I don’t know about you, but I tend to forget that we are living in one of those disturbing future dystopias I had nightmares about as a kid until I pass by a gigantic billboard for vaping. It’s easy, of course, because a) we live our lives moment to moment, b) we spend so much of our time in a shared fantasy realm, and c) we all think that the real future is going to be moving sidewalks and flying space cars so no way could this horrible and ugly reality be the future we were promised that never came to be. “Normalcy” is but a thin membrane stretched across a vast ocean of uncertainty, randomness and sheer banal horror; the things we depend upon, the things that make us feel safe and sane, are arbitrary, situational, and ultimately temporary. More importantly, though, is the way that our concept of the future is always predicated on extensions of the things in the present that we think are important — which is why when the future begins to fuck with our sense of normalcy, it never occurs to us that we are living in that future that we feared as children.
2014 will most likely be seen as a key year in our slide into a dark and murky futureworld; as crises mount on countless fronts, aided and abetted by our dependence on technology to manage our reality’s complexity, the rate at which old norms are disassembling has far exceeded our ability to stitch together some new semblance of order. So the tenor of the day is a growing unease with the cratering of institutions and conceptual frameworks that once seemed, perhaps, to the hopeful mind, eternal. It isn’t just that things are getting worse– it’s that they are getting worse in ways that we can’t even fathom, with new and unprecedented horrors awaiting us just slightly beyond the horizon, as our experts spend their hours recalibrating their doomsday charts to account for unexpectedly dire new data.
It of course would seem that the most inappropriate thing that one can do in the face of devastation is think about, listen to, or play music. No one seems to have forgiven Nero for reaching for his fiddle upon gazing at the flaming pyre of Rome’s falling empire, and it is considered to be the height of stubborn cluelessness for that string section to have kept on playing when the Titanic went vertical into the Atlantic. Turning the molotov cocktails and downward pointing charts of the news off and, I dunno, reading a few articles about some new song about butts is just sort of wrong, right? Wrong! For in observing the seemingly frivolous doings of our popular culture, we are reading the tea leaves that reveal the precise contours of our anxieties, our obsessions, our ambitions as a people.
“People pay to see others believe in themselves. The better and more convincing the performance, the more an audience can identify with the exterior involved in such an expenditure of energy. A performer… will be paid for being sexually uncontrolled, but will still be at the mercy of… the way the media shapes identity. How long can someone continue to exert intensity before it becomes mannered and dishonest?”
– Kim Gordon, 1983
“Of course some shit go down when there’s a billion dollars on the elevator.”
– Beyoncé, 2014
If 2014 is indicative of one thing, it is that your average person doesn’t give a shit about music. Well, everyone likes music as a commodity, but nobody really cares anymore about the people who make it and perform it. It isn’t just because nobody is paying for recorded music — the essential unspoken concept behind music culture in the modern era, that important artists sing important songs that are important enough to the general populace to make bajillionaires out of what used to be the travelling minstrels in a sane society, is breaking down. This is, of course, feels like a kind of sacrilege to those of us whose formative years were spent at the pinnacle of this music cultural era- idols are being smashed, ideologies are being overturned, the very usefulness of music is being called into question.
Don’t get me wrong, the purging of the popular music star is far from finished; but it is hard to miss that there used to be dozens of household names generated each year, whereas now entire genres of music are subsisting entirely on vapors still whiffing around from the 1980s. When recorded sound became a possibility more than a century ago, experimental genius and notable asshole Thomas Edison reckoned that those cylinders containing electrical audio would be most useful for archiving political speeches for posterity; instead, that recorded sound created gods on earth of all types of singers and music-makers, and for a good century a formidable industry was built that took a singer of songs, allowed their voice to imprint within the minds of listeners everywhere. Within decades, we let our music stars determine the attitude of our times and become the erotic politicians that taught us how to comport ourselves as we interfaced with all strata of society.
But the all-seeing eye of modern technology has destroyed the god by shattering the myths that allowed us to take a rock band or a pop singer and let them swell in our mind into a personal deity to be worshipped at our own appointed household shrines. Sure, lots of people still bought, say, the new Taylor Swift or Beyoncé album — but no one but a prepubescent child would actually think that these people mean or say anything of any significance.
This is because the very nature of fandom, as a social construct, has been called into question by the general music audience. Fandom, from its very name, assumes fanaticism on the part of the music listener; nowadays, however, your average person saves their fanaticism and idol worship for celebrity chefs and reality show stars- people worthy of the devotion of a large audience. These new deities offer people something to discuss and debate that is real and relevant. Music is, ultimately, aethereal and vague; more importantly, the 24/7 scrutiny of the modern type of celebrity reveals that modern musicians spend approximately no time at all actually creating music. And if they do spend a lot of time creating music — BORING!
People think that rock and roll as a popular movement was killed by outside forces — by rap music, or changing times, or the exhaustion of the art form; when really, it was killed by its own move towards transparency. Once upon a time, rock and roll had coalesced into a stately form with rock stars, hedonistic wunderkinder who captivated the imagination of several generations with their Masonic secrecy and intimations of decadence. Now, thanks to the waves of rock and roll audits conducted by the punk, post-punk, and alternative movements, everyone knows that there is no alchemy, no black magic. It’s just dudes in a rehearsal space trying out ideas that either work or don’t. It is the same with all popular music — stripped of the mythology, devoid of a rabid public wondering whether gods speak through the voices of our divinely chosen muses, we are merely presented with people using technological products to craft a song meant to elicit an emotional response from a potential audience.
Does that sound overly clinical? Keep in mind that the most successful album of 2014 was Taylor Swift’s 1989; created in conjunction with Swedish scientist Max Martin, 1989 is, as Swift herself describes it, her “first documented official pop album.” Created with all the spontaneity and artistic brio of a new blend of Dorito, Martin and Swift’s laboratory creation is stunningly pointless, notable mostly for Swift’s lyrical shift towards the ever-popular extreme defensiveness of our time. It isn’t entirely Swift’s fault, though; in our currently mythless moment, even the biggest star must make an overt effort to fashion songs that fit the person that everyone sees. The modern celebrity must always be responding to a battery of allegations and insinuations; a meek icon like Swift can never get out front of the grist mill of her public life, it’s an impossible task for all but the most thick-skinned asshole, the type of outsized egomaniac that in previous eras was the only kind of person that could reasonably become a star.
“The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” wrote Thomas Carlyle in 1840; his “great man theory” fits in perfectly with the central tenets of what came to be known as classic rock. Just as Carlyle thought that Napoleon and his ilk were the prime movers of civilization, not the plebes who were the cogs in the machinery of the world, so too did Baby Boomers think that huge musical stars moved society forward into modernity. It wasn’t a trillion incremental economic and societal factors that overturned old-fashioned notions of sexuality and repression — it was Elvis Presley’s hips, it was John Lennon’s hair, it was Bob Dylan’s alleged inscrutable lyrical prescience. For both Carlyle and acolytes of the pop and rock star, the outsized individual was the king of destiny, not fate, coincidence, or the withering preferences of the unwashed masses.
The Great Man Theory of rock gives our notion of popular music its power, with each generation assuming that it will have its Hendrix At Woodstock, its Sermon On The Mount. The problem, of course, is that it’s all bullshit, and that each successive generation finds the phenomenon to be less and less true, as the heroes of a generation somehow don’t measure up to the Mt. Olympus of prior times. It isn’t enough, for instance, for a popular rapper to be beloved by a vast audience; said rapper has to be able to, with just a microphone, secure a place alongside, I dunno, The Who. Or U2. It’s a predicament that drives artists insane, especially when they become popular enough to think that they deserve enshrinement — even a cursory check-in, for instance, with the megalomania of Kanye West shows this to be a real thing. Over time, this megalomania curdles into decadence, and decadence in turn flails into system collapse.
“Elaborate burial customs are a sure sign of decadence.”
– J.G. Ballard
So with the crumbling of the temple, the big question is are things terrible, or awesome? As with all historical upheavals, the definitive answer is that it depends greatly on where your vantage point lies. In the great battle of current popular music culture, there are artists, there are fans, there is the general audience, and there is the business; and it’s pretty clear, at least in the short term, that fans have unprecedented control over artists, the general audience has a level of convenience in terms of turning on the tap of modern music that it has never experienced before, and the business, at least at the tippy-tippy-top, is booming.
Last month Steve Albini, noted recording engineer/curmudgeon, surprised many during a speech he gave at the Face the Music conference in Melbourne, Australia, when he, the eternal champion of all things analog and old-fashioned, celebrated the dismantling of the old studio system at the alleged hands of the Internet. “People can now listen only to music they are ecstatic about, all the time,” he opined, extolling the virtue of vast individual choice and reminding his audience of the frustration of being a music fan in a pre-internet era. He continued to sing the praises of our modern musical time:
Imagine a great hall of fetishes where whatever you felt like fucking or being fucked by, however often your tastes might change, no matter what hardware or harnesses were required, you could open the gates and have at it on a comfy mattress at any time of day. That’s what the internet has become for music fans; plus bleacher seats for a cheering section.
Albini isn’t wrong, in that for the music fanatic, the insane follower of music, it is a gluttonous, decadent time on a level that has never been seen before at any time. The sheer access, the freedom, the ability to pick and choose and mix and match the aesthetics of anything from the entire history of recorded music, is completely unprecedented. It is important to understand, however, that this is the perspective of the musical obsessive, who is given such total access now that, basically, your average person doesn’t care about the musical artist anymore.
Albini’s remarks make sense when you understand his perspective as that of someone who had always loathed the stranglehold that the major label system had on music’s production and distribution. As less and less superstar artists succeed, it would seem to be a triumph of the little guy, the smaller artist more beholden to an ethical system of entertainment commerce. In this sense, Albini’s comments are not dissimilar to, say, the way certain Roman citizens during the fall of Rome came to celebrate their new Visigoth overlords. The perversity and absurdity of the rule they had endured, the unfair and intolerable oppression of the Roman system, which made simple tasks tedious and favored the rich few over the plebeian multitudes, was rife with corruption and injustice. That being said, Rome’s fall and the disintegration of popular music in its previously recognizable form is a complicated phenomenon ill-suited to simplistic rhetoric.
Here, for instance, is an oddly measured response to the, um, increasing selectiveness of their current audience by Korn vocalist Jonathan Davis, interviewed this summer as part of some Shure Microphones publicity junket:
I think music now is more popular than ever. It’s more readily available. People are listening to music more than ever now. I think the old model, they way [record companies] used to do things, got old and tired, and people just need to think of new ways to put music out there. I mean, it is what it is.
If you ask me, do I prefer the old-school ways? Yes, I do. Back then, you could do so much more, and we got to do such great things like… playing a show on an airplane. Back then you could do big things like that. Now it’s not possible. That’s just for me personally; I miss those times. But I think for music in general, [now] is a better time.
It of course makes sense that Davis pines for the days when he could be a functioning drug addict whining in his distinctive nasal bleat to endless screaming crowds all while convincing their record label to underwrite one ridiculous expensive stunt gig after another. It was probably a blast for him, and I’m sure if you were one of his minions it was a fascinating subculture to give years of your life to; the late-’90s really was a shallow, worthless period in pop culture, so why not spend it seeing Korn on an airplane or whatever. But more to the point, what’s fascinating here is the way that, like Albini, and like virtually everyone who discusses music nowadays, Davis makes a point of repeatedly emphasizing music’s growing popularity.
The question that is begged is, basically, “Is music still popular?” And it’s a tricky one to answer, because although music is arguably more omnipresent than ever before in people’s lives, said music has become increasingly untethered from anything that would give that music meaning in someone’s life. More importantly, as rock and pop stars become less powerful as individuals in the music economy, the individuals who make the music mean less and less to the people that consume the musical product. Once there were people who could be gainfully employed just interpreting the Talmudic writings of generational sages like Dylan and Springsteen; now, good luck finding a single song that has anything to do with the times that they come from.
The stereotypical ’60s burnout, for example, would look at popular music of today and say “Where is the pop hit about Ferguson, or climate change, or Occupy?” This is, of course, a ridiculous question, because people don’t look to singers or songs for those kinds of corny answers. The music of today either conforms to the strict tenets of its particular genre (meaning that metal songs sound like metal songs and stick to metal themes, and country songs stick to country themes, etc.) or they attempt to amass broad appeal by starting a dance craze or targeting reptilian brain signifiers. If an individual wishes to identify themselves as countercultural, they are without music’s guidance anymore, which is why you see people attempting to carry weapons in fast food chain stores, or going to Coachella or some EDM festival, or “rolling coal.” Like musical choices in the Albini-esque perversity buffett, all cultural choices are now entirely individualistic and unbeholden to any sense of movement or meaning.
“Computers are like Old Testament gods; lots of rules and no mercy.”
– Joseph Campbell
Much is made of the ease with which people can now hear music, and the debate about streaming music tends to center on the ethics of streaming: is it fair to artists? If I was an artist, how many plays would I have to amass in order to order a cheeseburger from the McDonalds dollar menu? (A: more than you can fathom.) But this discussion fails to see the big picture, which is that we are, right now, in the midst of an extremely temporary moment vis-a-vis streaming music, and the future isn’t as much of a done deal as it’s been widely predicted to be.
Last month, when the news of Taylor Swift’s album release resulted in sighs of relief that the major label system would subsequently get to limp around the track for at least one more go-round, much ink was spilled discussing the peculiar strategy Swift undertook in removing her music from streaming service Spotify just prior to the album’s release. Spotify provides, at least by their own admission, somewhere on the order of 30 million songs to its users — and yet the removal of a few dozen tracks by a single artist was enough to cause consternation amongst those for whom the streaming future is a blessed certainty. Soon after, the head of Spotify himself, Daniel Ek, penned a lengthy and somewhat defensive counter-argument to Swift’s Spotify-doesn’t-get-that-
And that’s only because Spotify isn’t just any old tech startup; together with Rhapsody, Pandora, and a few other similar streaming entities, it represents the replacement for a varied group of institutions that are all falling by the wayside as the convenience of streaming allegedly marches on: sure, we hear a lot about the dwindling stock of brick and mortar record stores, but try turning your radio dial nowadays, if you still have one handy somewhere, and try to find some music that you actually enjoy hearing. If streaming music is indeed the replacement for the prior method of music distribution, then how is it that in a world of seven billion, only a paltry 50 million people (Spotify’s public number, keep in mind) even bothered to sign up for a free account with someone like Spotify, or whatever non-committal engagement is required to qualify as an “active” user?
Keep in mind, this is with more money than god being pumped into this system, with no (as of yet) expectation of profitability. These streaming services are banking on a future where they have astronomical Facebook-like user numbers, when everyone’s aunt and uncle and developing and developed nations alike all have accounts and are making this a routine part of their day. Meanwhile, the general populace is sitting out this war of attrition between streaming, major labels and the Musical-Industrial Complex. We’re supposed to get psyched for Big Music because, you know, a tiny fraction of one percent of the population wants to hear some album by some celebrity: zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. At least a few years ago, when pop and avant garde and everything hit at once whilst the global economy tanked, it felt like we were in one of those decadent pre-war moments when everything is sleazy and weird-qua-weird; now winter has come, the trees are bare, and no one has time for this nonsense anymore. The most meaningful and powerful music group of the past few years, Pussy Riot, don’t really even play music and most certainly aren’t on Spotify; besides, even if they were, who would bother actually typing their name in to find them?
The truth is that music isn’t more or less popular than it ever was, but that the majority of those that ingest music have always been passive ingestors in the extreme — and it was one thing to expect a passive listener to turn a dial on an inexpensive radio or to occasionally buy a record now and then, but it’s another to expect that person to go through the hoops of becoming an “active” participant in the new streaming music economy. Which means that the jury is still out on this whole big streaming experiment, in terms of these services getting the critical mass necessary to make this temporary little fling a semi-permanent fixture. Imagine if, after every facet of music culture’s infrastructure is gutted save these new-fangled streaming startups, they all started going belly-up, one after another?
If it was to happen, it would only result in a mass shrug similar to the disinterest that caused it in the first place. The reason? Because, at its heart, music is music, and music must have some form of utility to justify its existence. People will always play music and crave rhythm and fit these things into rituals and ceremonies; but will we eternally need to insert celebrity-penned celebrity-sung songs into every nook and cranny of our lives? It is not a question that has been seriously considered for decades, certainly, but the existential crisis that music faces, that of “What is its purpose in our civilization?” has never been so acutely felt by so many as they see this silly thing they cherish for some reason start fading into obsolescence.
“Songs won’t save the planet, but neither will books or speeches.”
– Pete Seeger
In the end, music, at least in some shape that we’ll recognize, will surely endure, if only because what else is there, right? Despite the earnest attempts of many, music of the future will never truly be divorced from the humans who construct it, and the cycle of musical creation and musical consumption will probably continue to be a worthwhile endeavor for at least some of those involved. Music’s power gives the illusion of power to the listener, and the promise of becoming a powerful musician, however thin the illusion, will always feed into the desire for identity-persona-fantasy gratification in those who participate in the whole circus. It’s not unimportant that music, or at least music as a popular culture, doesn’t mean a goddamned thing in the real world, as as such can be a useful testing ground for all sorts of cultural trials of sorts, whether it’s to discover our propensity for depravity or to find ways to transform bad or illicit emotional responses into redeeming narratives and communal feel-good sensations.
Music is in many ways the great placebo of our modern predicament: we may know it’s just a sugar pill, but raising your fist in the air in an arena with tens of thousands of other people to a song that no one knows what it means, for example, is still a useful exercise even if it is illusory and ephemeral and possibly fascist. As we slink ahead into a terrifying future, failing to look directly ahead lest we make eye contact with that which cannot be named or comprehended, it will always be useful to have a drum forcing us all to march in some semblance of lockstep.
Follow Daniel Brockman on Twitter @thebizhaslanded