(First, it’s nice to be back. I am sorry that I was gone for almost nine months, but that is the length of the school year during which I really have little time to blog. I just thought it easier to stop altogether. Now that it is summer, I can return to blogging. I hope to post once or twice a week – maybe more – through August. But when September comes, alas . . . . Anyway, I do have lots of things to say.)
I suppose The Piano Guys are as good a representative of the millennial generation’s musical tastes as any. “The Piano Guys” are five musicians who are young, talented, clever, and adept at using modern technology (posting videos on YouTube is how they got their start). They became wildly popular – some of their videos having been viewed 20 million times – and were consequently signed by Sony. Now they go on tour and release albums.
Don’t get me wrong, they are classically trained musicians – and one of them plays the cello. They are quite competent. I suppose that I shouldn’t complain too much, at least the millennial generation is thus exposed to acoustic piano and cello this way. [When I watch an old movie or television show, I often find myself remarking, “How nice, acoustic instruments on the sound track!” And some of these “old” shows are only from the 1970’s.]
But my goodness, The Piano Guys are so repetitious! It’s the same criticism that I have leveled at Adele and others. The phenomenon of a handful of chords (usually just four) repeated over and over – an ostinato. Listen to their rendition of the song “What Makes You Beautiful” by the group One Direction.
Now, as I said, the Piano Guys are clever. The use of ‘prepared piano’ technique is interesting (i.e. plucking the piano strings and tapping the piano, etc.). I also realize that they are working with a song that could only have been written by 15-year old boys. Unfortunately, these “ossified ostinatos” are quite appealing – or, at least, expected as normal in popular music now – to more than just 12-year old girls. The song actually seems to repeat only three (!) chords every two measures.
I suppose that the case could be made that The Piano Guys improve the song considerably. And they certainly do in their rendition – listen to the modulation up a half-step at about 2:20. Still, the removal of the words in their instrumental version serves, for me, to underscore just how monotonous the chord progression is. “One direction,” indeed! Around and around in a tight circle is the only direction they know.
Let’s give The Piano Guys another try. Listen to their rendition of “Simple Gifts” and “Over the Rainbow,” which they combine in this video.
It’s the same thing isn’t it? “Simple Gifts,” an unaffectedly simple song of the Shakers, is ‘simplified’ further by being crammed into that four-chord ostinato so beloved of the Millennial generation – their straight-jacketed security blanket. And then, to top it off, “Simple Gifts” is combined with Judy Garland’s old hit in a way that sounds less of a true synthesis then a blatant homogenization.
Both tunes are rendered harmless and stripped of their really interesting qualities and, furthermore, shackled to the mechanical, click-track generated rhythmic background. One of the prisoners, in the only truly interesting part (around 2:45), breaks free, but then seems to return willingly to its rigidly regimented “hip” rhythmic prison around 3:15.
To be fair, I need to listen to a lot more of their music, but based on these two examples The Piano Guys’ music strikes me as a kind of Muzak for Millennials. They are giving this generation exactly what it wants. What distinguishes Millennial Muzak from older muzak? I would say that it is a kind of feigned hipness – a carefully processed, safely syncopated background combined with an utterly short-breathed harmonic circularity. What is it about this generation which prides itself on “thinking outside the box” on TV shows with long, complicated, never-ending plots, yet when it comes to music they never want to move forward? They want, primarily, safe, predictable repetitions – like a boy running around in a tight circle in his small, carefully fenced-in back yard.
Oh, and if you want to “do something” to the song “Simple Gifts” that still respects the song’s integrity it should be something like this version by Alison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma.