Last month I picked up Ripped, a book by music journalist, Greg Kot. He’s also half-host of Sound Opinions on WNPR with cohort Greg DeRogatis. Their WBEZ radio show is a little lame, two white guys hanging on to punk as long as they can. Neither gets the split paradigm in music: that rock critics aren’t needed to review mainstream acts like Adele, Kendrick Lamarr or even Coldplay. DJ’s on the radio exist to keep underground music alive in opposition to all corporate endeavor and mediocre music! One of their fans left a recent phone message saying she’d given them a try and they failed. “You are just two guys from the Eighties.” That may sum it up.
Kot’s 2003 overview of the online music revolution is already old news. Remember Napster? My interest is not in the acquisition of the music but the evolution of Rock n’ Roll itself. Music started to be gauged by number of clicks rather than by any other consensus or critical acclaim. I’d be happier if we all shared music communally in a room or automobile rather than sequestered by individual ear buds. The undisputed shift from broadcasting to narrowcasting then nano-casting comes is a no-brainer. The real surprise is the resurgence of vinyl sales, un-ironic at 415 million last year. This happens amid the inevitable closing of record stores! Go figure. Does this mean there is hope for Alternative Music? Will Indie Rock live on?
The quote from Ripped that summed up music companies was from Moby: “It makes bad creative sense, and it makes bad business. Under the circumstances of the music business right now, Bruce Springsteen and Fleetwood Mac would have been dropped long before they had a hit because their first few records didn’t do that well. Prince’s first few were not huge sellers. So the major labels in pursuit of quarterly profits are shooting themselves in the foot by putting the lowest common denominator music that works on the radio but doesn’t generate any loyalty. There’s no room for idiosyncratic artists. You have to fit the mold. Right now, if you are not a teen pop star, an R&B artist, a hip-hop artist, a generic alternative band, or a female singer-songwriter, you might as well not even think about making records.”
Thanks, Moby. The charts in America are so mainstream that anything critically acclaimed will naturally be excluded. This leaves out a lot of cool music. As if Nirvana never happened. Curious. I like to imagine the Sex Pistols appearing on the Grammy’s. They make hard core Rap and winners of American Idol look a little tame. People say I’m nuts to watch the Grammies. The music awards represent everything I loath about contemporary music. But “mainstream” spectacle is compelling even if a salute to bad taste.
The whole concept of music as a thing that saves your life and soul is in danger. It happens naturally when you’re a teenager or if you are a musician but for the rest of society? I saw the White Stripes (or was it the Black Keys?) a few years back on the Grammies. I jumped out of my chair, sixteen again.
Kot uses Danger Mouse’s Grey Album as an example of the evolution in delivery of tunes by sampling extensively the Beatle’s White Album and fusing it with Jay-Z’s Black Album. In a musical sense it is the pinnacle of sampling but in postmodern terms it is perhaps over the top and not all that listenable. Danger Mouse was on to something but made little money from his acclaimed album. But in the end, it may be more about the business of music than music itself.
When I arrived in the UK in late 1984, Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart was in the top twenty and on sale in Woolworth. Over the years, the song worked its way into the public consciousness and now lives beyond the generation it was meant for. There is no such egalitarian example in the States. I would never miss Top of the Pops because one wanted to see the latest Indie Band breaking in the charts. The charts were singly interesting even to the “old punks” in case they missed something. What’s wrong with aging gracefully?
What would explain the characterless quality of popular music today? Is it the technology delivery system or have musical forms run out of dynamics? Akin to politics, “Regressive” forward movement and divisive diversity? There are vats of new eclectic music but it is swamped by the so called “popular.” Back to the Grammy’s. What would make meaningful critique possible? A perfect example was the Eagles appearing stone faced, mourning member, Glen Frey. Not a youthful Grammy trying to break molds. On the bright side, a great performance by Kendrick Lamar. It included every trope of slavery and incarceration he could cram in but so compelling! Lady Gaga doing Bowie totally made sense. What was I saying about spectacle? I was reminded of the 2015 Super Bowl Half-Time when sports worlds and music worlds collide. The NFL have long run out of big rock stars for TV numbers. So they dug up over-rated Cold Play who was not enough to hold our drunken attention. So Bruno Mars and Beyonce were added. Oversexed empowerment is now the norm with or without costume malfunction.
A friend of mine once said that she’d gone off pop music because it wasn’t made by geniuses anymore. Rose-colored glasses? I think the point is that back in the day, every record (and radio play) was a development or a breakthrough, part of a grand popular evolution. All classes, races and creeds could tune in.