There’s no two ways about it, American radio today is all about single corporations owning thousands of radio stations while only pumping out a handful of musical genre-friendly selections. Tune any FM dial (Hell, any satellite dial) and you’ll be bombarded with that station that only plays classic rock from the ’60s and ’70s, the hits station that only gives you today’s Top 20, the “alternative” station that unveils the latest trend while dipping back into the hits of the ’90s, the country station, the rap station, the talk radio station and the seldom listened to classical station. Doesn’t matter where in the country you are, if your musical tastes aren’t easily summed up in those categories, you’re left out in the cold or waiting for that two hour boutique program on the more progressive talk radio stations that may give you a bit of jazz or blues. How did we get here? Where is it all going? These are just some of the questions Benjamin Meade’s documentary “American Music: Off the Record” touches as it attempts to understand the beast that is American music today, and how it exists inside and outside of the popular consciousness.
To its merits, the film gathers a number of voices from varying perspectives, from Jackson Browne to Noam Chomsky, to decipher the musical landscape and it doesn’t leave many ideas untouched. There’s the obvious culprits of corporate greed and money dictating what gets played, thus dictating what gets popular, thus dictating what the next trend is, but there’s also some more interesting notions such as the problem with music being a larger one affecting our country in general, the problem of a concentrated sum owning the most. In other words, 10% of the music out there making 100% of the money, 10% of the corporations representing even less of the music owning 90% of the stations, fewer people in the country hoarding the wealth while more go poor, etc.
It’s not all doom and gloom for American music, of course. The entire spectrum is discussed, from the merits of live musical performances vs. recording to the internet’s benefit to independent artists. It’s just easier to dwell on the question of how to improve then it is to live in the excitement of what’s right sometimes, but luckily “American Music” offers you enough of a conversation in both realms for you to enjoy it however you wish.
Of course, a film called “American Music” should contain some, and interspersed among the interviews and opinions on the state of music in America are musical performances from across the spectrum of genres. The film has a little bluegrass, some jazz, some country, some folk, some rockabilly, some reggae, some Sonic Youth, some Buckethead… the only area I’d really like to have seen more from was the rap or hip hop community, a musical form that is as much an example of a truly American form of music as any that has developed over the last 30 years. The lack of that voice, except when mentioned in how it pertains to popular, mainstream radio, is one of the few dents in this otherwise solid documentary.
My other major criticism has to do with the momentum of the piece itself. The film starts strong, with a nice music background and solid soundbytes but then goes into a very lengthy opening credits sequence / montage that just plays out way too long. Because it comes on the heels of what feels like a documentary picking up steam, it has the exact opposite effect and everything seems to slow to a crawl. When the doc starts back up again, the complete tone and feel for the piece is lost, not truly re-establishing itself until ten minutes later. It’s jarring because it almost completely hijacks the film, but luckily if you allow the film the opportunity to win you back, it does so shortly thereafter.
All told, the problem with music in America today is both new and as old as the musical forms themselves. “American Music: Off the Record” offers food for thought on the status of music in America, and at worst it at least gets you thinking and talking, which is all one can truly hope from a documentary: that it illuminates, educates and percolates in your head for a while. To quote an old banner my high school English teacher had hanging up in class, “What is popular is not always right, and what is right is not always popular.” To that I say replace “right” with “good” and you have my opinion of American music today.