Another NY boomer wants 70s music, and mass culture, back

I won’t say it’s exactly amazing how often I hear music critics — or anyone — of a certain age lamenting the lost music of the ’70s. When I covered digital entertainment closely, I was on an influential mailing list full of ostensible music lovers, smart people, and every few weeks someone would argue that the problem with music biz today is that nobody’s making any good music.

Pah. David Brooks’ column in the NYT today is slightly smarter, but not much. He has interviewed Steven Van Zandt, Springsteen’s guitarist, and together they wistfully remember a time when big bands like the Stones and Springsteen meant something, or meant something to huge masses of people. Not like today, where music consumption is fragmented into micro-genres, bands can’t fill stadiums (remember how great the sound and view in those stadium shows are?), and the kids picking up instruments just can’t play.

He says that most young musicians don’t know the roots and traditions of their music. They don’t have broad musical vocabularies to draw on when they are writing songs.

As a result, much of their music (and here I’m bowdlerizing his language) stinks.

He describes a musical culture that has lost touch with its common roots. And as he speaks, I hear the echoes of thousands of other interviews concerning dozens of other spheres.

Did I say slightly smarter? Forget it. Music cultures change. Everything is fragmented. But why in hell is that bad?

A musical monoculture is like any monoculture. It stagnates. Innovation happens within a strictly circumscribed sphere. What really happens is that it produces rebels, punk, new wave, and then what happens… it fragments. I’m a deeply music loving music geek, who today has the ability to listen to everything from Johannes Ockeghem to Valerio Cosi’s Italian free-jazz drones (if you haven’t heard him, GO LISTEN NOW), with long detours through the Middle East, Africa and Asia. That perpetually blows my mind.

Kids can do this too. The ability to get in touch with musical roots beyond Zeppelin and the Doors and the Beatles and a bunch of very good 60s blues bands is overwhelming today. Not everyone takes advantage of this, but many, many do. It’s creating vast amounts of new and innovative music even despite the industry’s implosion. It ain’t the Stones, ’cause frankly that sound’s come and gone at least three times.

Music, and music culture, moves with the times. Brooks gets part of this. He finishes with this, which was his real point all along:

We live in an age in which the technological and commercial momentum drives fragmentation. It’s going to be necessary to set up countervailing forces — institutions that span social, class and ethnic lines.

Music used to do this. Not so much anymore.

This is the old end-of-shared-culture argument. We listen to different things, think differently, read different Web sites. We don’t all watch the same TV news at 8, don’t listen to the same Rolling Stones albums. Terrible, right?

Pah. Before, “technological and commercial momentum” created the impression of cultural monocultures — although underneath, unlistened to by Brooks and his besuited buddies, were other vibrant scenes. Maybe the culture business wasn’t fragmented back then, but culture was — what were the jazzheads listening to, or the folkies, or the deeply weird Tony Conrad or Eternal Music drone aficionados? They sure weren’t in stadiums.

Diversity of cultural opportunity allows people to stretch their minds and expand their experiences, and breeds creativity. Even if people who want to hear the same thing over and over again don’t want to hear it.

Thanks to Alex Ross for the pointer.

7 Comments

  1. and how.

    the thing elderly defenders of music seem to forget is that those revered icons were once iconoclasts, either intentionally or accidentally. Even those 60’s, 70’s and 80’s bands trying to ape giants who came before created often bizarre (and much more interesting) mutations thanks largely to incompetence, ignorance and/or altered chemistry.

    It’s impossible to create music without reference (although you can make music that sounds like that), so the whole idea of wishing for new music to sound like music “used to” is really kind of silly. People do try to create music that sounds exactly like Zep/Beatles/Stones/Cure/Pavement, but nailing the sound of other band makes music that sounds exactly like you would expect: an academic exercise distinguished more for form than substance. Mistakes, ignorance, disrepect, and good old fashioned incompetence are almost always key ingredients in any really good music.

    It’s not so much that hero worship and pining for the past is such a bad thing (maybe a little sad), but that spectacular failure to reach those unattainable ridiculous brass rings often leads to something much more interesting.

    It’s the difference between a boring corpse and a freaky Frankenstein monster.

  2. Amen, Anon. Give me “incompetence, ignorance and/or altered chemistry” instead of worshipful reverence for the past any day. And then let musicians learn and mature from that mixed-up foundation. That’s how new sounds and originality come.

  3. Absolutely. After all, reggae came about because Jamaican’s tried to imitate New Orleans grooves and failed right into another one, and the Rolling Stones thought they could improve on soul music, which they didn’t, but instead they made something else.

    Pining for consensus is what this all comes down to, and it’s always by people who remember how “the Beatles united us all.” (Who’s “us,” though?) But, without even going into the whole digital thing, that kind of consensus is neither possible nor, I think, desirable in a market such as exists today. If nothing else, the “rock” audience covers everyone from early adolescence to consumers in their 70s. The only product with a consensus among a spread that wide is gonna be oxygen.

  4. (Incidentally, I have no idea how that apostrophe snuck into “Jamaican’s” up there. I know there’s an apostrophe crisis in this city, but I actually do know better.)

  5. So true, Ed. “Who is us?” nails exactly the phenomenon of historical blindness/deafness. Anybody who asks it, and spends honest time understanding the implications, is going to be rewarded by finding whole (to them) undiscovered cultures at their fingertips. At the cost of an illusion of consensus, of course.

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