Is That All There Is?

The human mind is built on expectation.  We may fail at various times in our lives, and we may succeed in others, but we never let these moments get us too high or too low, because we know that the Sun’ll come out tomorrow.  There’s always hope, there’s always something more to life, and there’s always some extraneous force that put us in our current perdicamant.  We live in a perpetual state of looking around the corner for the next event that will fulfill all of our expectations.  We look forward to the weekend, to vacations, to moving, to promotions, retirement, and the afterlife.  We are eager beings who believe that tomorrow will be a better day than today.

In this quest for a greater tomorrow, say songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, we are frequently disappointed.  The song, written in November 1969, is called Is That All There Is?  The song’s lyrics detail the nature of expectations and the disappointments of life that began in childhood.  It talks about the circus, and how we believed that the moment that circus began, we would experience the greatest moment of our life.  We were so expectant that we could barely contain ourselves when the first clown made an appearance.  We would laugh wildly at everything the clown did, even though they weren’t really funny.  If they did the same thing without makeup, would we even smile?  We did laugh, however, and our laugh was borne of expectation.  When we saw the magnificence of elephants walking around, yards away from us, our little faces just beamed with awe, but they usually didn’t do anything that met our expectations.  They would walk around in circles, and they would even do a few tricks, but we were in awe with images of the beasts that  were built on the extent of their capabilities.  We saw a beautiful lady in pink tights flying high above our heads, and we cringed with the expectation that she might fall, and then she didn’t, and then it was over, and we walked out of the auditorium disappointed that our incredibly high expectations weren’t met.  We couldn’t help but think that we missed something.  Is that what everyone was talking about?  “Is that all there is to a circus?”

Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

PJ Harvey

Sung by Peggy Lee (then PJ Harvey) Is That All there Is? moves to more depressing matters as the song progresses.  It talks about how even the most horrific moments in life, such as a fire, can be a little disappointing when one is all hyped up about its horror.  When the afterlife is discussed, the lyrics detail that how they don’t want to die fearing that final disappointment.  The theme of the song, as evidenced by the above refrain, is that if that’s all there is to life, let’s live life to the fullest.  Let’s break out the booze and keep dancing if all these overhyped joys and horrors turn out to disillusion us in reference to what are supposed to be life’s greatest joys and horrors.

When we talk about the power of America in the world today, we talk about how she has the ability to shape the world in its status as the world’s lone superpower.  When we talk about the technological advances she has made in her 200+ years of existence, we talk about it being the lone beacon in the world for individual achievement.  Even after acknowledging this ingenuity and creativity, we are still vulnerable to insecurities that lead us to believe that there is something bigger, brighter and more powerful out there just waiting to expose us as frauds.  We don’t know what that is, but we know that we meager humans can’t be all there is in the world.

We fear China for this very reason.  While few would say we have nothing to fear from China, our unexplainable fear of them is borne of expectation.  They’re the unknown.  They number into the billions, they speak a funny language, and they’re a very industrious people.  In our greatest fears, we portray them as almost machine-like.  They have less regard for human life and human suffering than we do.  They pay their workers peanuts, and they rip off our creativity and ingenuity, but does all of this equate to superiority?  If we were to construct a line-by-line comparison, we might find that they are not superior.  They have their areas, of course, but on the whole?  How about in the future?  Ah, there’s the rub Skippy!  The future is the unknown quality.  The Chinese may be more organized, they may be better at math and engineering, and they may be so disciplined that they can they march in lockstep?  But, are they superior?  We don’t know, and the insecurities are killing us.

We fear aliens from outer space for these same reasons.  Aliens are superior to us.  They have technological advances we haven’t even dreamed of yet.  Some have claimed that their culture may be thousands of years older than ours, so they must be thousands of years more advanced than we are.  Some have even claimed that what comparatively little technological advancements we have made are based on what we’ve learned from various alien visitations.   There is one small problem with all of these assertions: they may not exist.  They may not exist, but if they do they’re superior to us.  At least with the Chinese, we have tangible evidence for our fears, but the fear of aliens from outer space is a manifestation of our insecure belief that we’re limited by human constraints, and we can’t compete with them, and their superior intellect and machine-like abilities.  The fact that we engage in these hypothetical fears is all is built on the expectation that this can’t be all there is.

Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

What would we do if we learned of an alien visitation from an individual who claimed the aliens that visited him were not as superior as we were led to believe?  What if he said, “They may have been exceptions in the species, but I think I just got visited by a couple of alien hicks.  When they stepped out of their incredibly advanced flying saucer, they were drinking and belching, and the way they spoke made me think they were swearing.  I can’t be sure, but I swear they were drunk.  Then, when they violated me, I think they were laughing while they did it!”  Would we believe this person, or would their story violate our expectations of their superiority so much that this would be the lone alien visitation story that we didn’t believe?  How convincing would this the poor person have to be to override our need to believe that there is something spectacular out there that we have yet to experience?

Alien visitation stories also feed into fears of our ultimate destruction.  The subject of the visitation usually relays information from the overlord, alien visitors that suggest that our reliance on war and technology will have an ultimate price if we don’t stop now.   Most aliens appear to be anti-corporate peaceniks.  Due to the fact that aliens are superior, we know that they’ve seen the horrors technology can have on a society, so we could do a lot to stave off our Armageddon if we’d just put our iPods away and go back to our primitive nature.  The advice the aliens give us tend to follow the subject of the visitation’s political philosophy, and it’s usually advice that is as simplistic as the subject appears to be.  “When ordering from a fast food menu, lay off the Biggee portions it’s not good for you,” the wizened alien says in his alien tongue that has been translated to English by the subject.  “Stop driving SUVs, and lay off the cigarettes.  Doobies are fine, but those cigarettes are killing you Tony.”

If rational people are going to accept that we’re not the only life forms in the universe, they must accept the possibility that there are superior life forms out there.  But they must also accept the possibility that there are inferior life forms out there, and if we have been visited by these life forms, we should’ve been visited by some them too.  Some alien visitation “experts” would counter that the aliens we encounter are basically their astronauts—their best and brightest—so we probably won’t ever see the hicks of their species.  That would bring us back to square one if we didn’t witness their technology and believe that theirs is thousands of years more advanced than ours.  Most people who indulge in alien folklore don’t even question alien superiority or inferiority.  For these people, the evidence is in, and their fundamental belief system is based on ALF superiority.  This is based on their frustrations with life on Earth.  This is based on the fact that they don’t make a whole of money in a job that they hate, their family hates them, and they don’t have a lot of friends.  They need something to believe in, and believing in a God just isn’t cutting it for them anymore.  They need something bigger, better and brighter than the stuff their stupid parents believed in.

Some people fear UFO people, some fear the Chinese, some believe in God, some believe in Wiccan style control of their destiny, and others believe that with the correct federal government legislation on the books they can avoid total failure.  Most of us have some belief in a controlling authority that controls our fate, our daily lives, and our failures and successes, and psychologists say that this is actually quite healthy.  It gives us some distance from our failures, and it gives those that have had their expectations damaged throughout their lives some hope that things will get better, or if they don’t they have someone, or something to blame.  For if this was all that there is, as the song says, we might as well break out the booze, and get loaded, and dance to hopefully forget the fact that this is all there is, and we’re not entertained by it.

Today’s Music Ain’t Got the Same Soul

As a former AOP (album oriented person), I have finally come to realize that most songs, on most albums, by most artists, are crap.  It’s a tough admission for me to make, especially after decades of fighting against my “single-loving” friends on this very issue.

downloadThe Beatles may be one of the few exceptions to this rule.  The Beatles made about five albums that were almost top to bottom perfect, but then again they had three bona fide songwriters in their group.  Those three songwriters could usually write one to two great songs a piece for the albums The Beatles would release on an annual and biannual basis.  When The Beatles broke up, these three artists continued that trend.  They would write one to two great songs on solo albums that they would usually release on a semi-annual basis.  One of those songs would get extensive airplay on the radio, and we would all run out and buy the album.  To our disappointment, there would probably be only one other song on their solo albums that could be enjoyed long-term.  A couple of the other songs on those albums were self-indulgent, political rants, and the rest were just filler.  Led Zeppelin may be one of the other another exceptions, but they sold their souls to the devil, and there’s Queen, but Queen had four solid songwriters in their band.

There are other exceptions to the rule of course, and I’m sure you have them in mind, but were those exceptions the first album your guys made for a major label?  If that’s the case, you have to ask yourself how many years of writing went into the making of that first album?  If that’s the case, I submit that that first album was a compendium of all the years this artist(s) spent as a struggling, starving artist.  Kurt Cobain once said that if he knew what he was doing, he would’ve spaced out all the songs on the album Nevermind, to presumably allow some of those single songs to appear as lead singles for forthcoming albums.

From what I understand of the business, and I understand very little, this first album usually generates little to no money for the artist.  The reason for this is that the record company assumes all the financial risk for this unknown artist on their first album, and this unknown artist is usually so eager to sign with a major label that they forego most of their rights.  Most new artists have little-to-no pull in the signing process, and most labels take advantage of them on that basis.  Most labels are also hesitant to give a lot of money to a new artist, because they know that most new artists will go out and ruin their minds and bodies on drugs and alcohol with all of their new found money.  Other than the objective to make the most money they can off the artist, they might also want to keep the artists hungry enough to produce at least one more great album.

After the artist is raped by the label on the first contract for the first album, they’re usually bled dry by the lawyers who try to rectify that first deal.  This gives them the hunger necessary to complete a second album.  This second album is usually rushed by the artist, the label, the lawyers, and all of those with their hands in the pot trying to cash in on the success of the first album.  It usually sells well, based on the success of the first one, and the critics usually label this effort “the sophomore jinx”.  The second album usually contains the “could’ve beens” and “should’ve beens” that didn’t make the cut on the first album, and that album usually sounds rushed, sporadic, and often times sub par, but you can’t blame the artist too much for wanting some of the money they missed out on with the first album.  If the artist was allowed some time to write a new single, and some time is usually reserved solely for studio time in the world of music –because most artists are artistic on their time– you may get one marginal-to-good song on this record that would’ve been a better-than-average filler song on the first album.

“Wait one cotton-picking moment here,” you say. “The artist I listen to says that they don’t do it for the money.”  That’s just good business.  Very few artists, outside the for reals world of rap artists, would tell you they’re in it for the money.  If they believe it is about the money, and for some it is, then they’re probably not very good artists.  For those that are quality artists, that love the art form, money is a happy byproduct that pays the rent and the grocery bills.  Money allows the artist the free time necessary to concentrate on their craft, and that is important even if they won’t admit it.  If an artist is in it solely for the money (or the fame), if they’re being for reals, they’re probably producing the schlock that comprises most of the Top 40.  It is about the money though, for those artists that truly know their craft, and have some idea of the business side, know that when a customer hands over dollars for product, they’re complimenting such products in a manner that allows the artist to keep producing said products.

Sting once said: “Anyone can write a hit, but it takes a true artist to write an album of excellent material.” 

If that’s the case, there just aren’t as many artists out there nowadays.  Either that or my patience for half-hearted material has diminished, because there appears to have been a dearth of great albums in the last ten years.  My guess is either there are fewer spectacular artists out there nowadays, or we have over-estimated these artists in the music field for decades.  Perhaps these artists were never were as intelligent, or as brilliant, as rock journalists led us to believe.  I’m not just taking about the members of ‘80’s hairbands in this critique, or the starlet that tries to show off her body parts to remain relevant.  I’m talking about our favorite artists.  I’m talking about the seminal artists that have graced the covers of corporate magazines for decades.  I’m talking about the artists that the marketing arms of these corporate magazines, and the corporate labels, have led us to believe were complicated geniuses.  Maybe they were just better than most at crafting an image, maybe they are not as deep as we perceived them to be, and maybe we need re-evaluate our definition of the term “musical genius” based on the fact that they can’t come out with three decent songs every two years.

If we are to judge an artist based upon their albums, and not their singles, then we have to assume that they’re not very deep.  The Beatles came out with nearly three albums a year in the 60’s, and they came out with some complete albums, top to bottom.  With today’s artist, we’re lucky if they come out with an album every two years, and as I said those albums usually only produce two decent songs on average.  Whatever the case is, I usually make my own albums out of all of the singles and some of the secondary songs released today.  The rest of the songs released by these complicated artists are just drivel.  Thanks iTunes!