral instruments. There is a soundtrack marked by significantly scratched tone and seriously out of tune chords, unpleasant to the ears of 21st century consumers who are used to perfect (and often auto-tuned) music. RWL rolls up the window, shutting out the sound, lowers her seat, adjusting the rear view mirror so she can see her adorable daughter, who later rides home in the back seat.

Message: Owning the right car will shut out the cacophony of life. Including the disgusting sounds your children make.

Music teachers universally hate this commercial. Many took time out of preparing for spring concerts, the school musical and recruiting musicians for the 2022 marching band (something everyone in the bleachers on Friday night expects) to comment. There’s plenty to say.

For starters, the piece the students are pretend-butchering is Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, a tone poem based on a literary work by Friedrich Nietzsche, which incorporates the idea that God is dead. So there’s that.

There’s also the fact that the children portrayed are not actually playing the piece (something that’s obvious to instrumental music teachers)—or even attempting to play an instrument. Shots of cute children incorrectly holding musical instruments are commonplace in advertising (see below).

It’s this ‘cute’ angle that’s most annoying. Children, as previously noted, are born to make music—to sing, to move, to create. Teaching them to appreciate a delicate instrument, to persist through the difficult challenge of making good sounds, learning to work together to create something magnificent—isn’t this the critical essence of authentic education?

I found the commercial insulting to my life’s work.

 And I’m wondering:

What if RWL had rolled up her window and ignored her little soccer player, averting her eyes in embarrassment because he was running, knock-kneed, toward the wrong goal?

What if she was scrolling on her phone while her daughter was on stage at a dance performance—unable to watch because the dancing was so painfully inept?

What if she told her 4th grader that her artwork—on display at the school’s art show—was ‘amateurish?’

Parents who reject their children’s efforts at anything because those efforts are clumsy, childish or hard to hear are doing damage. Telling your child that they shouldn’t do something unless it comes easily or can’t be done perfectly is personal vandalism.

I’m not suggesting kids be praised when praise isn’t warranted. I have had literally hundreds of parents joke about their kids’ early efforts at playing an instrument: Moose mating (low brass). Geese honking (oboes). Pigs squealing (clarinets). If accompanied by encouragement and tolerance, these moments can be light-hearted.

One parent remarked: I have sat through a lot of kid concerts and some of them were painful. Let’s face it, when kids are learning, they often do suck.

Nope. That’s the response of an adult who misunderstands the role of persistence and effort. If it’s ‘painful’ to listen, imagine the pain of a child whose parent shuts out their first steps in any endeavor by rolling up the metaphorical window.

Another comment, from a fellow musician: In my band directing days, when parents and staff would joke or complain about the first beginners concert, I’d tell them it was my absolute favorite concert. Four months ago, they didn’t even know how to assemble their instruments. They might not even have known what instrument it was. And now we’re making music.

The first concert was my favorite, too. All six notes, and all the shining faces.

And pretty soon—with time and effort—they can sound like this, taking those skills and friendships into the adult world. No matter what kind of car they’re driving.

Because we’re all born to make music.

Thirteen Songs

The headline made me laugh: Is Old Music Killing New Music?

The news, it seems, is dreadful:
‘Old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market, according to the latest numbers from MRC Data, a music-analytics firm. Those who make a living from new music—especially that endangered species known as the working musician—should look at these figures with fear and trembling. But the news gets worse: The new-music market is actually shrinking. All the growth in the market is coming from old songs.’

I find this interesting, as a musician and sometime music scholar. I spent many years doing lessons with my middle school and high school musicians, pointing out that centuries went by with human beings presumably making music that we can only guess about now—and lots more centuries went by where we have written scores, but no audio confirmation of what folks were listening to.

The earliest wax cylinder recording of music dates back to 1888, Arthur Sullivan’s ‘Lost Chord.’ Upon hearing his own composition played back, Sullivan said he was ‘terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever.’ Well then.

Commercial radio has been around for about 100 years, accompanied by lots of argument about the best and highest uses of broadcasting. Records—discs, that is, spun at varying speeds and available to the general public—have also been available for about a century.

I am presuming that the ‘old’ music that is slaying new music does not include that vast sweep of music-making prior to the 20th century, even though it’s a pretty large, um, catalog. Also—and this is a simple math problem—doesn’t the growing body of archived music necessitate that newly created music will represent a smaller portion of the whole?

In other words, while I am a strong supporter of music creation, I don’t think the popularity of old music (defined as something released more than 18 months ago) threatens the human compulsion to generate new music. I think it means that music is that rare thing—something that can be experienced repeatedly without growing old or worn out.

This blog was inspired by two things I ran across lately: A thread on Anne Helen Petersen’s Substack, Culture Study which asked readers to name a ‘perfect’ album. And a post from my friend Bill Ivey wherein he suggests his readers ‘create a playlist/compilation album that would be your autobiography through song.’

This is the kind of thing I love to do—I keep a folder on my computer entitled My Songs where I dump recordings that move me, and notes about music that I want to hear again, and again. It’s a mixed bag, pages and pages long, going all the way back to medieval chant, the first stuff that was written down. It’s comfort food for my inner life.

And lately, I have needed some comfort. My husband and I lost a good, good friend a couple of days ago and I needed to wallow in the (old) music that has been the soundtrack of all my life events and friendships.

As I was listening, rambling through the list, simultaneously wiping my eyes and laughing at shared memories, I thought that this might be that autobiographical playlist. Heavy on the sad and the spiritual (not religious, but metaphysical). But also about love. Which never gets old.

So—thirteen songs.

Gathering of Spirits (Carrie Newcomer)

There’s a gathering of spirits
There’s a festival of friends
And we’ll take up where we left off
When we all meet again

I cannot remember who introduced me to Carrie Newcomer, but her entire catalog, IMHO, is something close to genius.

Into the Mystic (Van Morrison)

Hark now, hear the sailors cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly
Into the mystic

I played this once, on my flute, for a funeral—but it’s not about the tune, which is kind of pedestrian. It’s about the words and it’s about Van Morrison. I know Van has been a jerk lately, but his gypsy soul is still present in his music.

Dimming of the Day(Richard & Linda Thompson)

You pull me like the moon pulls on the tide
You know just where I keep my better side

A song about love and need and fractured relationships that is both tender and ineffably sad; a once-good thing gone bad. I listened to a half-dozen covers (The Corrs, Bonnie Raitt, Alison Krauss), but settle, always, on Linda Thompson’s pleading original.

I Know You by Heart (Eva Cassidy/Nelson & Harrison)

We were like children, Laughing for hours

The joy you gave me lives on and on

‘Cause I know you by heart

Oh, Eva. Gone way too soon. Her ‘Over the Rainbow’ makes an entirely new song out of Judy Garland’s version—but I like this tune best.

The River Jordan (May Erlewine)  Jordan River, Michigan

When you fall in, baptized of all your sins
Oh we all take a swim on the River Jordan
From what I understand they say the promised land is on the banks of the River Jordan
And I must agree I’ve never felt so free
As you, me, the river and the morning

May Erlewine is a northern Michigan singer with a broad range of vocal styles and great songwriting chops. This is one of her older songs, often requested—but that hasn’t stopped her from writing many more and exploring new musical turf. So there.

The Parting Glass (The Choral Scholars @ University College Dublin)

Of all the money that e’er I had
I spent it in good company
And all the harm I’ve ever done
Alas, it was to none but me

And all I’ve done for want of wit
To memory now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be to you all

This one dates back to the 17th century. I played this at another funeral (there should always be music at a memorial service). The local Ancient Order of the Hibernians were there to sing, and needed a pennywhistle to keep them ‘on the tune.’ I came into their rehearsal room to run through it—a large group of men in green sport coats and ties. I introduced myself–I’m Nancy Flanagan—and their leader said ‘Sure you are…’ and they all laughed.

God Only Knows (Beach Boys)

I may not always love you
But long as there are stars above you
You never need to doubt it
I’ll make you so sure about it
God only knows what I’d be without you

My favorite Beach Boys song. What’s amazing about this song is that there are so few words, but so much musical depth and infectious vocalizing.

Drift Away (Dobie Gray)

Thanks for the joy that you’ve given me
I want you to know I believe in your song
And rhythm and rhyme and harmony
You’ve helped me along
Makin’ me strong

Oh, give me the beat boys and free my soul
I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away

When I die, this is the song I want played at the funeral. (I want a funeral. Not everyone does.)

In My Life (Sara Niemietz, vocals; W.G. Snuffy Walden, guitar/Lennon & McCartney)

There are places I’ll remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I’ve loved them all

Everyone knows the Beatles version. I picked this one to highlight the way a great, subtle guitar sketches the harmonies, which are the soul of this otherwise simple tune. The vocalist is superb, too.

Shovel in Hand  (Amy Grant)

Life can change in the blink of an eye
You don’t know when and you don’t know why
“Forever Young” is a big fat lie
For the one who lives and the one who dies

I’m not really a big Amy Grant fan—although I love her husband, Vince Gill. This song, however, is personally important to me. For reasons.  And it always, always makes me cry.

For a Dancer (Jackson Browne)

Keep a fire for the human race
Let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down

Perhaps a better world is drawing near
Just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found

Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around

This song is proof that Jackson Browne’s best work was his earliest work, mostly for the craftsmanship of the lyrics.

Say Hey (I Love You) (Michael Franti)

It seems like everywhere I go
The more I see, the less I know
But I know one thing–that I love you
I love you, I love you, I love you

I saw Michael Franti play in Grand Rapids and it was more like a religious experience than a concert. He came out with members of the band as we were waiting in lines in the hot parking lot, holding lawn chairs, and entertained us.

One Love (Koolulam/Bob Marley)

One love, one heart
Let’s get together and feel all right
Hear the children crying (one love)
Hear the children crying (one heart)
Sayin’ “Give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right”
Sayin’ “Let’s get together and feel all right”

It would be hard to pick a single Bob Marley song, but this recording (at the Tower of David in Jerusalem, with a beautifully diverse crowd singing their hearts out) never fails to move me.