2012-06-21

Additional Comments on the Decline of Music

Some time ago, I wrote some Comments on the Decline of Music. Today, I'd like to provide some additional comments, as a sort of continuation on that post.

Dinosaurs of Rock: The Baby Boomer Stranglehold
I was in a pharmacy this morning, looking at the magazine section, which featured two separate editions of Time Magazine. One was an issue dedicated to Paul McCartney, and the other was an issue dedicated to the Rolling Stones. I didn't exactly find this surprising, but it is at least remarkable that there would be two different special editions of the same magazine on the same shelf at the same time, each dedicated to musical icons of the Baby Boom generation.

A recent Marginal Revolution post discussing whether or not popular music has gotten sadder over the years generated some thoughtful discussion in the comments section. One fantastic comment was made by a commenter named "Edward Burke:"
I chalk it up to the simple confrontation between rock ‘n’ roll and reality. The surviving Stones and Beach Boys are celebrating FIFTY (50) year anniversaries this year; anyone who’s seen Mick Jagger lately knows he’s no geriatric teenager. So it begins to become clear that RNR is no actual rivulet streaming from the Fountain of Youth. Also, with RNR on the verge of its own SIXTIETH (60th) birthday (or just passed: I still assign the birth to Les Paul’s/Mary Ford’s “How High the Moon” from 1951), the view dawns that RNR is NOT “the eternal music of eternal youth” but the popular musical mode of the Baby Boomers and their children, the latter perhaps in a growing funk over their inability to transcend the RNR idiom. (Somehow, I don’t anticipate a fresh rush on Beethoven, Mr. Burgess.) –Thus my working definitions of “rock ‘n’ roll”: “a genre of popular music celebrating adolescent frivolity and excess; amplified hyperbole or cliché of geriatric vintage”.
Emphasis mine. The highlighted statement above has really stuck with me, because it captures what I think are the two essential facts about rock and roll, i.e. modern music in general.

The first is the fact that Baby Boomers claim all ownership of rock and roll, period. The second is that no subsequent generation has been able to transcend the Baby Boomers' own personal musical tastes. Think about it. There is only one official story of rock and roll.

It begins with a vague, primordial period no one ever discusses, in which Elvis Presley is said to have marched out of the wilderness with a crude invention called "rock 'n roll." What follows is about a decade-long dark ages about which we know very little, but which has a nebulous notion of "Motown" and "black music" floating through the air like a miasma. At any rate, this music is so poorly understood by modern society (because the Baby Boomers were in grade school at the time, and so they themselves don't understand it) that it might as well have never existed at all.

What follows is The Beatles. The Beatles (apparently single-handedly) appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, and suddenly music mattered a lot. Suddenly music started changing the world. Enter a lot of drug abuse, free love, war protests, and hippies. This is the legendary Golden Age. Every band from this period was wonderful, innovative, original, and understood what music was all about. Here we ignore Herman's Hermits, because naturally the music of the 60s didn't have any corporate shilling, and the listening audience was way too genuine and enlightened to be duped by any corporate marketing, right?

The Beatles - with Bob Dylan's help - taught everybody how to properly write a song. Then Led Zepplin came along and did all the experimentation that ever needed to occur. Jimi Hendrix did all the guitar innovating that ever needed to occur. Music since then has been nothing more than a failed attempt at recreating the magic of the 60s.

New artists are either sanctioned by the Old Guard or not. If they are, they succeed; if not, they fail. That's the end of it. (Note that The Black Keys are releasing an album in which members of the Old Guard cover Black Keys songs. Case in point.)

The Baby Boomers own all the record companies and radio stations and determine themselves what is and/or will be cool. All of their friends were given the opportunity to make millions. (Take for example the fact that Steve Winwood had to wait until the 1980s until he was given his chance - but he was given his chance despite being an incredible anachronism back then. And don't even get me started on Jefferson Starship.)

Simple stated, the Baby Boomers own and control rock and roll. It has always been thus (except during a 10-year primordial history we don't get to talk about anymore).

This Wouldn't Matter, Except That Today's Kids Sanction It
The result of all this is that even today's kids - today's teenagers - are not taught to be musical or innovative. They are taught to emulate the past; and not even the recent past, but the 1960s. I recently met a middle-aged man, for example, whose prodigal teenage sons had an encyclopedic knowledge of classic songs from the 1960s, and played the blues better than many people I've met. But they were kids. Why are kids learning that music from 50 years ago is some sort of rock pinnacle to which to aspire?

Art has always been a slow and steady evolution from the past to the future. That evolution halts as soon as nostalgia becomes such a strong force in artistic study that people stop listening to what's going on around them in favor of what was going on much earlier.

I'm not suggesting that nostalgia is inherently bad, but I am asking how long people expect musical innovation to come out of the same source material?

The evidence I submit in favor of the fact that we've exhausted the source material is modern music in general. There are basically two types of modern music: Rock music inspired by the 60s (currently called "alternative rock") and something called "Pop."

Rock has become an endless parade of one-hit wonders fronted by crooners doing their best impression of The Turtles while the backing band tries to do Bowie circa Ziggy Stardust. The Strokes, The Black Keys, Kings of Leon, Gotye, and so on and so on...

"Pop" seems to be a computer-generated calculus based on a formulized analysis of Beatles chord cadences. Just add "a good beat" and some Auto-Tune, and you can basically make a hit out of anything. Because the chord cadences are based on The Beatles, radio will play it. All it takes is a little payola. (Payola is a fact, let us please not dispute the facts.) To sweeten the deal, music executives have at least had the decency to make pop stars out of beautiful talentless people, rather than merely talentless people. It's all part of a glossy package. Idealized, electronic, and fake. Nobody expects innovation from "Pop," because that isn't the point. The point is to airbrush music to the point that it sounds like the aural equivalent of the cover of Cosmopolitan Magazine.

The Way Out
So, where do we go from here? Is this really all music has to offer us?

Before I answer those questions, I should add that stagnation in rock and roll was inevitable. Just as there is no more new Classical music, no more new Romantic music, no more new 20th Centure Composers music, no more new Ragtime music, no more new (in the sense of innovative) jazz music, so there is no more new rock and roll. All artistic movements reach a point where they can no longer proceed. Imitators can always generate nostalgic throw-backs to previous artistic movements, but such work isn't progress, it's regress. It can no longer be assessed in the context of the original art movement.

Considering that fact, the answers to the above questions are obvious. Let's start with the latter: Is this really all music has to offer us? No, certainly not. Art is only ever limited by the imaginations of artists. There are infinitely many innovations to be made out there.

But only if we pay attention to the answer to the first question. Where do we go from here? Not rock and roll. If we want music to cease declining, we have to get innovative.

Over the past 20 years, music-making technology has driven a great deal of experimentation in "electronic music," which probably needed to occur from a technical standpoint. But nearly everyone agrees that this music lacks a great deal of artistic integrity, considering that it consists mostly of arranging and overlapping pre-written clips of music. If there was innovation there, it has already had (at least) 20 (and perhaps 30) years to develop.

Great art requires a fresh injection of style and imagination whenever possible. If you're thinking of starting a band, writing and recording an album, heading out on tour, etc., please pause to consider whether the music you're making is a forward step. Chances are, you're merely trying to fit in with existing trends. But the problem is that there are no existing trends. What appear to be current trends are nothing more than the worn-out trends traced back to the 60s. Think fresh!

A Final Word
To be clear, I am making no claim here that I am some kind of highly original musical genius. Quite the opposite - everything I have said above applies to me as much or more as it applies to you, the reader.

As I grow and develop as a musician, I that find "the source material" seems progressively more clunky, out-dated, age-inappropriate, and obsolete. I want to write and perform music that excites people, but nearly every music scene in the world is disappearing in the face of lack of audience interest. I want to generate that interest, but feel I have less and less of a chance by writing rock songs and appealing to the magic of yesteryear.

Simply stated, I too am searching for new ideas, new sources of inspiration, and new ways of expressing myself. The past is over. I'm looking to the future.

So as you read what I've written above, consider that I am condemning myself as much as the rest of the world. We all need to push ourselves in a new direction. We need to think less about creating new rock music and more about creating rock and roll's successor. If we don't, music will simply continue to decline.