Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Popular Music in the '00s: 8 Themes

Whether it really started in 2000 or 2001, we can all finally agree that the first decade of the 21st century is over. What will be remembered about popular music from this last decade? Forty years from now, when music fans look back at 2000-10, what will they see that made this particular ten-year stretch unique?

Here is my completely biased and woefully incomplete list of what I think are the major themes to come out of the first decade in music in the 21st century:

1a. and 1b. The musical Tower of Babel fell, thanks to technology. More than ever before, there's a huge amount of music out there from every genre, time period, and country, with has at least a few hundred outlets (mainly Web-based) available for listening to and talking about it. Along with the unleashing of all this music came the complete splintering of listener tastes, or, it's probably more accurate to say, music fans' ability to fully indulge their own idiosyncrasies.

Because of this, I think it would be almost impossible for another Beatles or Michael Jackson to emerge on the American music scene. Not only are there a myriad of other choices to pay attention to, as soon an artist becomes popular, there's always a legion of people lined up to tear them down by loudly deriding their talent or authenticity. Of course, one should never say never, but it seems like that task is more daunting than ever before.

Technology made all this possible. And by technology I mean the MP3 audio format, music-making equipment, and the Internet, which is now a million-channel jukebox, nickelodeon, fanzine, and record store. Maybe that could be its new motto - "The Internet: It's Not Just For Porn!"

Audio purists still get upset about MP3s (something about lacking "warmth" compared to a turntable – I stopped listening to the explanations a couple of years ago), yet there's no question that billions of people, even music fans with perfectly good hearing, are willing to trade audio fidelity for portability and ease of use.

In years past it wasn't playing the music that was the problem, but getting it recorded and distributed, a function almost completely locked up by your friendly neighborhood record studio. Today, someone who really, really wants to get their sound out there can do it with relative ease. Anyone could go to Radio Shack right now and get enough equipment to produce and distribute their own record. I don’t think we, as a society, really get just how powerful that is.

3. Music fans have downloaded literally kajillions of songs for free, and civilization survived. The record companies, who had been making enough money off of LP and CD sales to keep them in hookers and piles of coke for almost half a century, warned that if little Johnny and Judy didn't stop ripping them off with all that downloadin', no one will ever want to make music again, and we'll all be stuck with string banjos and harmonicas to entertain ourselves. How quaint that idea sounds now. Giving music away is now a part of some bands and labels' business models. They make money off of performing, while the guys in suits in the big offices continue to get pushed to the sidelines, exposed as the high-priced middlemen they are.

4. Rock and Roll got old. I'm talking about a specific kind of rock and roll, the kind where the performers expect fans to pay $100 to sit in the last row of an auditorium to hear songs produced 20, 30, or 40 years ago. The kind of rock where people expect to live a rock and roll lifestyle (champagne, limos, unlimited hotel room trashing) and actually care about something called the Grammy Awards. The kind of rock where, during a concert, someone will spontaneously and unironically shout "Yeah, man, this is ROCK AND ROOOOLLLL!!!"

Ever since the '60s, the story was that rock would never die, because rockers are the epitome of Youth Culture. The kids rocked out and the parents and squares had nothing to do but sit there and not get it. Between 2000 and 2010, you were more likely to see a rocker doing a reality show about his latest rehab or oh-so-hilarious domestic life than making music.

5. The chasm between "mainstream" and "indie" is wider than ever. During the '00s, as MTV completed its journey from functional irrelevance to complete irrelevance, and major magazines like Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone cemented their roles as publicity agents for the major record companies, one truth became more and more clear – in music, true creativity doesn't move units, at least in a way that satisfies the spreadsheets of the record companies' corporate masters.

Fortunately for what's left of the industry, though, titillation and aggressive mediocrity still sell. The end result is that the difference between music that gets shelf space at Target and Best Buy or name-checked on morning talk shows and the music that doesn't has never been more severe, especially when looking at the reasons why a given song or album was created to begin with.

I was watching an excellent documentary on the history of Hollywood on TCM a few weeks ago, and one of the talking heads had a comment about how Marilyn Monroe was the perfect sex symbol for a public that says it wants sex, but really doesn't want sex at all. To me, this is not only a dead-on assessment of Monroe, but of American mainstream popular music (the age of Ke$ha, Gaga, and Bieber) in the '00s.

6. Rap is due for another makeover. Rap/Hip-Hop style tends to change every decade, as its predominantly white fan base shifts in age and tastes. In the '80s rap was party music and the "CNN of the streets." In the '90s it was all about gang-bangin', slingin' rocks, and cappin' mutha-fuckas who got all up in yo' shit. The '00s was rap's Bling Era, where Jay-Z and Puff Daddy spun tales of money, excess, and bein' on top.

It says something that the most popular hip-hop record right now is Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a journey into the freewheeling, tortured psyche of a genius (or so I'm told). Maybe the next wave of rap will be focused on the mind and spirit? And, as one of my fellow radio station volunteers asked about Kanye's record, are we laughing with them, or at them? That's always been a tricky question in America.

7. The music festival has replaced the stadium tour as the Big Event in live music. The best selling music tours of the year continue to be older rockers from the '70s and '80s cashing in on their Greatest Hits catalogs, and The Dave Matthews Band. Of the Big Time rock bands, very few bands outside of road warriors like U2 and The Rolling Stones seemed to be capable of or interested in large-scale touring more than once. Maybe this is inevitable, considering the costs of doing a tour combined with the fact that many fans just don’t have the cash nowadays to shell out for tickets and beer and a t-shirt.

There was a point time when it seemed that large-scale music festivals (in the US, at least) were doomed, especially after the pathetic convergence of commercialism and nihilism that was Woodstock 1999. In the last ten years, though, dozens of festivals covering just about every genre have established themselves or expanded, putting them at the vanguard of cutting edge music.

In Chicago, for example, a small alternative music traveling circus resurrected itself during the ‘00s as one of the biggest recurring summer festivals in the US, while a scrappy Web fanzine turned itself (and its summer festival) into one of the most important taste-makers in music, complete with a cohort of detractors who can't stand its "hipster" ways.

8. The future is community. The passage of the Community Radio Act in December 2010 was huge, as it potentially opened the door to many more voices in the broadcast radio format, which even in a world of MP3s remains one of the most powerful communication mediums ever invented.

This will only help solidify the development of independent, local, and community-based music production and distribution, which as been flourishing throughout the '00s. Instead of being handed hits from the top down by record corporations, grassroots DIY music is everywhere. Independent artists, bands, and labels make the music, outlets like CHIRP Radio in Chicago, KEXP in Seattle, and WFMU in New Jersey play it, and publications like Pitchfork Media, Slant Magazine and hundreds of Web sites produced by individuals and small groups share their opinions on it.

A huge difference between the organizations that make up this musical ecosystem today and those who have dominated the music scene since its invention is that many of the people working on these projects are not getting paid, at least not an amount they can live on. It's a labor of love, which to me is a sign that this will endure no matter what comes along in the future.

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