I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine who is huge Radiohead fan. He admitted that he wasn’t as fascinated with their latest album as he was with their earlier efforts. Apparently The Bends and OK Computer were okay, but Kid A and Amnesiac were phenomenal. When I asked, a la Janet Jackson, what had Radiohead done that was good lately, he had to admit that the music they had recently produced was more of the same and that it was not as good. Apparently, Radiohead had hit an impasse whereby they became boring. Or at least they had become unlistenable. They played the same old same old as pointing toward the future, but not in a way that the true fan thought they should have gone. Radiohead became literally boring.
Now, in a way I always thought Radiohead was boring in the first place, but I can relate to my friend’s frustration that this band seemed to be locked in a fixed groove. One wishes to hear one’s favorite songwriters and musicians keep on making phenomenal music, but they and you become bored. Luckily the music machine churns out another Radiohead to replace the former. Or does it?
Musical taste is fickle, and as much as one wishes to (as Carl in his last post seems to do) hold onto some version of what was great, music seems to move over oneself. When Peter makes the joke that he is tone deaf and only listens to radio stations that don’t play the new music and only the music that he knows and loves, he is on to something that is real about music.
I must state that I am only speaking of popular music, but then Chuck Berry was onto something too when he sang “Roll Over Beethoven.” Contemporary popular music seems to be not Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” but rather simply a movement toward which no one knows here it leads. When I hear much in what is considered to be the latest in music, I either hear retreads of other older styles or cacophony. Apparently, my ears have become untuned. Tell Tchaikovsky the news.
It appears to be—at least with American popular music—that the best musicians and songwriters hit their peak at the latest in their mid-thirties (in terms of age). When was the last time you thought the Rolling Stones (albeit Anglo-American) produced good music? “Tattoo You” was 1981. Maybe “Steel Wheels” in 1989 (but by then the Stones were a “novelty” band and may as well have played at DisneyWorld). Regardless, that was at least twenty or thirty years ago.
You may say that the Beach Boys are still good. I would agree, but what have the Beach Boys made musically since the late sixties?
Perhaps the Doors and the Stooges—let alone the Ramones and the Sex Pistols—ruined everything for everyone. But where are these bands now, other than in the grave or playing as reunion acts?
So the observation I wish to make about popular music is—whether it is Bob Dylan or Van Morrison, The Who or Led Zeppelin, Miles Davis or Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson, Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey—these musicians get played and over-played by the time they hit their mid thirties. After which age they seem to produce no new music that anyone wishes to hear.
I remember going to a David Bowie concert late in his career (1989). It was a bad concert for the first half because he played songs from his new band—Tin Machine—that no one wanted to hear. But as soon as he played “Major Tom,” “Changes” and “Fame” the crowd got excited. I had a similar experience at a Bob Dylan concert about ten years ago.
So when Bruce Springsteen and U2 release new music—who gives a hoot?
This is not to say that the new bands and new music are the best—far from it. I hate most of it. Hip hop simply reproduces beats and sounds of already produced music. I only want to point out that it seems that popular musicians hit their peaks in their 30s, and become retread afterwards. It seems that all musicians—young and old—hit their peak in their thirties. Do we really need another Sinatra or Cat Stevens? They were good back in the day, and they happened to be in their twenties and thirties when they were at their best.
Carl gives the example of Eric Clapton listening to blues records and mastering a music that was not his own. This is true for Eric Clapton, and this may well work. But if I have to hear “Lay Down Sally” or “After Midnight” as examples of an innovation that takes the music to “another level” then count me out. Anything after Clapton’s thirties is not good—though I’ll concede that “Tears From Heaven” had its charms.
Whether it is Radiohead or Pink Floyd or Arcade Fire or the Replacements, I think popular music has exhausted itself as a whole. Popular music seems to take the past as trash even as it recycles what is good over and over again. The rest, as Alex Ross puts it, is noise—but John Cage is boring too. I get it. Music is noise. The No Wave bands got the insight (joke), and they were boring and noisy. Who listens to that stuff?
But does the repetitiveness of No Wave excuse the nostalgia of Los Lobos, Lyle Lovett or NRBQ? As much as I like that music, I still cannot return to endless R&B, jazz, swing, blues, funk, folk, rock, and rock ‘n roll revivals. It is all too much to bear. Sha Na Na was already retro in the early ’70s.
So I think I understand Peter’s professed “tone deafness.” However, I also wish to stand with Carl, and hope that it is not all over for music. As he says, musical decline is a choice.
Perhaps popular music is a dead end. I find myself looking for musical satisfaction in older composers whether Bach or Brahms, Ellington or Coltrane. This old music is fascinating.
But how do you overcome Brian Eno (with Robert Fripp) at the end? Strangely beautiful, and boring—but not the end.