For the first time in some while, I am actually reading a book. It’s Rolling Stone mainstay Will Hermes’ tome entitled Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York City That Changed Music Forever. Essentially, Hermes looks at music in New York’s five boroughs from New Year’s Eve 1973 to New Year’s 1977 and how the musical offerings of everything from salsa and disco to the rise of Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith forever changed the world. Pick it up as soon as you’re done re-reading The Girl Who Played with Fire.
Somewhere in Hermes’ book, I got to thinking about music in the here and now and its potential impact on the future. In 30-plus years, how will scholars and critics judge the music of 2010-2012? What profound thoughts or observations might they be able to discern? What bands or artists will emerge as the most influential and long-lasting? Will anything created now have as much power in terms of influence as, say, the Boss did/does?
At the most basic level, the end of universally appealing albums will undoubtedly be traced back to this era. It’s an old story for sure, one we’ve all assumed for some time, but it’s starting to take shape now more than ever. Great albums are being created and consumed on a daily basis, but rare is the album that will cross all borders. For further proof, take a look at how nuanced the 2011 best-of lists were for everyone, and I mean from lowly blogger to the biggest mainstream magazine. The top few albums will always share commonality, but looking at the lists of Rolling Stone, SPIN, Pitchfork, Paste, and even our very own holistically will offer little in the way of a seamless, united voice. Even if big-name albums of 2011, like St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy, Bon Iver’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver, or tUnE-yArDs’ – W H O K I L L, are considered masterful efforts, think about how they’ll age. How often have most of us heard them since their release? Better yet, how many people outside of the tight-knit (read: people whose sales account for less than a milli) indie community have even heard these? This is the reality of our day and age: The Internet perpetuates this myth that something is huge because it is in the microscopic corners and electronic spots we frequent.
We live in a world where musical populations are far too scattered and skewed to have one grand, unifying musical experience. Instead of the Great Musical Hope, dozens and dozens of albums will rise to the occasion. Some might postulate that’s a good thing, more representative of the true background of our era. And to a certain extent, that’s probably true; how wonderful will it be when we can etch our time on this Earth with a jukebox full of records? But from some long-dead, quasi-romantic notion, not having that one album feels as if we’ve failed as a generation to come together as one set of ears.
What’s our Sgt. Pepper’s?
Another observation future social scholars will reach (perhaps while riding the hoverboards we’ll at last have perfected) is that this particular span of time is where we truly used the technology we had available for all things musical. From the quality of music to its storage, technology has blazed new musical trails, making this the dawn of a golden age where music and technology are truly one concept, working hand in hand to make listening as fun and efficient as possible. All subsequent integrations, from improved clouds and streaming techniques to mp3 players implanted in our craniums (fingers crossed), will be traced back to this two-year span. That is, as some have already hypothesized, invigorating. These developments mean that from here until the world ends and technology ceases, the greatest, most influential releases of our time will be available the world over.
Of course, on the other hand, that also means that your cousin Jimmy’s three-song shoegaze EP will be available globally from here to eternity. Back in the day, terrible artists faded way either for good or to be reworked and reintegrated by later generations. How else would one explain one hit wonders like Europe disappearing and the recent rise of synth as a musical mainstay (especially among the female population)? With the sum of all music creations perpetually available, we’ve lost that Darwinian dynamic, leaving us with the makings of a pool of albums and songs overloaded with influences and constant, stifling reminders of what’s already out there for consumption. As the music available for listening piles up, certain creations rise to the top out of sheer necessity (and from the demand of a public looking for whatever’s simultaneously good and most easily located). Access will prove stifling to the hunger of the human spirit to work for its muse, leaving us to wade through a creative safe zone.
Imagine iTunes’ scope by the year 2040.
Being in a musical wasteland is actually something we may be looking forward to with bright-eyed enthusiasm. Case in point: SPIN’s recently unveiled SPINReviews. The industry leader has taken music criticism and boiled it down to the most essential tweets, with special, long-form analysis saved for the truly important albums. This is not a defense of music criticism, of a lowly critic wailing its slow, painful demise and resurrection as a hackneyed shell of its former glory. If anything, boiling true criticism down to its most succinct is what we should be doing to keep up with the ever-shrinking attention spans and changing aesthetics of our audience. Instead, what is most troubling are the emotions attached to many of these reviews. Scan through any of the tweets, and you’re bound to find self-referential, borderline masturbatory displays of wordsmith-ing that range from the snarky and cynical to the down right vicious and cruel.
Music criticism should never soften its blows or be afraid to offend so long as it’s contextually appropriate and without bias or pretense toward the artist. The issue at hand is that the public at-large seems pleased with these reviews, overjoyed in their destructive tendencies and lack of true merit and worth, regardless of length or format. This is the patient zero, as it were, of our decaying relationship with music. Music, the changer of lives and editor of emotions, is having its inherent value reduced to random sets of emotion, usually the kind on the negative end of the spectrum. This goes beyond changing the process of music consumption; this is about changing a core set of values within ourselves.
Music is the one colony in the Universe where emotion can be explored with complete freedom. More and more, reviews strip away the emotion for either pure vitriol or meaningless posturing. Their creation and absorption by the public is a clear sign that many wish to live in a world where criticism and thoughtful analysis are nothing more than performance art, something that is done to perpetuate the critic and some ill-perceived worldview. We’re risking to lose the biggest puzzle piece of this entire human-music relationship: ourselves.
What would Huey and co. have to say about the heart of rock and roll now?
Shell-shocked, you’re now undoubtedly turning to me or God for answers. At this moment, if we were together, I’d put my hand on yours and whisper to you: “Let this whole fucking rotten ship sink to the bottom of the ocean.” I don’t mean to be cynical, but there’s no clear sign that anything will change — which is sort of the point. Technology will further develop, we’ll keeping making more and more music, and we’ll only find more ways to detach ourselves. But if you wanted a happy ending, a dose of sugar with your medicine, here it is: Just stop and think. If any of what I’ve postulated scares or worries you, you’re on the right track. If you thought I was overblown and overwrought, ask yourself what led you to that conclusion (and why you have to hurt my feelings). If you read this and felt nothing either way, then is it not possible you’ve already succumbed to nihilism fever?
Nothing is written in stone because who even does that anymore, so we’ve got time to examine and re-examine this whole situation. That, beyond any other solution, is what will save us from what’s looking like the onset of a musical purgatory. Otherwise, when our children or grandchildren try to capture this moment in time’s musical worth and output, they’ll be better off writing an obituary than a book.