Like many aging Gen Xers, looking at the way rock music has become decentered in popular music can feel like gut-punch. For decades, rock music was a central part of a counterculture, but not anymore. Much of the music is now classic rock. Nothing about the genre is transgressive, rebellious, or even remotely radical. It’s all been rendered “safe” by endless plays on classic rock radio stations. When politicians (especially on the right) cite bands like Rage Against the Machine as one of their favorites, you know that what was once the periphery is now the center. Now, it can be argued that hip-hop has gone through a similar transformation. For every “Throwback” radio station that dots the country, right next to them are one or two classic rock stations who play familiar cuts to aging Gen Xers from their salad days. There’s nothing terribly novel or wrong about this. As we age, our musical tastes tend to center on music from our high school and college years — after that, something happens to our brain that closes off that sense of openness to “the new.” Our ears seem trained to respond to music that sounds like what we consider “good music.” Of course, everything else sounds like garbage, because music was great when we were young, and kids these days don’t know nuthin’.
Two articles recently published in The Guardian and GQ look squarely at the musical landscape and seem to conclude the old order is dead. Not just rock music, but mostly what can be called the infrastructure of the music industry.
We know that most people don’t bother much with CDs anymore.
We know that despite every year being a banner year for vinyl sales, the number of people who buy LPs is small.
We know that music criticism (and by that I mean someone who evaluates, analyzes, and comes to some kind of judgment about the quality of a piece of music) is irrelevant.
We know that record stores are a niche business that caters to collectors and deep music fans.
We know that radio is a medium mostly used by people over 35.
We know that many music publications are seeing declining subscriptions.
We know that MTV is such a joke that making the joke about how they don’t play videos on the channel anymore, is “day old bread” stale.
What’s the new order? Well, this is not an exhaustive list, but a few highlights include:
Streaming music on demand.
If you have a computer, tablet, or smartphone and an Internet connection, music is free. Or if you don’t want ads, it’ll cost you about 10 bucks a month.
Music recommendations come from friends, not critics.
Wanna see a video? Just watch YouTube. Like streaming music, you can play a song as many times as you want.
Is one order better than the other? Not necessarily. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. The old order had curation, criticism, and more substantial costs if you were a rabid or casual music fan. In the new order, it’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet where there are millions of songs pre-stocked in your “library” — most of which you’ll never listen to. Faced with an overwhelming amount of choice, there’s a kind of paralysis that sets in until you see or hear something familiar. And once you choose that particular artist, whoever is monitoring your activity has algorithms that process data and push you toward sound alike artists. And the more you’re pushed toward those artists, the more walls are being built up around you into a virtual silo filled with music catered to your taste. You have an illusion of control. You also have the freedom to be your own program director, music critic, and curator. Gone are the days of waiting for your favorite song to come on the radio, waiting for your favorite video to be played, waiting to get money so you could buy an album or a single, or waiting to use the record player. Now? Very few, if any, barriers exist in getting what you want when you want. To me, that’s a good thing. But, of course, there are trade-offs that come with not having to wait for music, not reading music criticism, not listening to what a good DJ can curate and play.
Those days are long gone.
When consuming vestiges of the old order this morning (in my case, listening to a classic rock station aimed more at Gen Xers), I realized that whatever thrill of discovery radio used to hold for me, is long gone. Now, it’s all familiar. Now it’s all predictable. Now it’s just wallpaper for the ears…like the following songs I heard this morning:
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Wish You Were Here
Bringin’ On The Heartbreak
Find A Reason To Believe
Alice in Chain
Long Train Runnin’
The Doobie Brothers
Down On The Corner
Creedence Clearwater Revival
Blinded By The Light
Manfred Mann’s Earth Band
A bit of a footnote to this list — and something that’s clearly a lament for me — is what Dorian Lynskey (the author the GQ piece I linked to) wrote. Lynskey surmised, “Streaming privileges the casual listener over the committed fan, because buying a song is active whereas streaming is passive. Thus, it supercharges big hits, extending their chart lifespans and bed-blocking new entries.” This leads to predictable and boring charts where the churn of songs starts to slow, and the “sounds” that become dominant are the ones that get repeated plays on streaming services. Or, as James Masterton, from the website Chart Watch UK noted in the same article, “For the first time, the charts reflect how the vast majority of the general public interact with music: they listen to things they like over and over again.”
Masterton said nothing new. The so-called Gen X rock playlist above is culled from tests where radio listeners are asked to rate a song. Those that are rated consistently higher get slotted into the radio music logs as “proven” songs that will hook an audience — because they like to listen to them over and over again. And you know what? It generally works because most people are casual music fans. Most people like familiar songs they know versus new music from artists they don’t know — or music from artist they do know, but are unfamiliar with the song. Radio programmers (whose jobs are on the line if their ratings dip), don’t want to take risks. So they fall back on the worst kind of conservatism that leads to an ossified landscape that privileges familiarity over “the new,” buries innovation in an avalanche of “content,” and puts certain songs deemed “good” on a pedestal built on clicks and thumbs up. This is precisely why rock as a countercultural movement is effectively dead. Any time a variation of rock or rap threatens to upset an industry that thrives on predictabilty, it quickly gets absorbed and appropriated so it can be safely packaged and marketed back to the public.
But that’s the name of the game, right? Riding the Gravy Train.