Geared towards the Average AND the Exceptional?

Early in Side B of Jethro Tull’s 1972 concept album Thick as a Brick, a faint voice, that of bassist Jeffrey Hammond Hammond, can be heard uttering the words:

“we will be geared toward the average rather than the exceptional”.

Whether the use of “we” in this quote of Hammond’s insinuates the band, Jethro Tull, or is inclusive of English society as a whole at the time of the album’s release in 1972, is up for debate. However, it would seem that the latter is the more likely.

Throughout the course of the album, the band offers a nicely disguised commentary on the state of affairs in England during the counterculture. The band present subtle observations about England’s government, education systems and dominant religions, suggesting that these authoritative bodies are “gearing society toward the average”, and robbing individuals of their independence and natural intellect.

The album’s innovative cover is presented in the form of a newspaper known as the St. Cleve Chronicle. The headline story pokes fun at the Education system of Britain, who have supposedly disqualified an 8 year old boy, one Gerald Bostock, from a poetry competition for delivering a poem seemingly beyond his years in its syntax and complex themes. Other representations of England’s flaws are hidden in the guise of obscure lyrics that shift between 1st, 2nd and 3rd person viewpoints, and also scattered throughout the various articles and comic strips of the fictional newspaper.

A peculiar thought crossed my mind yesterday as I was listening to and researching Thick as a Brick. The above quote from this classic concept album, with its notions of “the exceptional” and “the average”, could be applied in numerous contexts. For example, if we consider the recent progression of the music industry, perhaps the argument that society has been “geared toward to average rather than the exceptional” could be made…

The mainstream popular music audience has channeled their focus towards the consumption of intangible, digital singles – easy to make, easy to sell, and easy to forget. Most singles are not demanding on the listener, often have a tendency to incorporate generic sounds and use common song structures and only feature on an album for the purpose of maximising revenue, bundled with sub-par ‘filler’ tracks to fulfill the album duration and cover that share of the market. In a nutshell, this mainstream trend within contemporary music could be considered “average”.

By contrast, concept albums (and the album format in general for that matter) maintain their relevance today as a mode of artistic expression (particularly in specific music circles such as progressive rock) due to the skill and labour required in their construction, and their inventiveness. A good concept album utilises the extended playing time of the album format, experiments with conventional song structures and features many twists and turns to maintain the listeners interest throughout. Most importantly, it communicates a certain mood, story or message. For the purpose of this comparison, we might consider concept albums, like Thick as a Brick, to be “exceptional”.

Another idea stopped me in my tracks yesterday, giving the notions of “average” and “exceptional” a different meaning with regards to music. It concerned the differing ways that music has been distributed in various eras, as technology has continued to progress. This has been a major factor in the fluctuating success of concept albums.

Taking a retrospective look at the sound carriers of music over the past 50 years, one could arguably position the current state of the music industry, in all its digitised glory, as that which is “exceptional”. While vinyl records are actually growing in popularity again (as I explored in my last post), the multiple media platforms available in our current digital age can combine to enhance the music listening experience for audiences in both album and single form. Websites, video, interactive content, and the music of course, can form immersive transmedia narratives – which, when made effectively, can leave the trusty old vinyl records so important to the concept album format in past years to look rather “average” in comparison.

So.. are contemporary music consumers geared towards “the exceptional” or “the

average”? Maybe, depending on how you look at it, we are geared towards both?

The major trends seem to indicate that “the average”, conventional music dominates the charts and key analytics. However, I believe it can be argued, (using big-selling recent concept albums by artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Coheed and Cambria, Daft Punk and Frank Ocean as examples) that “exceptional” musical content remains highly valued in the now. The rapidly increasing sales of current issue vinyls suggest that maybe the “exceptional” presentation available in the digital age is impressive, but not essential. Perhaps, it’s even a little bit scary.

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About simonwoodhonours

Simon Wood (Honours in Media and Communication) is an RMIT student whose specialist discipline is in the 'contemporary music industry'. For his honours study in 2013, Simon will be researching the ‘concept album’, and its significance within the contemporary music industry.
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