Because life is a series of edits

We Aren’t the World

In Musicians on February 10, 2008 at 5:38 pm

In case you were wondering, the 50th annual Grammy Awards are tonight on CBS. I’m not planning to watch, so let me know what you think if you do. Maybe I’m just getting old, but the idea of watching four hours of a drawn-out awards show for music that does nothing for me seems somewhat masochistic. Besides, I’ve got papers to grade.

I don’t really enjoy music these days. Let me qualify: I don’t really enjoy new music these days. I’ve felt this way for a while now (that is, at least 8-10 years), and the stagnation of our music library here at home is a product of my perspective. Practically, we have no budget allocated for new music, but even if we did, I wouldn’t know what to spend it on – there’s just so little new out there that really appeals to me anymore.

With all this in mind, I was intrigued by Nick Marino’s lead article in the just-out March issue of Paste magazine. Titled “What I Miss About Michael Jackson” and reflecting on the 25th anniversary of Jackson’s 1982 album Thriller (a strange content choice for Paste‘s focus on “organic and eclectic music“), Marino’s article reads:

“[Jackson] was a pop star of almost unparalleled popularity. After Elvis and The Beatles, he was it – the biggest. I miss the shared cultural experience that only a star of this magnitude could create. I miss the way MTV used to hype Michael Jackson videos, and the way everyone used to crowd around the TV to watch them. The short film Michael released in conjunction with “Thriller” is certainly the most influential music video of all time, the one that thrust videos into the realm of art, the catalyst that completed the transition of music from an audio medium to an audio-visual medium.”

“Michael also changed the notion of superstardom. He blew it up bigger than anyone in his generation, and bigger than anyone after…stardom of that magnitude isn’t necessarily healthy for an artist. For fans, though, it creates a sense of awe – or, I should say, it created a sense of awe. Celebrities don’t really make us awestruck anymore. They annoy us with this ubiquity, like mosquitoes. In a weird way, they’re not famous enough. We now have more stars than ever before, but fewer megastars…there’s something awesome about the whole world singing the same song or watching the same video, worshipping at the same altar.”

Paste editor Josh Jackson, perhaps bracing for the inevitable barrage of mail that’s coming in light of his editorial decision to lead with Marino’s pop piece, qualifies the March issue:

“My tendency is to fight bleary-eyed nostalgia in all things music-related. I get tired of aging boomers proclaiming that all music was great in the ’60s or the ’80s and everything sucks now, when we live in a uniquely exhilarating time for music and enjoy a growing number of ways to discover it.”

Jackson (Josh, not Michael) then hits the nail on the head of what I’ve been feeling:

“Despite the self-satisfaction that comes with the idea that mainstream culture is too dim for the music we love, the mass communal aspect that came with those great bands of the ’60s – the experience of discovering The Beatles, the Stones or Dylan along with the rest of the country – is dead…

Now our attention is split a thousand ways. Music no longer has primacy in our culture, and celebrity doesn’t bother with actual music anymore; it feeds itself. There are still plenty of celebrities who sing, but most of them are more famous for being famous than for their songs. We don’t know their music. We only know who they’re dating and what they wore to the Grammys. And audiences remain splintered, not just among genres but among the thousands of indie bands posting to MySpace and YouTube.”

I have to agree with protest rocker Neil Young, who late last week said, “I know that the time when music could change the world is past. I really doubt that a single song can make a difference. It is a reality.” Sad, isn’t it? I think so. It’s that potential – that one song could really change the world – that I find myself missing and lamenting in today’s “I write for me and me alone” brand of music. This is why I buy so little of it anymore…and why I listen to even less.

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  1. I’ve been feeling the same way. I listen to talk radio now instead of music, which is so strange for me. I remember promising myself I’d always keep up with pop music, just to stay current – but I haven’t. It’s not even that I mind the music, it’s more the personalities of the artists. They are either too annoying or too sad.

  2. You wouldn’t be talking about Kanye West and Amy Winehouse, would you?

  3. you just need to find the right music to listen to. i think the points raised in your post (and probably the article, i just haven’t had a chance to read it) are valid on some level. however, it sounds to me like you’re just getting old.

    i don’t mean any offense by that, just the reality that each generation has a tendency to look down their nose at the music of younger generations. yes, there is a lot of crap out there. and yes, if certain realms the musician is more popular/notorious than their music. but haven’t there always been some examples of this.

    again, good points are made but not enough to rubbish the whole of the musical spectrum. there are very positive things about today’s musical culture and experience of it. i for one think it’s great that today’s youth don’t feel the constraint to be identified by a particular genre of music (though some do) that many of us felt in high school.

  4. I pretty much agree with Travis.

    I listen to about 1/3 sports talk radio, 1/3 NPR-type talk radio, and 1/3 “modern rock”-type radio. I like a lot of contemporary music, and a lot I don’t. But that’s the way I’ve always felt. There have always been songs that made me turn up the radio and songs that made me turn off the radio.

    My suggestion is free internet radio, for example, Pandora.com That is my best source for finding out about new stuff I like. You create a station (or many stations) by telling Pandora a band or song you like, and then it offers you a continuous stream of music (with no commercials) by bands that are similar to something you already like. Many of the bands are ones I’ve never heard of before, and most of them I like.

  5. No offense taken, Travis, but I don’t think it’s an age/generational thing. Maybe it’s not even a music thing as much as a distribution thing; that is (and all you die-hard indies out there close your ears), I just miss some of the natural vetting of not-so-great singers and songwriters who now flood the Internet because of the cheaper and more accessible digital recording technology made available in the 1990s.

    Don’t get me wrong: I took full advantage of being able to record my own music back in the day and even tried to promote some of it, but the market – not me – won. I wouldn’t say I wrote exceptionally bad songs, but I certainly didn’t write great songs; they didn’t go too far, except to the camp audience for which I was making them, which was fine.

    What makes “pop music” really “pop music” is that there’s a degree of popularity to it, and I think (as does Josh Jackson in Paste) that, though there are exceptions, there used to be a quantifiable difference of some kind between the quality of an artist who sold 45 million records and one who sold 45 thousand. Call me a sell-out (or worse), but can there really be “pop culture” that doesn’t have a mass degree of popularity to it?

  6. britney spears was massively popular for awhile. does that mean she was great? i could write that sentence over and over again with dozens of other “artists” to prove that popularity doesn’t really mean much. again, i don’t think it ever did. i appreciate the points about distribution but the opposite point could easily be made that the ease of distribution has allowed amazing artists who don’t fit the mainstream molds to gain an audience.

    i’d offer to burn you a mixed cd but i’m not sure my ego could handle the rejection if you decided that the new music i’m listening to nowadays is sufficient to the dunham standard. :-)

  7. I think you’re missing my point (as well as my exception clause – “though there are exceptions” – meant to cover the likes of Miss Spears and company).

    When you speak of the enabling of independent artists “who don’t fit the mainstream molds to gain an audience,” this begs the question: are said artists really part of pop culture? Isn’t what gets created from this market-melding an oxymoronic kind of “indie pop” that possibly negates the best of both genres from which it has emerged?

  8. Great post, Craig.

  9. Hello! As a 54 year old music lover, I don’t think that you (Craig) are getting old. Another pertinent NY quote would be: “Radio is formatting themselves to death.” That is true! Ever since the incredible sales of, first, Fleetwood Mac in the 70s and MJ in the 80s, the big record companies are only interested in product (not music) that moves millions of units. As I understand it, if a record only sells slightly over one million, the companies consider that a failure of some type.

    There are some incredible artists out there, as there have always been, making great music, but it is harder to hear it without a great deal of effort. And they don’t sell a million units with each release, and that’s ok. Just running through my mind, I can think of Dave Alvin, Kathleen Edwards, Sparks (yes, they’re still around! “Perfume”), Colin Linden, Paul Reddick and the Sidemen et al.

    Shucks, I feel like the writer in Hebrews 11 “And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about…” What about Mercury Radio Theatre?

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