Why is the music of these days so inferior to that of earlier times?
The pop/rock music, that is. If you’ve ever read the comments while listening to an older song on you-tube, you’re familiar with this question/gripe.
And guess what? My series Carl’s Rock Songbook has pretty much answered the question. People don’t know it, though, because we’re a bit obscure and I’m too wordy for my own good. But now that we’re getting a bit more traffic here at pomocon, I thought it would be good time to let our newer readers know.
Recently, Emily Esfahani Smith of Acculturated had a blog essay entitled “Does Today’s Pop Music Stink?” Smith called attention to some interesting studies, such as one that found that the youth of today respond with more feeling, and wind up having greater memory of, songs from the 80s and 60s, than those of today. But despite such evidence, she took no committed position on the main question. She half-defended the group F.U.N., and in response to Reason Magazine’s Ed Gillespie saying today’s music is lame, she said:
I’m sure Gillespie, like all middle-aged adults, thinks that the music of his youth is far better than the music of today’ youth.
As she actually recognizes, that easy idea—that older folks always react against the new by romanticizing the past—doesn’t really help us understand the situation today. It simply dismisses the many sincere judgments heard from people from all generations, that taken in the aggregate, today’s pop/rock music is inferior to that of the 50s, 60s, 70s, and perhaps also to that of the 80s and early 90s. They’re saying so with an intensity and consistency that goes well beyond, I think, the perennial tendency to valorize the past.
Now, this remains a subjective judgment to some degree—if we go looking for a poll or a study to make the slam-dunk case that all these people are right, we’ll wind up disappointed. My own judgment, of course, is that they are right. Without saying that music these days simply stinks, and without denying that plenty of pockets of excellence exist, I do take it as obvious that there has been a decline.
And if you’re with me on that, the real question is, why?
The way to approach the question is the one I learned from Martha Bayles, and her Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music. It is to first describe and make a case for the excellence of the Afro-American musical tradition (a tradition which spans from blues to jazz to older R +B, rock n’ roll, and soul, and even into genres like Country), and then to explore why the wells of that tradition increasingly ran dry as we got to the late 70s and beyond. It is then to analyze the character of Rock music itself, a real departure from the blues-swinging Afro-American tradition, with some attention along the way to the significance of Disco. Those latter steps require attention not just to Bayles, and what she learned (with help from Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison) about the Afro-American musical tradition, but also to the sort of socio-cultural analysis we do so much of here at pomocon, which derives from we’ve learned from Tocqueville most of all.
Tocquevillian postmodern conservative thought suggests we can’t fully understand Rock, nor Disco, until we admit that the fully Modern and fully Democratic age only arrived recently, during the 60s, of course. We have to consider how the music invented during those times dealt with what we might call Democratic Identity issues. Those issues center around the idea of Freedom, and its connection to the Sexual Revolution, but they also involve a troubled secret retention of Aristocratic impulses amid a loss of capacity for higher culture in general.
That last fact points to the decline of interest in classical music, but also to the related drive to make Something Serious out of rock n’ roll, out of old-time folk, out of the blues, etc.
But let’s get simpler and briefer. Why the decline?
1) General homogenization and middle-class-ization of our culture:
1a) more urban, suburban, and wired—folk community musical traditions fade
1b) more secular—gospel roots of soul and country music become thinner
1c) less racist oppression and economic deprivation, therefore less blues-motive
2) The producer/d.j./collage-artist replaces live musicians—results in DISCO in all its forms
2a) basic economic reason: cheaper, more convenient
2b) a cultural reason: makes interaction of international differences easier
2c) often reflects reductive attitude and fatalistic futurism about music: okay, computers, be our composers
2d) often reflects a reductive (and ultimately racist) attitude that sees sexual abandon as the heart of Afro-American music
3) What Bayles calls the artistic approach of “perverse-modernism” (its fine arts precedents are Dada, etc.)
3a) as a white “primitivist embrace” (like 2d) this helps produces hard rock
3b) it is largely responsible for punk, and the related anger-indulge-ment and shock-art escalation across a number of genres,
3c) so that along with a certain conception of black male identity, it helped the gangsta- rap scam get going
4) A general overdose of hedonism in the late 60s and early 70s: both disco and hard rock over-sexed and over-drugged the music, at expense of the swing.
So that is a summary of a theory I laid out in What Martha Bayles Said.
As I said there, “Now one has to admit that 1) and 2) are largely inevitable, whatever exceptions we make for 1b). Yes, we can and must push back where possible. But we have to face that middle-class and connected life is our democratic destiny, as Tocqueville knew. But does this mean that musically one has to lay down and take the full implications of this? Absolutely not. Notice that 3) and 4) are far from inevitable. There’s no reason we cannot learn from our mistakes, particularly when they are nauseatingly embodied in musical forms so obviously inferior as punk, hard rock, and robotic disco.”
Sorry if I’m insulting your tastes there, but that’s how I call it.
The paradox of my Rock Songbook is that song-wise, it mainly looks at rock ones, even though I hold that rock has been, even from it’s exciting mid-60s beginning, inferior to the rock n’ roll it came out of, and to the fine-arts music it turned its back upon. That inferiority has become more pronounced over time, as the number of musicians with the basic Afro-Americana chops has decreased.
Musically, it’s a similar story with disco, although the rhythmic superiority of hip-hop to the original disco has mitigated the problem somewhat. Lyrically, however, disco has much less to say about our modern-democratic era, and so my Songbook seldom deals with it.
So there you have it.