Sameness is the Enemy by Scott Robinson
You know the feeling: you’re just arriving in a part of the US you’ve never visited and looking forward to seeing what it has to offer. Your plane touches down and, like magic, Muzak switches on. In the airport, the insipid music (or another version of it) is again your unwanted companion, following you even into the bathroom. You wend your way past the same Chili’s Express, Cinnabon and Miller Brewhouse you saw in the airport you departed from 2,000 miles ago and pick up your car keys at the rental desk. Out in the lot, the music continues to follow you as you make your way to your car, through speakers mounted every five feet in the canopy overhead.
You hit the road, looking forward to the local scenery on the way to your hotel. You’re on a highway and it looks disturbingly like a lot of other highways in a lot of other places you’ve been, nowhere near this one. You pass shopping centers, malls and large swaths of housing developments just like the ones back home. These bear evocative names that recall whatever was destroyed in order to put them there: Fox Run Woods, Turkey Glen Estates. Nervously you turn on the radio, thinking, “maybe I’ll catch some local music.” But up and down the dial is a seemingly endless supply of the same pop/rock you were subjected to back at the airport, along with a hefty dose of right-wing talk and a smattering of news.
Near a big intersection you find your hotel, one of a giant chain (aren’t they all nowadays?). Your spirits fall as you look around and realize that this highway interchange is indistinguishable from all the others you’ve seen all across this continent. Wal-Mart, Wendy’s, Home Depot… you are in the center of a giant ocean of unrecognizable conformity. Where Indians once hunted bison is now no different than where steamy Floridian jungle once stood. Those worlds have been removed and replaced with… this.
You step into the hotel lobby (yes, the pop music is playing there, too) and make your way to the check-in desk, passing by the hotel bar. Maybe you’ll drop in later for a good local beer! Quickly you scan the taps: Bud, Bud Light, Coors, Coors Light… no luck there. As the perky young gal at the desk hands you your key, you ask, “Where can I get some good local chow?” “Well, there’s a Denny’s next door,” she answers cheerfully, “and an Applebee’s just across the highway. I like Applebee’s, ‘cause you know what you’re gonna get – it’s always the same!” This scourge of sameness has somehow permeated nearly every part of our landscape and every aspect of our culture. And it isn’t just here at home. Thanks to globalization, multinational corporate behemoths now bring us Kraft cheese in France, Coca-Cola in Chad, McDonald’s in Moscow and Starbucks in Beijing’s Forbidden City. Where America’s jazz once fired the imagination of the world, now her bland, pitch-corrected pop has stultified the cultures of other nations, driving out their indigenous music like an invasive species. In cafés from Kowloon to Cameroon, I’ve had to endure the same stuff that I would in my local New Jersey bar. What’s disturbing is the tyranny of it, the ubiquity. We are not allowed to escape it – it is required listening wherever we go.
The forces of sameness are at work in education, too, where the push is toward ever more standardization and away from innovation in teaching. Even the world of jazz, supposed bastion of unfettered imagination, is susceptible (theme-solos- theme formats, formulaic endings, the dreaded “everybody wear all black”). And thanks to deregulation and corporate greed, jazz has virtually disappeared from radio along with almost anything that isn’t pop or talk. Radio stations once had live orchestras; now many of them don’t even have local DJs, as programming is prerecorded from a prescribed playlist and piped in from corporate headquarters. This trend began in the ‘90s with test marketing: test groups determine playability based on just 10 seconds of music. Playlists shrink, songwriters start “writing to the test” and sameness wins the day. Today, any sort of DJ autonomy has vanished from most radio, as corporations decide what gets played. There’s big money in sameness!
What about the Internet? There’s been much to be thankful for, with independent musicians finally out from under the yoke of record labels and distributors who decide which music is worthy of release. But I see an ominous new trend coming: subscription services, which many say will soon replace downloads. For a monthly fee, listeners can access an entire library of music… but only whatever music the company chooses to provide. Even more unsettling are the new “acoustic personalization” services, which provide listeners with music matching the acoustical profile of whatever they listened to last – a virtual recipe for sameness! How would someone listening to Coltrane discover Art Tatum by such a method, let alone Bartók’s string quartets? The joy of discovering new sounds will be forever lost if we start allowing our listening choices to be made by a computer program whose sole criterion is that the next piece must sound the same or nearly the same, as the last.
Why does uniformity have such a hold over us? Why do humans, those most creative of animals (in America, that most creative of nations), seem so eager to prostrate themselves before the altar of sameness? I have a theory: perhaps, like brute physical strength, creativity is becoming less critical for day-to-day survival. Where early humans had to use brawn and brains to find a way to stay alive, now most (in the developed world, at least) can simply pick up a pizza or buy groceries. Could we be in danger of losing our creative edge? Certain species of birds have, through the centuries, lost the ability to fly. Consider the ostrich: does not such a flightless bird seem somehow less a bird, absent such a distinguishing characteristic? And would not a diminishment of our own creative powers make us, in some immeasurable but crucial way, less human?
If there is an answer to this dilemma, at least for musicians, perhaps it cannot be stated more simply or more passionately than what Anthony Braxton said to me years ago: “We have to keep playing music like our life depends on it – which it does!” He was speaking, of course, of creative, far-reaching music, music that elevates the imagination and transforms the listener. We musicians are often told that we must “give the audience what it wants”… but an audience can only want what it already knows. I believe that part of an artist’s job is to find that which the audience never knew it wanted, that which it was not even equipped to imagine. This way, the music is allowed to evolve and grow and perhaps take us humans along with it. Indeed, creativity – and creative music in particular – may be the most powerful weapon we have against the creeping tide of sameness and uniformity. Let us wield it often and well.
Multi-instrumentalist/composer Scott Robinson has been a highly-active presence on the New York-based jazz scene for more than 25 years, appearing on some 200 CDs. He has been heard with Frank Wess, Bob Brookmeyer, Maria Schneider, Anthony Braxton, Hank Jones and more and toured 11 African nations in 2001 as a US Jazz Ambassador. This year, Robinson’s ScienSonic label has released its first two CDs of “worlds of tomorrow through sound”.