Where did the music go?

by Jaron Lanier


The following is an open letter to Paul Miller AKA DJ Spooky that will also be the closing chapter in:

Sound Unbound: Writings on Contemporary Multi-Media and Music culture.

edited By Paul D. Miller
Routledge Press
 
 

Hey Paul,
Iím 41 now so Iíve decided I need to develop my grumpy side.  So hereís a rant about the sorry state of pop music.

Thereís a question Iíve been asking myself for about a decade:  Why canít kids make up their own styles of music these days?  They seem to be stuck listening to their parentsí music for the first time since electrification.

Iím only talking about commercial big time music in the United States.  Of course music is gloriously seething in odd corners of the planet as it should.  I can team up with some compatible friends and we can go find or make our own music in any of a number of accommodating environments- on the net, in the forest, or in some dank club late at night.

But pop culture is important.  It drags us all along with it; it is our shared fate.  We canít simply remain aloof.

I must be clear about the nature of my grumpiness:  Iím not complaining about how crummy the new pop music is.  If only!  Iím complaining that there is no new pop music to complain about.

Yes there are new bands, but they almost always sound just like old bands- really old bands.  ďMainstreamĒ (white) kids are listening to the youth music of the baby boomers, which at this point is often the music their grandparents listened to.  They accept either the originals or pale contemporary copies.  Black or ďurbanĒ music hasnít been stuck in freeze frame for as long, but itís still stuck.

Pop music can be grand.  Louis Armstrong was a pop star, as was Jimi Hendrix.  Iím even happy to stand up and risk the wrath of some of my cynical music world friends and say I enjoy and respect a lot of whatís on the radio today.  I just went out to get a burrito and Destinyís Child was playing while I waited.  I like Destinyís Child, but how different are they from, say, En Vogue?  Weíre talking about a difference in dates of well over a decade.  Now, Iím not trying to equate the two groups.  I like Destinyís Child better, for the plain truth lyrics, the fun production, and the great voices.  But still: Think about Aretha and then think about what was happening ten years before her.  It was a different universe.  The very idea of what music was for had shifted.  Think about the Beatles and think about what was around ten years before them.  We are not seeing motion today, just churn.

Once again, I want to be clear about what Iím lamenting here.  Iím not whining about how crummy the latest pop music is.  Iím whining about how there isnít any latest pop music.

If I thought the problem was that new pop music was schlocky or low quality or too mean-spirited or something like that, Iíd still probably bitch and moan for the pleasure of it, but there would be less reason to take me seriously

Schlock, for instance, annoys me, but the annoyance only runs so deep.  Itís only a minor infraction.  Only people can make schlock.  A bird canít be schlocky when it sings, but a person can.  So we can take existential pride in schlock, and even view it as a safe outlet for Nietzschean urges.  Ego and excess go well together- from Nietzscheís beloved Wagner to TV Wrestling.

If only I could complain about the schlocky music the kids are listening to!  My discontent is instead with the lack of contents.

What the hellís going on?

Well hereís a roundup of six familiar theories:

1)  The first is that kids who grow up with digital technology instinctively seek to remix established cultural fragments as their method of experience and enjoyment.  Pop semiotics is their natural language.  After all, the last genuinely new styles (such as hip hop) were based on remixing.

This is the optimistic view.  I want to believe it- Iíve wanted to believe it for over a decade.  So far, though, whatever might be happening along these lines underground doesnít seem to be potent enough to move a new generation to transcend the retro stupor.

One sad problem might be that weíve discovered that the language of re-use just doesnít communicate well enough.  Itís one thing to artfully remix some old R&B artist, but something very different to just rehash old music.  Somehow the former seems to degrade into the latter too easily and quickly, so that you miss the smart stuff if you blink.

We might have an ďodd bedfellowsĒ situation here, as when Feminists and Fundamentalists joined together to fight porn.  Thereís a natural economic affinity between postmodern academic types and some stinky weasel at a label who wants to be able to remarket some old tape in the vault.  Both of them will promote recontextualization.

But that brings us to another theory that might be more important...

2)  The second theory is that the music industry is powerful enough to determine what happens and it is devoid of imagination, courage, faith, or vitality.  It is populated by frustrated boomer executives who wanted to be rock stars in their youths and failed.  They put their own neurotic superstitions ahead even of their greed, but theyíre too powerful to realize that theyíre doing it, because competition canít get in the cracks to wake them up.  They have shut down the evolution of popular music.

Musicians believe this one.  All of us have heard brilliant demos from kids who ought to be the new superstars but were shut out of the labels because some stiff idiot with power ďcouldnít see how to market themĒ.

Donít even get me started on the labels.  Iím sure you know the drill by heart.  They put out crap no one wants to buy and then blame Napster.

Speaking of which:  Napster could be the key piece of the puzzle here.  Maybe it was the solvent the next nascent pop music was waiting for.  Maybe it was the new electric guitar and the new Marshall stack-in-waiting.

I canít help but wonder what would have happened if Napster, or something like it, had been allowed to gain some critical level of momentum.  I think we might have seen a genuinely new pop music emerge from it.

Then I would have had to find something else to rant about.

3)  Another possibility is that we donít trust our own authenticity any more.  Weíre trapped in bourgeois banality.  Maybe when you get up to the tippy top, vertigo-inducing, highest altitudes of Maslowís old hierarchy, itís mostly the quest for authenticity from a distant external source that drives people to listen to music.

So Moby samples old blues guys. The old-timey soundtrack album for ďO Brother, Where Art Thou?Ē becomes a rare mega-seller in a period of moribund record sales.  (By the way, notice how people still buy CDs in a case like this when they like the music.  The record industryís Napster mania is such a crock.)

But back to our theory number three:  Maybe some vague, almost mythic interval from the 1960s into part of the 1970s was the last time well-off people in industrialized countries felt authentic.

It feels plausible, but I donít buy it entirely.

If this theory were right, then you would expect to see not just good music, but shocking new styles of music arise from more recent shocking new anxieties and possibilities, just as they did in the 1960s, and in each decade before.  The last new styles (like hip hop) were responses to digital technology, the degeneration of the urban experience, and many other things, but by now hip hop is, dare I say it, getting more than a little old.

Hey, I want to digress for a moment to talk about hip hop.  Outside of hip hop, digital music usually comes off as sterile and bland.  Listen to a lot of what comes out of the university ďcomputer musicĒ world or new age ambient music and youíll hear what I mean.  Digital production usually has an overly regular beat because it comes out of a looper or a sequencer.  And because it uses samples, you hear identical microstructure in sound again and again, making it seem as if the world were not alive while the music was playing.  But hip hop pierced through this problem in a shocking way.  It turns out these same deficits can be turned around and used to express anger with incredible intensity.  A sample played again and again expresses stuckness and frustration, as does the regular beat.  Hip hop was a great example of a new technology inspiring new esthetic invention that expressed its time in a way that went beyond words.  Thatís what Iím talking about when Iím talking about a new style!

But as I say, more time has passed since hip hop soared out of the box than passed between, for example, the big band era and Motown.

Where are the new musical styles that respond to aids, biotechnology, globalization, or terrorism?  The pop musical responses to 9/11 were a resurgence of the song ďAmerica the BeautifulĒ and a particularly lame Paul McCartney single.

And here is where I think we canít entirely separate ourselves, no matter how esoteric or oppositional we might care to frame ourselves, from what we observe in pop music.  I live right by the poor WTC and Iíve seen some musical response in the neighborhood, but astonishingly little.  Itís as if the cultural response mechanism has atrophied from lack of use.

4)  Another potential culprit is the anemic and mean-spirited culture of the ďhigh artsĒ educational and other institutions.  Most young people from industrialized countries interested in music have at least a brush with a music department at a university or, outside of the United States, with a public arts funding agency.  The elitism, nepotism, back stabbing, and ass kissing that saturate such institutions are highly traditional and seem to have served past musical epochs reasonably well.  What is new in the last fifty years or so is the aversion to joy, the arms race of cynicism.

Maybe this is an institutional reflection of the authenticity problem.  If your music teacher doesnít believe in music in his or her soul, then careerism is all thatís left.

Another idea is that back in the early-to-mid twentieth century academic and institutional arts people wanted to feel more like scientists, who were winning the prestige game, and so they tried to create a more ďtechnicalĒ culture, where emotion mattered less, and where it was hard to understand, appreciate, or do anything.  A lot of these posers got into permanent power and we still havenít recovered.

So the theory would be that a critical number of kids get infected with the attitude and are nullified.

5)  Then there are the systemic economic arguments.

Hereís a simple example of one of these:  Once you have the possibility of making a lot of money from something, you have to become more conservative about taking risks because more is at stake.  Now suppose that the thing you sell is only very subjectively distinguishable from its competition. Youíre better off trying to squeeze out your competition (at least from the attention of the audience, if not from actual access) than you are tinkering with the product.  After all, thereíll always be an audience for any barely adequate music or other entertainment, as long as you can get it noticed above the noise.

Getting your product noticed and cutting down competing noise not only does more to help you make money than choosing the right stuff to sell, itís also easier to plan because it isnít subjective.  As long as you offer a reasonable range of offerings and keep competitors out, youíre bound to find material that will hold the audience. Thatís an explanation as to why television seems to get less varied and lower quality on average as more cable stations are added.

According to this dismal economic mindset, our problem doesnít have anything to do with the individuals who happen to have power in the music business right now; Anyone would be drawn into the same bad behavior in the same positions.

Thus the music industry pushes clichés and kills alternatives because of market pressure, and the only way to fix it is to change the way music markets work, or the very relationship of music to capitalism.  And those are very very hard things to change, not only because the current system is entrenched, but because an alternative system would be untested and might turn out to be worse.

If this sort of answer is correct, then weíre facing devilish difficulties.  The same problems would recur online or in any other regime.  You can have a population of wonderful, authentic, and starving musicians living RIGHT THERE in the middle of a huge population of potential fans seeking authenticity in music, a frustrated population that dutifully pays monthly cable and online bills without finding what they seek, and yet there doesnít seem to be a way to connect the two groups together.

6)  And yet another possibility:  This state of affairs isnít unusual.  Itís the normal coming of age of a culture.  We denizens of postmodernity now have a canon just as every culture before us has had.  Thereís nothing new or unusual about that.  It took us a few centuries to get here and now weíve arrived.  We donít need no new culture.

There arenít many deep conflicts between the theories Iíve assembled above.  They can for the most part all be true at the same time.

I guess Iíve reached the word count youíre looking for, so this is the place to stop.  But I simply wouldnít know what to say next anyway.  Iím perplexed!
 
 

Best,

Jaron
 


 

Go back to Jaron's home page.