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October 13, 2006

Ever-Expanding, Ever-Contracting

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Uncle Patrick sees some virtues in hippie music. Nice, and suggestive, sentence: Jethro Tull "introduced me to jazz, classical and rock music all at once."

That's something pop culture doesn't do any longer, it seems to me. Pop culture has grown more various, expansive, and inclusive than it once was -- no denying that. But at the same time it has also become more all-engulfing. A far-out piece of pop music isn't likely to lead an adventurous listener to the worlds of jazz, folk, or classical these days; it's much more likely to lead to other far-out pop music instead. Same in other fields. Time magazine once treated pop culture condescendingly and inadequately, for example, but did an OK job of providing glimpses of and intros to the worlds of classical music, dance, poetry, and fine art. These days -- though it's much more open to pop culture than it once was -- acknowledgment of other forms of culture can be hard to find in Time's pages.

Sigh: does it always have to be one or the other?



posted by Michael at October 13, 2006


A quick observation on contemporary rock/pop:

Male performers sound immature, inward-looking, scared, banal. "Daddy didn't love me" stuff. Pearl Jam without the energy. (I don't know the names of bands; it's just the whine-whine post-Grunge stuff I keep hearing on the radio)

Female pop on the opther hand strikes me as nasty, sneering, uppity. Kelly Clarkson and Avril Lavigne stuff. Angry chicks who can't find a worthy guy anywhere.

Is it just my own human tendency to make patterns out of nothing or is there a cultural malaise thing going on? The ubiquity of 80's music on pop stations seems to support my observation.

Posted by: PA on October 13, 2006 1:10 PM

Jethro Tull was never pop music. Look outside of Top 40 and you will find bands like The Flaming Lips whose music is very orchestral, or Sigur Ros who use the minimalist techniques of people like John Cale, or a lot of electronic music that borrows heavily from jazz and funk. Particularly guys like Aphex Twin who may as well be teaching at Berklee.

I think it's easy to look back on bands that have stood the test of time, declare them to be indicative of Top 40 from that era, compare that to contemporary Top 40 and then proclaim the death of pop culture.

I will say that pure musicianship in contemporary music has probably declined since the 70s. I think this has much to do with the punk aesthetic of DIY. But then I don't think pure technique is necessary to create challenging and beautiful music.

Posted by: the patriarch on October 13, 2006 1:30 PM

PA -- Cultural malaise sounds about right to me. A crisis of masculinity, maybe?

Patriarch -- I think you may be assuming I'm saying something I'm not. I'm certainly not decrying the death of pop music/ pop culture - as far as I can tell it's expansive and flourishing like never before. I'm just focusing on the "does it lead out of itself and into other culture?" question. BTW, what makes you say Jethro Tull "was never pop music"? It certainly seemed so at the time, and it was certainly treated as such.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 13, 2006 1:57 PM

Was Jethro Tull ever in the Top 40, though? What I was getting at was the uneven comparisons I often see (although not in your post, I admit) between adventurous music from a bygone era and contemporary Top 40. PA's comment is an example of that.

But I also disagree with your main point. There is plenty of current music that would and does lead young listeners into other forms of music. The Freak Folk scene in NY right now which has gotten quite popular, lead by Devendra Banhart, has turned lots of people on to earlier folk music. The Acid Jazz scene in the mid-90s, which blended hip-hop with jazz, lead people to jazz. Etc.

Posted by: the patriarch on October 13, 2006 2:36 PM

I balked at the statement that Jethro Tull was never pop music, Patriarch. I think I understand what you are saying in context, though, if you define pop music as "songs you hear on Top 40 radio." I don't know if the album "Living in the Past" made the Top 40 when it was released. It certainly would not make it there today. If pressed, I would argue that no sound recorded on that album is commercial enough to be a Top 40 tune today.

To address M. Blowhard's point: a very narrow sub-set of pop music - the kind that makes it to the Top 40 - is celebrated because it is so successful. The music that falls into this subset is sucessful because it recognizes what elements sell and recycles them until they get too old and stale. I would say that the pop culture/pop music that is celebrated in most MSM is actually exclusive not inclusive.

Posted by: Uncle Patrick on October 13, 2006 2:50 PM

Dudes, agree with me or not, but a little rock history, please: Jethro Tull was huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge. "Aqualung," "Thick as a Brick," "A Passion Play" and "War Child" were gigantically popular, with the middle two going to #1 in the States. Jethro Tull was one of the Very Big Groups from 1971-1975 or so. It was jazzy/folkie/classical-y pop music, and it led a lot of fans into sampling actual jazz, folk, and classical.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 13, 2006 2:59 PM

Jethro Tull's undeniable hugeness is pretty baffling from a modern perspective -- even many rock critics at the time (e.g., Lester Bangs) didn't get it. (Though I still love it.) Using Tull as an example of anything is pretty dicey. Most of the other rock gods of the period (Zeppelin, Stones, Who) probably caused most listeners to go out and listen to more rock, like today.

On a semi-related note, is there a "Top 40" anymore? There are top performers to be sure, but do they take the same slice of the pop culture pie that they once did? Or are they taking a smaller slice of a much bigger pie? My sense is that it's the latter. That is, that although people generally know who Toby Keith and Kelly Clarkson are, and their sales are huge, proportionally fewer people listen to them than listened to Elton John and Michael Jackson back in the day. Top 40 radio was everywhere in the '70s and '80s -- now I can't even name a Top 40 station. Do they exist on Satellite Radio?

Posted by: Steve on October 13, 2006 4:03 PM

It was certainly huge with me.

Posted by: Uncle Patrick on October 13, 2006 4:07 PM

Steve -- The Stones got a lot of people listening to the blues and country gods they were ripping off, er, working in the tradition of. I'd love to know more about how radio works these days. I think you're on to a key thing - pop music is a giant octopus these days. In the past, there wasn't so much of it. In 1970, for example, pop music (as in rock-and-soul-for-teens music) had only been around for 20 years. By now it's been around for more than 50 years. The Stones and Jethro Tull kept it fresh by going outside pop to folk and blues (and more). Pop music people these days might go to the Stones and to Tull instead.

My point, FWIW of course, is that the pop-electronic universe has grown so vast that many people know nothing but the pop-electronic universe these days. Hard to imagine, but not so very long ago the pop-electronic universe was just one of many culture-verses.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 13, 2006 4:21 PM

Michael is right--Tull was huge, and has had a lot of influence if the tastes of my 20-y.o. son
and his friends are anything to go by. Some of
their favorite bands sound like them, and they
also listen to the original. Despite the often
cring-inducing lyrics, they were topflight musicians and knew how to rock; Anderson had a gift for the catchy tune also. (I haven't heard
most of their post-Passion Play stuff, though.)

As to the talentless whiners and screechers of today, I think that's a natural concommitant, as
Patriarch says, of the punk and DIY trends, which themselves come out of the trend toward idealization of the loser and outsider.


Posted by: Narr on October 13, 2006 4:29 PM

I'll agree that popular music is a larger beast now than it was 30 years ago, in that it encompasses more styles of music. There are not as many "pure" genres out there anymore, and far more subgenres. Also, I think more people are "into music" today, thanks in large part to the portability of music players and the ever-expanding availability of on-demand services, so that many people, particularly young people, never are exposed to anything outside of their personal choices during a typical day.

Never knew that Jethro Tull was #1. I can't stand them, although I do enjoy the fact that the lead singer is also a flute player. I think their type of music is carried on by bands like Phish and String Cheese Incident, etc. Jam bands whose members are very proficient musicians. A lot of people get turned on to jazz through these bands.

The whining of today's Top 40 is a fad. I give it another year, and I wouldn't categorize it as indicative of today's music scene, but indicative of today's Top 40. And yeah, there is a Top 40. It's mostly rap and the faux-punk whiners.

Posted by: the patriarch on October 13, 2006 4:42 PM

Tull was also an "album band" -- they had #1 albums, not singles (well, I guess "Thick as a Brick" and "Passion Play" were technically both). You either immersed yourself in their albums, or you probably didn't see what the fuss was about.

No one immerses himself in a rock album anymore, do they? Albums as dead as the dodo. Is it possible that that immersion was a key part of the experience? That is, immersion in a particular group's sound would be more likely to put you in a mood or mindset to go out and explore more complex long forms of music like jazz and classical than listening to a hodgepodge of different music on an iPod?

Posted by: Steve on October 13, 2006 6:25 PM

I think the average age of the commenters here (I'm 38 and somewhere in the middle of the age range, as far as I can tell) has a lot to do with our perspective on current pop music. We are far beyond the age when music has a character defining importance, so of course we find much of today's music uninspiring. However, my 13 year-old son is absolutely obsessed with the latest Green Day album, that's the WHOLE album. It doesn't matter what our opinion of that band's music is, it's a fact that their entire catalog is hugely important to many kids between 12-18. That's just one example of albums still carrying a lot of weight with young people.

Posted by: the patriarch on October 13, 2006 6:48 PM

Good point patriarch -- I've heard that about Green Day in particular. But are they the rule, or the exception?

Posted by: Steve on October 13, 2006 7:21 PM

No one's mistaking me for someone denouncing today's music scene, I hope. I'm just taking note of a general gestalt-change. I think a lot of it's a fucntion of practical matters. I grew up, for instance, in a household with classical, jazz, folk, and (yikes) musical-theater music around all the time -- when pop and rock came along, that became part of the shelf, not the whole shelf. And that was typical. Pop/rock/etc was just one part of the general musical universe, not the whole thing. Today's kids grow up with tons of media around them, but it's almost all pop-electronic, and even their parents are basically pop fans. So as far as young people are concerned pop-electronic media are the whole culture-world. It simply wasn't possible to think that 40 years ago. Again: not a denunciation, just a general texture-of-life thang.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 13, 2006 7:33 PM

Michael, your observation is spot-on. I've been thinking about pop music a lot lately. (I'm driving a car without a CD player or an iPod adaptor, so it's all FM when I'm on the road. I switch between my usual jazz station, a classical station, and a wide range of pop FM formats.)

Part of what's going on in pop comes down to craftsmanship. Pop music is a "pattern language", like architecture. The problem is that Top 40 music producers today use a very small repertoire of patterns and styles to build their songs. (We get the same results when a bunch of mediocre architects just do the same glass and steel projects again and again.)

When they do "quote" an earlier tradition, they shoehorn that tradition into the contraints of a modern Top 40 song. Usually this means a lot of richness and complexity is cut away. Remember the awful swing revival in the nineties? That was shitty music, lacking a lot of the fun rhythmic and harmonic intricacies of the real thing.

But my real bete noire is how the pop music industry develops its female vocalists. Look, Whitney/Mariah style belting is just not the best way for a woman to interpret a song. (I'm going to leave the Tori Amos/Evanesence mode alone.) The over-reliance on dynamics and sheer volume gets old really fast, but it just won't go away. (And the flip side of the coin - breathy, quiet singing while the backing band rests - is fine enough, but nobody's musically suprised when the ridiculously loud percussion shatters the quiet and the vocal fireworks begin again. I want some tastemaker like Simon Cowell or whoever to declare a fatwa on that technique.)

I have trouble figuring out whether this mediocrity originates in the supply-side (the music industry) or the demand-side (pop music audiences). I doubt that there's truly a shortage of musically-educated producers prepared to take young listeners to the frontiers of pop music and give them a friendly nudge into Folktown or Classicalopolis or JazzCity. I just think they don't try anymore. No one calls them on using such a small set of patterns, since their target audience doesn't have the musical education to expect anything better.

There's a parallel in animation. I find today's kids-oriented cartoons (I'm not talking about shows like Family Guy or South Park, aimed at older audiences) incredibly fast-paced, jazzy, and self-referential. But you could say much of the same thing about Looney Tunes episodes from decades ago. The difference is that those old cartoons made a huge array of references to a wider culture. There were allusions to the world of opera and classical music, to the New York intelligentsia, to Mexican bullfights. There's just as much addled, frenetic energy today, but fewer bridges leading out of the frame of self-reference.

Okay, I'm sampling Terry Teachout here, I think, so I'll just stop.

(Longtime reader/lurker checking in, BTW.)

Posted by: T. Ross on October 14, 2006 2:33 PM

T. Ross -- That's brilliant and hilarious (and, it seems to me, true). "A Pattern Language" ... Pop music ... Never thought of it like that, but it makes a lot of sense. Thanks for joining in.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 14, 2006 3:29 PM

Fascinating set of comments.

One the one hand, I don't stray too far from the 3-5 minute verse-chorus-bridge kind of song. On the other hand, I roam widely within this realm, from hard rock to indie-pop to more pure folk or bluegrass, to 30s big band and showtunes kind of songs. I guess I tend to prefer acoustic, especially an understated piano, but I certainly don't mind a good example of jangly pop with the synth and the handclaps and such. I have intellectual respect but very low practical tolerance for jazz. I've had Rush phases, Phish phases, Dream Theater phases, but, you know, I'm not taking them home to meet the folks.

I love people like Elvis Costello, Aimee Mann, Paul Heaton, Leonard Cohen, and it comes down to the fact that I'm a poet first and a music-lover second. Popular music critics turn me off when they start talking sub-genres and crossover and stylistic innovention and such -- a lot of that may be bogus, and I don't really care anyway. What I very much care about is keeping alive (and flourishing) the traditions of the short lyric poem and the dramatic monologue, and, let's face it, since Frost kicked it in our good singer-songwriters have been the torchbearers.

Nor do I regard this development as merely a consolation prize. Melody and musical rhythm open up all sorts of structural possibilities beyond that offered to naked verse. The mnemonic effect of music is profound. Neither do I mind dancing to poetry. But with such promise comes the same old responsibility: avoid cliche, avoid bathos, explore the interplay of sound and sense, clarify the human condition. Most of the most popular popular music fails miserably on these counts, but when somebody's really "got it", it has a way of transcending genre, as witness the range of Billy Joel.

Posted by: J. Goard on October 14, 2006 5:59 PM

This topic has come up before on 2blowhards in various guises. The changes in the distribution and promotion systems for music, especially pop music (however you might define that term), over the past four decades have gone through at least two huge paradigmatic shifts. In the early Seventies the dominant role of AM radio gave way to FM. At the same time the favored distribution medium went from being the mono single to the stereo LP.

In the early days of FM there were many more stations experimenting with formats, among those was "freeform" programming. "Hippies" could listen to FM radio stations and hear The Rolling Stones AND Howlin' Wolf or Jethro Tull AND Herbie Mann. The LP led to long form sometimes called "concept" albums like Sgt. Pepper's and Court of the Crimson King gaining in importance while the hit single somewhat diminished.

Over the following couple of decades, FM became as tightly programmed and niche market oriented as AM had been. Now we're in the middle of another shift. File sharing, iTunes, CD Baby, MySpace Music, Internet and satellite radio (is it still "radio"?) all are part of the digital domain where younger music lovers find what they listen to.

Maybe part of the dynamic is that when a hippie in 1970 was listening to a freeform radio station and within an hour heard Fairport Convention, Miles Davis and Cream because the programmer was tracking Brit guitarists, said hippie discovered links that don't appear when today's user clicks the button for other suggestions in the "If you like R.E.M. you might also like ..." feature of many music file sales sites.

All that said, The Daughter Unit (24) has an iPod that includes Ella Fitzgerald, The Andrews Sisters, David Bowie, Phish, Nicklecreek, Tori Amos, the Beatles, Death Cab for Cutie, Dave Matthews, Santana, and so on. The pathway to musical diversity is different, but still operating.

Posted by: Chris White on October 16, 2006 10:44 AM

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