By PC Muñoz
Historians agree that the human voice was likely the first musical instrument utilized by prehistoric peoples. Tens of thousands of years and multiple technological shifts later, the voice remains the most powerful, expressive and personal of all our musical tools. Every day around the world for hundreds of reasons, people lift their voices and sing regardless of their level of training, talent or professional aspirations. If all human-made instruments were to suddenly disappear from the earth, music could still be made through the power of the voice.
Prior to the dominant era of recorded music in the American pop music continuum, many families of various means kept a piano and a stack of sheet music in their parlor for post-dinner bonding and entertainment. In those days, singing popular songs was not a dreamy vehicle for stardom. It was an enriching pastime to share with loved ones, not unlike the myriad folk traditions from around the world passed from generation to generation, by ear. There were surely professional musicians in orchestras, touring shows, churches, and other institutions, as well as popular interpreters of song on the radio and in the movies, but the point was the song, not the singer. The star-making machinery had not yet been set in motion.
Many pundits point to vocalist Frank Sinatra’s appeal to teen girls as the beginning of modern pop music celebrity. Others cite Hungarian classical pianist Franz Liszt and 1920s singer Rudy Vallée as examples of pre-pop era musicians who amassed a bevy of devoted (often female) fans. Most can agree that once the 1950s kicked in and Elvis and the Beatles came on the scene, the way in which most Americans encountered and consumed music was drastically altered.
Concurrent with the rise of the celebrity-driven pop music industry, the ethnomusicologist/folklorist Alan Lomax was roaming the United States, Europe and the Caribbean, “collecting” folk songs and documenting various musical traditions. For Lomax, his mission was nothing short of ensuring that all of humanity be able to experience unique musical contributions from different parts of the world, with the ultimate goal of acknowledging all cultures and humans as valuable:
"Scientific study of cultures, notably of their languages and their musics, shows that all are equally expressive and equally communicative, even though they may symbolize technologies of different levels… With the disappearance of each of these systems, the human species not only loses a way of viewing, thinking, and feeling but also a way of adjusting to some zone on the planet which fits it and makes it livable; not only that, but we throw away a system of interaction, of fantasy and symbolizing which, in the future, the human race may sorely need. The only way to halt this degradation of man’s culture is to commit ourselves to the principles of political, social, and economic justice.” ( “Lomax in Louisiana: Trials and Triumph". Louisianafolklife.org, courtesy Wikipedia)
Partially due to Lomax’s work, a surging interest in “authentic” site-specific music emerged mid-century and continues to this day, and is largely seen as being at odds with pop music, though pop music often borrows liberally from folk music traditions. The intense controversy surrounding Bob Dylan’s “crossover” from earnest folkie to rock star (symbolized through his decision to begin using electric guitars) is often characterized as a clash between folk music purists and the siren call of less-authentic music.
Since those times, we have seen the rise and fall of hundreds of music superstars and would-be music superstars. The most revered rock stars are able to balance the fine line between the “authenticity” which music fans value and the charismatic star power which entertainment fans admire. For decades, professional music was recorded in high-end recording studios with highly skilled engineers and producers facilitating the process. As music technology continued to develop and professional-level recordings became easier to produce, the amount of music makers with dreams of turning professional increased exponentially. Currently, thousands of songs are released in the online music sphere every day, aligned with the dreams of tens of thousands of new recording artists who often work out of their own bedrooms, eschewing traditional recording studios.
Attendant with the millions of self-released tracks has come a sense of an overwhelming content deluge; a sum of recorded music so massive that no one could possibly listen to it all, or even work up the desire to do so. For some music fans, this has caused a retreat of sorts into the cozy haven of treasured favorite albums and artists of the past, letting their days of adventuresome listening fade away. For others, all this music is a beautiful ocean to endlessly explore: diehards trade tips on best places to find the newest, latest, weirdest, fastest, sexiest, dumbest, and whatever-est tracks online, quibbling over which streaming services work best for which genres and other minutiae.
The future of music is not a rock star. It is the return of music as a pastime, like the days of the parlor piano, like the ongoing folk traditions which never joined the machine. Instead of gathering around the piano to sing popular songs in the parlor, now family and friends gather around the laptop to sing and play. There is still plenty of room for professional musicians in various capacities, of course, and popular, money-making acts fronted by great-looking people will continue to exist. But we will see less and less would-be music legends, just as we now see less and less artists who embody the kind of prophetic archetype we associate with the greatest music artists. When any person can create any sound, there is much less room for revolutionaries in the field.
So in a way we are back to just ourselves and our voices, as we were before this all started. Back to the parlor, except now the parlor is the whole wide world.