Nikcrit, who knows a thing or two about the music industry, reflects:
[W]e came up with and take for meta-granted pop music as some ineffable combination of bass, drums, keyboard and guitars, etc.; but that is not true anymore; to some of the kids i see on a daily basis, when speaking of those modern-rock staples of sound, I might as well be talking about lyres and flutes!
No, today it’s all about post-production in distinguishing ‘your sound,’ your ‘song.’ As for the instruments, the field of interaction there has gone far beyond strings and animal-skin produced beats, with sampling allowing any ‘sampled’ noise to moderated to pitch, key and tempo. It’s very alienating to older generations; i wouldn’t know how to properly criticize such music because there’s yet to develop a critically verbal vocabulary to capture all the pop-zeitgeist production tools of the 21st-century.
My shamelessly amateur theory on mainstream music is that its prevailing styles run in cycles, pulled between these roughly analogous to each other pairs of opposite ideals:
Masculine vs. Feminine
Gruff vs. Glam
Stage vs. Studio
Contemplative vs. Danceable
Guitar vs. Synth
Warrior vs. Lover
Sincerity vs. Artifice
Raw vs. Polished
This tension between sensibilities can exist within a single period — like Led Zeppelin and Bee Gees, Rush and Michael Jackson, John Mellencamp and Madonna, Metallica and Pet Shop Boys, Guns N’ Roses and Mariah Carey, Nirvana and Backstreet Boys — or one expression of the same larger genre can displace the other overnight, such as when the new Seattle sound torpedoed the careers of glam rockers.
However, an argument can be made that this cyclical model of alternating styles is now obsolete due to the demographic and technology-driven fragmentation of today’s mass audience into fan niches. There is a point to be made there, as audience fragmentation is self-evident, but I don’t fully accept it because as long as there is any shared public space, there will by necessity be a Top 40 consensus. Such a consensus, be it organic or manufactured, is reflected in the type of music you hear wherever a broad cross-section of people goes, and where the musical offering is contemporary rather than nostalgia-driven: D.J.’d events, school dances, sports games, national chain gyms, bowling alleys, bars, and so on.
Putting aside the matter of whether or not I like today’s Top 40 sound — which skews heavily in favor of the right side of my pairings: feminine, glam, synth, etc. and aims in the direction of what Nickrit describes — my question is: will it go on forever? Is today’s studio-centric hegemony a build-up to a hairpin turn toward performance-driven, sweaty musicianship — a playing out of history’s many earlier revolutions in mainstream sound — or is Nikcrit’s snapshot, with apologies to Fukuyama, the end of music?
Here is a short argument in support of a coming change:
A teenager listens to popular music for self-idealization at the point in his life when he is wrestling with his social identity and sexual destiny, sometimes an exhilarating but more often a bewildering time. It’s not vanity; it’s a fumbling for light in the darkness. While the pop song’s rhythm and lyrics bring relief from thought when reflection is difficult, the mental image of the performer in the throes of pathos form an idol in the teen’s mind, giving shape to an avatar through which he approaches his aspirations and fears. And I contend that for this idol to bring catharsis, there has to be a visual element of physical performance tied to the song.
Now back to the brave new world of synthetic music. It offers a number of things that teenager responds to — new sound combinations, beat, clever lyrics. Girls like it. But music whose production tools are more abstract than animal lacks the credible physicality of the performance itself. And this is why contemporary popular music, though we can’t see this at the moment, strains against the bonds of the industry’s inertia to snap back to its performance-based renaissance. For all of the mass appeal of one entrenched style, hunger for its opposite grows quietly until we vomit that, on which we’ve gorged too long.
Completely out of the left field: what happens when electricity goes out?
I was once at a pub in Vilnius and there was a birthday party in a reserved room off to one side. One of the adults was playing lively songs on an acoustic guitar and singing to the cacophony of delight from the kids who were jumping and dancing in circles. The music was very catchy, like a medley of traditional children’s songs and folk ballads.
If there is no more electricity then it’s back to, and I like that synecdoche: strings and animal skins. An extended power outage would be a wonderful thing for everyday musicians. Anyone who can carry a tune, or knows some basic chords and scales and has a feel for rhythm can step forward as a poet and a bard.