In service of the SONG - or Why CHOPS are often ANTI-MUSIC


We like to keep STUFF in our homes.Stuff we need and stuff we love.Some of it we’re even proud of, and want to show off.Works of art.Family heirlooms.Favorite pieces of furniture.Photos with fond memories.We display that stuff prominently in places that make sense, and give it space to be appreciated.Like the favorite art & photos on the living room wall above the favorite furniture, which has on it some favorite keepsakes.We don’t use grandma’s afghan as a toilet cozy.Or put the couch right in front of a door.We don’t hang photos on top of other photos.Or put 35 ceramic vases in the middle of the kitchen floor.There’s a place for everything, one that supports the value of that thing AND allows it to shine.

So, like, what the hell does this have to do with this week’s topic??Songs and chops relate to this HOW?Here’s how.Musicians create ideas.Words, melodies, harmonies/chords, licks & riffs & solos, etc.They are inspired to bring these out and do something with them.And some they’re even super proud of and want to show off. All of those ideas need a place to live.A piece, composition, backing track, song – a musical framework.One that can provide both strong support and the space to shine.It has to be worthy of containing all that inspiration.

Let’s say a framework – a SONG – is only there for support, is kind of slapped together so the musician can get to filling it up with “inspiration”.Or let’s say the underlying song is well-written, but the musician or singer stuffs every second with one big idea after another.There might be some great playing & singing, but so what?It doesn’t hold up.When any one part of a song takes over to the point that it either obscures the song’s purpose, or worse, shatters the song’s structural integrity, it loses the ability to get across the idea it’s trying to convey.It explodes its own shine.

And this is where the CHOPS part of this conversation comes in.If you aren’t familiar with this term, it just means being really good at an instrument (including the voice).Some musicians and fans are obsessed with chops.They aren’t just impressed by feats of technical greatness, they INSIST on them.They don’t think music is worthy unless every part of it passes technical muster.To them, it doesn’t matter what context these chops are displayed in, nor how structurally sound the framework is.As long as the chops take the day, then the music must be good music.

Now, it’s true that for some people, technical proficiency IS heart, IS spirit.They find their life spirit in towering feats of greatness.And in that case they’ve met their soulmate in chops over song.I love that.But this is not that.This is repression, fear of emotional expression or any kind of vulnerability, even a form of self-loathing.I’ve met and worked with a ton of musicians for whom it’s clear that chops are the only thing that matters.UUUUUGH.

This is not to say that I don’t appreciate, and strive for, proficiency.First, there has to be a base level competence that takes a performance and/or creation beyond hobby and into the realm of the professional.Second, there are times in a song when a display of high technical proficiency comes at the exact right time and the exact right way, so that it uplifts the intent of the song even more.A scorching solo.A breathtaking vocal run.A drum fill that you can’t get out of your body once you hear it.

But in all those cases, and so many more, what truly makes those flourishes work, what makes chops RELEVANT AT ALL, is the integrity of the framework itself.It’s how fucking well written the song is, how the combination of inspiration and architectural craft meld to produce great works.I’d rather a song be amazing, played and recorded with full-on spirit, and the playing be less than perfect, than a bunch of masturbatory show-offs proving to themselves and the world how much work they put in, how much better they are.Guitar masters whose songs are incredibly forgettable.Vocal acrobats whose melismas destroy both the melody and the words.Flash for flash’s sake.

The internet is full of this too.So many of us – well-known or not – want to express what we feel and think, want to be heard, seen, felt.And so few of us take time to craft our feeling & knowledge into a form that is structurally sound, that will hold up to scrutiny, that will be memorable beyond an unhinged rant or self-aggrandizing lecture. Or on the other side, some of us want our expression to be too perfect, to show the world that we’re smarter, more informed, righter.

There IS a marriage here that creates the best of any form.There IS a balance between mind and heart, chops and songs, controlling the output and just letting go.And that balance is found by remembering that the WHOLE POINT of expression is to CONNECT.We need to reinforce this over and over, as desperate and crucial a state as the frameworks of this world are right now.It’s how we get each other to hear the words AND meaning, and why they matter.How we use our feeling AND our brains to connect.And the more we connect, the more we fix the frameworks that need fixing.

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© 2018 by Nick DeMatteo

New York, NY