Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Does Music Even Mean Anything Any More?

I was recently driving in the car and had my two oldest daughters with me. They're thirteen and twelve years old and as is typical for when they're in the car with either me or my wife, they wanted to listen to the radio. When they were younger, they liked whatever my wife and I listened to whether it was the Beatles, the Who, Rush, Blur, or (most) anything else we put on. Over the last couple of years, though, they've really gotten into the current spate of pop music on the radio. Even though it seems to be the same ten vacuous, computer-generated, autotuned "songs" played in an endless loop across every Top 40 radio station sung by people who all sound the same (especially the female acts...they ALL sound identical), they can't get enough. Conversely, while my youngest daughter likes a mix of current pop music and whatever I'm listening to, my son is really into the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, and the Who (his favorites).

Along these same lines, this past summer drove from where we now live in the Midwest back to New England for vacation to visit family. Over the two-day drive, we surfed the radio so we could listen to music along the way. After getting tired of hearing the same songs over and over, my wife and I started stopping on stations with songs we wanted to listen to. Every time we landed on a song we knew and loved from either our era of the 1980s and 90s, or a song from our parents' 50s and 60s eras, our girls didn't want much to do with it. It wasn't that they actively disliked the songs, but they had no interest in listening to them or learning who wrote them, who sang them, etc. That spurred a conversation between my wife and I about how our kids' generation is growing up very differently from ours. When we were growing up in the 80s and 90s, we were not only aware of the pop culture going on around us, but were immersed in that of our parents' (and even our grandparents') generation. My brother and I probably watched as many reruns of sitcoms from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s as we did the current stuff that was on. Shows like the Dick Van Dyke Show, Andy Griffith, Gilligan's Island, The Brady Bunch, the Munsters, the Addams Family, Happy Days, and too many others to list were among those we watched and enjoyed. There was comedy like the Three Stooges (only the Curly episodes, of course), Monty Python's Flying Circus, and Saturday Night Live (a show that was great in the 1970s/early 1980s and again in the 1990s). And the music? Forget about it. I was raised on the music of the 1960s and 70s thanks to my parents and I've written about most of my favorite bands from that era on this site. That classic rock still makes up the bulk of my listening. For as great as the alternative and indie rock coming out of the US and UK was in the 80s and 90s (which I still love), there is something about 60s and 70s rock that just does it for me. That was the music I grew up listening to and it's the music I studied when I was teaching myself how to play guitar, bass, drums, and write songs.

What I see with my own kids and their friends of that age is that there is not a lot of curiosity beyond the prevailing music (and by extension, the pop culture) of the immediate present. It's all about which songs are hot at this moment and these also happen to be the ones they hear incessantly on the loop every station has them on. Songs that were hot one month are eventually disliked or worse (for the "artists"), utterly forgotten. Whereas my generation has a lot of songs where we'll say "remember that one? I love that song!" my kids will say something to the effect of "eh, that was popular a little while ago but now I don't like it." I guess what I'm trying to get at is that there doesn't seem to be much staying power to the majority of pop music these days.  It's not surprising when you think about it: these songs are written by teams of (usually) a dozen or more people adhering to the "hit formula" or the month, "performed" by a computer, and almost entirely devoid of human musicianship. Lyrically they're equally as vapid: gone are the days of musings on romance, love, heartbreak, or the state of the country and/or world. Instead, the airwaves are filled with autotuned voices extolling the virtues of getting wasted, partying, being pissed off at an ex, how much money said performer has, how sexy said performer is, and other utterly meaningless pronouncements. Now, to be fair, there were songs with shallow subjects in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, but they weren't the only thing being broadcast far and wide and in actuality they were either here and gone as fleeting hits or widely mocked and ridiculed for the intellectually bereft garbage it was. The exception has become the rule and I can't say I enjoy much, if any of it.

Before this turns into a "Rock is Dead" redux post, I don't think it's merely coincidence that this coincided with the demise of rock music as the dominant genre around the year 2000 while hip hop and computer-generated pop ascended. Music used to be about musicians with something to say writing and performing music from the heart and mind about things that mattered to them. The best of it had a way of communicating with the public and tried to resonate within the shared human experience as it connected on a deeper level. Nowadays it's mostly performers chosen by record company executives for their looks and marketability "singing" "songs" (I put both words in quotes on purpose) about nothing at all. As I said in the Rock is Dead post a few years ago, though, music used to mean something to us...it connected us with fellow fans and the artists themselves and touched an emotional spot inside of us beyond catchy melodies and thoughtful lyrics. Now it's just another disposable commodity, like a wad of gum to chew up, spit up, and throw away once the flavor is gone. Doubly so now that most music can be had for free on the internet (case in point: I still buy CDs and vinyl while my kids and their friends stream everything online).

This post wasn't meant to disparage my kids or other young people and their musical preferences; rather it was inspired by that moment in the car and how it made me think to highlight the differences between my generation and that of my children. That evolution is something that completely changed the meaning and function of music whereas my generation had (predominantly) the same connection to music that young people in the 50s, 60s, and 70s had. Bob Dylan was right: the times they are indeed a-changin'.

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