A casual conversation with my roommate late last-night led to a 2-hour long banter regarding the basis by which one can call something music. Do we classify what is music by its melody? Do we do so by its use of different instruments? By our modern day definition, anything that comprises of sound (or in some special cases, comprises of no sound) is music. That classifies a Bach composition, 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence by John Cage, and a Black Eyed Peas song all under the same category.
“It all counts as music,” my roommate told me, and he was right, but I didn’t want to accept that both a Katy Perry song and a Mozart composition could both be determined under the same vague banner of “music,” no matter how fitting. Maybe that’s why we created genres, but then again, even genres such as post-dubstep doo-wop or post-bluegrass metal doesn’t help weed out some of the garbage out there. And is that really the purpose, in the end?
Today, a letter from 1996 was unearthed on Letters of Note that, albeit indirect, asked the same question. The letter was sent to Billie Joe Armstrong, frontman for Green Day, by a concerned mother who didn’t feel too comfortable with her 8-year old son listening to Insomniac, the band’s newest record at the time.
Having definitely struck a nerve (the letter was said to be an inspiration for the song Reject on Green Day’s subsequent record, Nimrod), the mother who in a number of time referred to Green Day’s music as both “rubbish” and “trash” got a response from Billie Joe himself:
December 2, 1996
P.O. Box 710
Berkeley, Ca 94701-0710
To whom it may concern:
I am a parent, and I am very disturbed by the cassette tape my 8 year old son was listening to. His 60 year old grandmother bought it for him as a birthday present and was totally unaware of its explicit content. The store in which she bought it did not have any ticket or color on it to warn parents of the content within. A issue I plan to pursue with the right people.
Isn’t it possible to make music anymore? That tape is not something any singer/songwriter should take any pride in at all. It is horrifying and has got to be one of the worst interpretations of an ‘artform’ that I have ever had the misfortune to hear. I know it is possible for the group to make ‘good music’ because I have heard them sing before. For example, the song entitled “When I Come Around” is one of my son’s favorites. It’s a song that he and his Dad sang together whenever it was on MTV or they were driving in the car together.
Unfortunately, one doesn’t have to sing trash to have a following. And if that creates such a following one would do well to wonder exactly what type of people he wants following him! This may do nothing to change the type of music performed or change your views on the art of making music but it helps me to know that there is one less family who will be buying such rubbish and I have a big mouth so I’ll make everyone I know aware. That tape is trash, as you can plainly see, and you’ll find it enclosed.
Why don’t you do something positive and clean up your act!!!! Isn’t there enough garbage in the world? All the thoughts you are helping to put in the minds of our youth is scary. You have so much influence why not use it for something GOOD?
From Billie Joe:
I just received your letter and this is my response.
I don’t write music for parents, grandparents, or eight year olds. I write for myself and I’ll say anything I damn well please. That’s the difference between you and me. I do what I want…. You do what you’re told.
Obviously, we’re not on the same planet, let alone the same ball park. I find people like you offensive and it “helps me” to know you wont be buying anymore of our records. Next time, I suggest you do a little research before you purchase such “rubbish” for your little boy. It might save you a few extra bucks.
Billie Joe and the rest of Green Day
P.S. You’re right about one thing… You do have a big mouth.
Explicit content and the 60 year old badass Green Day-buying grandmother aside, this bitchfight of words between a worried mother and a musician, though clearly amusing (especially the revelation of the mother having sent back the tape – remember the good old days of tangsible, physical music?), touches upon a lot in regards to the classification of music. To the 8 year old’s mother, Green Day is garbage; like how to a die-hard Nine Inch Nails fan, the Black Eyed Peas or pretty much anything regularly played on mainstream radio is an abomination of all that is sacred. But really, whose right is it to really call something “garbage”?
In this digital age, there certainly is no shortage of musical variety. Everything worthy of your taste is a click away, and everything that is not can so easily be dropped in the recycling bin (or burned to a CD, and sent back to the artist with an angry letter, if you feel like leaving the house). Even in 1996, every aspirant music-buyer had a large array of records to choose from, and again, music is greatly based on taste. No parent, no critic, and no fan of music can ever persuade a musician to change his style or way of thinking. In a world where most people inertly move between loveless jobs, it is these artists we can count on to bring something new to our lives; something we love, or something we greatly dislike.
“I write for myself and I’ll say anything I damn well please,” said Billie Joe overpoweringly in the letter, and if we or an 8 year old’s foul-mouthed mother don’t like it, we can plainly tune out, and turn away.