A few months ago, I had an in depth conversation my friend and avid music lover. We share a very similar taste in music ranging from the foundational Blues pioneers, Classic Rock Gods, and contemporary trendsetters that fuse these vibes. The conversation branched off a simple question, “Why does music suck these days?” The question itself is loaded and we attempted to hash it out. Before we even attempted to answer this question, we obviously kept the issue of subjectivity in mind. Instead of simply stating sweeping generalizations to find an empty answer, we decided to reformat the question. The reformed question posed was, “What makes contemporary music differentfrom preceding musical eras?”
Here is a quick digression for bearing definitions. There is no doubt that a majority of Top 40’s music is not designed for listeners looking to experience musical depth. This trend isn’t something exclusively true for contemporary music. This trend can undoubtedly extend to the past. The genre of “Bubble Gum Pop” is always categorized as non-threatening dribble, but the popular music scene is distanced from this restrictive categorization. Popular music is anything that is considered widely accepted and admired. So, for the sake of argument, let’s separate the notion of “Pop” from “Popular Music.”
Contemporary popular music isn’t innately bad; it just serves a different function. Songs topping today’s charts are based within a fundamental principle: entertainment. There is nothing wrong with catchy Lady Gaga loops. They incite a desire to dance for the sake of dancing. The tunes are fun. You don’t need to think about the lyrics. Pleasure comes from living in the moment, not assessing it. Bouncing bass riffs and repetitive lyrics are primitive forms of therapeutic release. Contemporary music functions as a different form of catharsis distanced from the analytical mind. When it comes down to the analytical mind and the bodily experience, they are mutually exclusive. They both fulfill a momentary desire. Neither experience is privileged or superior.
Music is a medium constantly based upon spectacle. Usually this spectacle is centered within sexuality. Not much has changed from Robert Plant’s bulge revealing jeans to Jessica Simpson’s Daisy Duke cut-offs. Sex is always prevalent. More than anything, the stage as a form of spectacle was innovated by Alice Cooper’s outrageous live performances. His over the top antics and thirst for the theatrical were based primarily upon a desire to shock and repulse. He revolutionized the live experience. It was something wholly untapped at the time. The traditional Rock show was replaced with this outsider entertainment. In a contemporary context, this expression and experimentation has become an expectation rather than creative exploration. As audiences become more demanding and attention spans dwindle, artists are forced to constantly reinvent newer and more captivating visual stimulation. Tight jeans no longer suffice. Even Cooper’s bizarre integration of snakes and mannequins seem irrelevant in comparison to current stage exhibitions. Today’s performers definitely borrowed from the legends of yesterday but out of necessity, they have to be outrageously innovative and consistent in the pursuit of continued spectacle in order to ensure exposure and persistence. Live performances contain highly rehearsed circus acrobatics, flamboyant costumes, and expensive set design. Although many would suggest these antics are an attempt to distract from a lack of musical talent, it is nevertheless an effective form of entertainment.
Perhaps one of the biggest differences between music scenes is less about the music and more about the musicians. There is a big question of longevity. Musicians from the sixties and seventies are still strong musical entities. Musical powerhouses like The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis, and The Doors top record sales regardless of their postmortem statuses. Miraculously, The Rolling Stones, B.B King, and The Who still tour. There is a certain amount of authority given to these performers due to their persistence and continued relevancy. Maybe the contemporary scene raises some anxieties, as performers become disposable. The threat of contemporary artists getting lost in an oblivion of fresh faces somehow also threatens the legitimacy of their music. The bottom line is music is created to affect people. Legitimacy of an artist or group of artists has very little to do with image or genre, it revolves around individual interaction and identification with their musical messages or lack thereof. Regardless of the similarities and differences between musical eras and genres, the overarching consensus is: don’t knock anything. Music is such an inbred media; everything is somehow interconnected.