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|Written by Kris Millett|
|Friday, 25 September 2009 00:00|
For writing inspiration, I've been listening to "Get Off Your Boots" -- U2's failed single from last spring. Critics have accused U2, in the past, of stealing ideas from the underground - an allegation never more evident than on 1991's massively successful, moderately groundbreaking Achtung Baby. U2's avant-garde antics began to evade their audience on 1994's Zooropa, and by the time they released Pop, the band that wrote "One" only five years prior were trotting around on a video set in Village People attire, never more blindingly unaware of their appeal.
But I doubt you clicked on this article to read about U2. So I'll stop talking about them (if only for a moment).
DECADES OF DECADENCE
Music critics like to think in terms of "decades", shoehorning conventions into abstract blocks of time. We all understand what is meant by a "50s style song" or an "80s sounding synth" (as if keyboards stopped existing on Jan 1, 1990). These categorizations are not entirely useless, as each succeeding decade since the invention of Rock n' Roll has boasted unique innovations, and added signature songs to the popular music cannon. Thinking in decades helps us to organize and understand music's evolutionary past.
It is now Fall 2009, and critics have been astonishingly silent about this decade that is nearly at an end. At this point 10 years ago, cultural commentators had already produced voluminous assessment on the importance of Seattle, Shoegaze, Rap-metal, Post-punk, and Jimmy Ray.What musical innovations from 2000-2009 raised the bar and will influence future generations?
As a group of people drunkenly chants the chorus to "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" outside my window, let me ask you these questions:
1. What musical innovations from 2000-2009 raised the bar and will influence future generations?
2. What emergent acts will sellout arenas in future decades?
3. What hits have a legitimate shot at becoming popular music standards? You know, something that someone will be singing karaoke to 20 years from now?
This has all been weighing on my mind since mid-decade, when I attempted to teach an English lesson where Grade 10 students brought in lyrics from their favorite songs, so that we could analyze their poetic devices. I was stunned by their submissions: "Paradise City", "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun", "Livin' On A Prayer" . . . Where were the songs from their generation (or, at least, mine)?
THE DILEMMA OF DISPOSABILITY
Viral culture stuntman Bill Wasik blames the Internet for shortening our attention spans, providing an inexhaustible supply of new artists to devour and discard. In his book And Then There's This, he covers the band Annuals during their bittersweet, six-month tenure in 2006 as the Indie Blogosphere's "it" band. He watched online tastemakers weave a tornado of positive buzz around the group in mid '06, only to have it peter out before spring, right before Annuals were to make their landmark appearance at the South by Southwest festival. At the show, he encounters the same mavens that had touted the band's brilliance six months prior, only to find them distracted by new ephemeral obsessions.
Wasik was befuddled by the state of alternative nation - once considered to be the most loyal fan base in music: "Why did indie rock seem to be wave after wave of disposable new bands? What about the second album? Or the third?" He concludes that the defect lay in the presentation, as opposed to the works themselves, singling out taste making websites such as Pitchfork, whose viral, word-of-mouth swath make "unknown bands all-too-familiar bands in a month, and abandoned bands the month after that." In the end, we cannot resist the lure of the new band, the new track.
This leads Wasik to denounce our contemporary culture as "nothing but a shimmering cloud of nanostories, a churning constellation of 'important' new bands and ideas and fashions that literally hundreds, if not thousands of writers, in print and online, devoted themselves to building up and then dismantling with alacrity."
Can we expect to develop generational artists, when the most promising ones often have their support systems pulled out at creative pre-birth? Island Records signed U2 in 1980 and decided to let the band's songwriting talent slowly develop undisturbed over four inconsistent releases. They were rewarded handsomely seven years later with The Joshua Tree. Can you imagine any act today, indie or mainstream, being nurtured in such a way?
My 2005 class of 14 year olds didn't bring in lyrics for "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" and "Gold Digger." They all picked songs from the 1980s. Why? Wasik's explanations alone will not suffice.
WE CAN BE HAPPY UNDERGROUND
When Johnny Carson died in 2005, media handled the icon's passing through the unanimous vow: "There will never be another Johnny Carson."
Chuck Klosterman took partial issue in a related piece, reasoning that another Johnny Carson could exist, only no one would care as much. Johnny Carson was a product of a United States with only three television networks, a universally shared piece of cultural knowledge. To care about Johnny Carson, Klosterman reasons, "all you had to do was be alive."
Today, there is no "cultural knowledge" that everybody knows, mostly because, as Chuck notes, "there is simply too much culture to know about."
He uses the OutKast song "Hey Ya!" as an example - (perhaps you did too, as an answer to one of my questions from above). While he admits the song may be the most universally appreciated of recent times, he says he can think of fifty people he knows personally who would not recognize "Hey Ya!," nor be able to even have a conversation about its popularity.
Klosterman considers "Hey Ya!" a 'niche phenomenon:' Possibly the most popular song of our decade, but not a piece of the wider culture. A casualty of ever-expanding choice in our entertainment. The byproduct is isolation -- A society's lost sense of shared experience.
Chris Anderson describes this phenomenon in his famous Wired magazine article, "The Long Tail," arguing that we are reforming into "thousands of cultural tribes of interest," due to the Internet's "worldwide accessibility and infinite capacity for segmentation." We used to receive our culture from a relatively small pool of content. Now, we're all into different things. The Internet can sustain a fan base around nearly anything, so we end up segmented around narrow interests.We play our parts, never forced to listen to anything challenging, tuning out things that in the past would've garnered requisite mass exposure and become immortal.
We play our parts, members of a million microcultures, feeling like we're the centre of the universe, stalking around with our headphones on (even in the car), never forced to listen to anything challenging or unpleasant, tuning out things that in the past would've garnered requisite mass exposure and become immortal.
In this new era of cultural tribalism, it's natural for us to cling to shared experiences from the largely Internet-free 1980s, regardless of our age. Shows like Family Guy refer almost exclusively to 80s pop culture, and their audiences laugh for some reason. Classic Rock groups like Pink Floyd have never been more popular amongst record-buying teens. The culture of the 60s, 70s, and 80s is going nowhere, as the revolving door of perishable challengers from of our era, bands like Annuals, are as Wasik notes, cursed with "palettes brilliant but roots fragile, incapable of abiding a frost."
NO LINE ON THE HORIZON
Can you envision, years from now, someone listening to a song and saying, "Oh, that's sooo 2000s sounding?"
Perhaps I'm no better than U2 themselves: too old and out of touch to decipher good from bad in a complex and ever expanding musical landscape.
Maybe this decade's sonic picture will come clearer in hindsight, and songs by artists buried deep in the MySpace's bowels will surface and prove to define the era. Maybe not all time is happening at once, yet.
But for now, I am stuck with the reality that Coldplay is now better at sounding like U2 than U2 is. And Coldplay is a million miles away from making something like The Joshua Tree. And that makes me sad.