It’s hard to make music, but it’s harder to make new music. DANIEL COMENSOLI looks at the growing phenomenon of music waste and our inability to accept that sound is recycled and reused.
Did anyone notice that Kings of Leon put out a record last year? Me neither. For a band that were everywhere in the 00s, they’ve certainly slipped from the public consciousness pretty fast. They haven’t done anything particularly shocking (Sundown wasn’t that much worse than Aha Shake Heartbreak), but they still somehow floated into the netherworld between commercial crossover and underground heroes.
No-one talks about them anymore. And strangely, this is a trend repeated throughout all levels of the music business. Probably the most striking example is what has (or has not) become of Lady GaGa, from her unfailing ascendancy post-The Fame to her current Artpop-era irrelevance. We used to care about everything she said and did.
It seems that in pop culture, some kind of change is now required to maintain relevance. The reinvention of an image or a sound is a salvation for those with long term plans of staying visible in the industry. The public greedily consumes anything new, only to remorselessly spit it out later pending the next transformation. Sometimes these changes work, while others go unnoticed. The result is a seemingly random spread of artists with their finger always on the pulse (Queen Bey, etc.), and a growing list of sickly, wasting ex-stars. Hopefully soon we can put Justice Crew with the latter.
Then there’s the oversized hype surrounding rising bands, to the detriment of older blue-collar artists still churning out decent records. New artists get swallowed in the maelstrom of currency, rocketing skyward in a wave of conversation and counterpoint past their mundane peers. The argument always centres on a ‘new sound’, but the Artic Monkeys and The Strokes were buzzed about because they went back to a sound. Alt-J are some freak mix of Macy Gray and late Radiohead. And all those chillwave artists were just redoing things that had been done a decade earlier, or in the 80s.
The point is that there just aren’t new sounds to be found. A recent study, using a massive archive called the Million Song Dataset, found that there is little difference between songs spanning from the 50s to now. On average, modern pop songs have substituted variety with volume. They’ve been recorded louder and are played louder, but the study found that there were far more variations available between note changes in the 60s.
Beyond this, we don’t have new sounds because our Western music is governed by a strict, fairly tight group of notes and chords, where anything outside sounds dissonant to our ears. To clarify before every EDM or noise fan loses their shit, I’m talking big scale, mass appeal. I’m sure there are new sounds coming from your laptops that will revolutionise things – some real wicked blips.
Even in EDM though, a lot of experiments and decisions around what sounds good are informed by the past. No-one creates in a vacuum. That’s why it’s disconcerting when ‘pioneers’ seek to present something completely removed from what has been. Successful experimentation comes from an exchange between the past and present. That can’t happen if we keep forgetting formative artists, and it won’t happen if ‘the next big thing’ is always marketed as the Second Coming, inventing everything and healing the music biz over some sweet new beats.
So if there aren’t new sounds, why do we want so badly to lose the past?
One of the finest acts of the 80s, Minneapolis’ The Replacements, were a rock band that released consistently brilliant music but are now largely forgotten. The same can be said of a slew of bands from this era: Hüsker Dü, The Psychedelic Furs, X, Minutemen, Wipers, The Chameleons, and Australian bands like The Triffids and The Go-Betweens. While it can be argued that these bands came from – and stayed in – underground scenes with little reach beyond them, modern rock would not be the same without their existence. Increasingly, in music journalism and in the essential mythologies, REM stand alone as a champion of 80s college rock radio, and as the kicker for alternative rock.
A couple of years ago I stumbled on The Replacements. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to Let it Be since, with its full-blooded closer and crushing middle-third. But then I started hearing them in all the recent bands I love, who are huge fans as well. They’re all over the boozy swagger of The Hold Steady. They’re in the playfulness and frenzy of Japandroids. In the heart-on-sleeve rattle of New Jersey’s Titus Andronicus and The Gaslight Anthem, often more Replacements than Springsteen.
But The Replacements looked to the past as well, especially to Big Star – their song ‘Alex Chilton’ was written about Big Star’s singer. Yet Big Star also seem to only hold a place in the hearts of purists, music historians, and the odd guy with his Dad’s taste in everything. It’s absurd, given that even deep cuts from their 70s catalogue wouldn’t be out of place on a late Beatles record.
Both bands, on their vast influence alone, should at least figure somewhere in the thinking of the common man, sunk as us rock fans are in hearing the next big thing before it’s a thing. Surely we should realise that the next thing, especially in our present moment, and especially for guitar bands, will draw heavily from the past. But strangely we don’t. We seem not to really care about the bulk of what came before, even as it shapes what will come.
We have the established classics, of course. The Stones will tour forever, and Ringo Starr will always struggle with being the worst member of the best group. But somewhere in between are thousands of mid level bands and artists that are fading faster and faster into white noise. That dead wasteland isn’t reserved for musicians though, it’s full of books and films and art that were better than the crap that deserves to be there. The middle is only really remembered in the ailing hearts of a few. It’s a sobering thought for anyone in creative practice.
But here’s the thing: some of that stuff is still good. It doesn’t mean we need to live retro and mercilessly grasp at anything remotely vintage. Bloody hell, please don’t do that. There’s just some gold out there that a girl strummed away a few decades ago, or even a few years ago. So go out and buy some music that wasn’t from this year.* It’s probably great.
*Or you could download it. It is 2014.
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons