Truths in Shredding

The term “shredding” doesn’t appeal to me. It immediately puts me in a mental space that sounds and feels like the floor of a Guitar Center…and if you’re not familiar with what that sounds like, I envy you.

In my teenage years, though, shredding was everything. As a kid who never really played sports, or so goes my rationale, I had no outlet for what we might otherwise refer to as competition. Now, I’m quite critical of the existence of competition as some kind of natural or healthy construct, but it would still seem to be the case that many physical activities human beings engage in often fall under this umbrella term of “competition,” if not with others, then at least with one’s self on a path toward building strengths in specific categories.

That was one of the appealing things to me about learning techniques and practice methods for developing speed on the instrument (it also sounded really cool…). Music was hard to quantify; what did it mean to be “good” at it? To my mind, especially in my youth, the emotional side of music was up to a number of factors that I could never rely on. Sure, learning certain chords, scales, and how to use them, gave me greater control of accessing certain emotional colors, but it was still an enigma to me. A lot of what moves someone in an artistic piece is abstracted essence of a constellation of very specific social and cultural (and economic…gender…race…) functions and apparatuses, but what it all boils down to is the following: either someone has an emotional response, or they don’t.

Music from Final Fantasy VII pushes me to tears–and not just the songs, but the original midi tracks as they appeared on the PlayStation release really do it for me. Why? A youth spent in a broken home where Cloud was the only person I could relate to in some twisted way ought to do the trick–and it also helps that the compositions are stellar.

So, given that I always understood, at some level, that I was never in control over the previous and existing circumstances that alter the phenomenon of conditioned arising that we refer to as a perceptive response to an artistic mechanism, it made sense to me to focus on the one area that was, it would appear, under my control: Technique. It also gave me a degree of accomplishment, some control over the haphazard conditions of my young life. And, boy, did that go to my head.

The truth in shredding is that it does breed some undesirable behaviors–but to pretend that undesirable, toxic, behaviors don’t manifest in other areas of music and art is, frankly, foolish.

But why the arrogance in shredding? I have my suspicions that there may in fact be some kind of classist underpinning to this–especially when you consider the proximity of shredding and “progressive” metal music and classical music. I mean, it’s right there for everyone to see, really. The cultural signs at work here often find themselves deployed in a hierarchy that seeks to establish a “real” art that always seems to be the product of white, European men.

There is a more defensible position, however, and it came to me when I reflected on Steve Vai’s Passion and Warfare. On returning to it, I realized I probably hadn’t fully listened to it in almost 15-20 years, and in that time forgot how much I loved the songs.

The thing with Vai, in any of his music really, is that he’s not the fastest guitarist out there. There are a handful of crazy techniques and approaches that only he does, but what really defines him is his phrasing on the instrument. That’s what I was loving on revisiting Passion and Warfare, the songs were just a joy to listen to, and his playing was a joy to listen to.

But it isn’t a joy that everyone understands. You, pretty much, have to be a guitarist to get it. You have to spend enough time with the instrument, to the point where it feels like a natural, corporeal extension of your own self, that you can really listen to certain types of guitar music and appreciate what’s going on. I think the shock of this, for some, is what breeds arrogance and anger when love of certain, focused and privatized music isn’t shared. There’s a specific constellation of socio-cultural forces that shape someone into being open to this kind of music.

The solution to this, I think, is to become more aware of the socio-cultural essence of the music we listen to–to, if we can’t fully map it out, at least understand the existence of the constellation that builds our respective backgrounds. But where it concerns “shredding,” and this is very important, we need to examine and be vigilant against toxic behaviors that manifest around it–the arrogance, the elitism. I’ve been down those roads and it sucked; left me friendless and eventually led me to hate certain kinds of music.

This is part of the reason why I cringe somewhat when I hear that “shred” word. I get concerned that it’s creating too many privatized spaces while also building out a hierarchy of who “can” and “cannot” shred.

This post is somewhat wandering. I have a lot of loose-knit thoughts on this which I’ll probably put together in a better way in the future.

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