The Day The Music Died

The other day, I flipped on (somewhat reluctantly) the MTV Video Music Awards. For the brief few minutes that I watched it, and for the even more brief time that I saw the “highlights” from the event, I attained some closure on something I’d suspected for years.

“Good” modern popular music is dead.

This might seem like a petty topic to talk about, but for me, it isn’t. As someone who’s both a music lover and a musician for over 20 years, I find music, to this day, fascinating. The fascination comes in multiple, somewhat equal parts. Part of me is still enthralled at how a song can elicit such amazing emotion out of you and reach into your being at a level few other things can. Part of me is amazed at some of what is being put out, both for the good and the bad, by legitimate artists, and those who *call* themselves artists. And part of me finds solace in what I couldn’t understand 10 years ago; that is, how someone could find themselves at the end of discovering new bands, new artists, new songwriters, and instead relegate themselves to the “old days”, and focus instead on the music they grew up on, and on the super-obscure.

That’s pretty much exactly where I’m at right now.

There was a time when popular music meant something. Be it through the songs of dissent as a creative reaction to the politics and war of the 60’s and 70’s, or the anti-establishment (for better or worse) of the 90’s, music in popular culture has always been a voice for those who didn’t know how to speak, and a method by which we could relate to one another, if by no other means than the lyrics of an artist or the angst of a record we waited for months to get.

So you have to understand, when I turned on the VMA’s the other night, I was not only disappointed, but utterly through, by and large, with what culture has deemed as good popular music. I turned on the show to find Usher (this generation’s next Luther Vandross??) singing his latest auto-tuned, poorly choreographed single “OMG”. Not only was it poorly performed, but it was completely void of any real substance, other than an interwebs shortcut. Next to the stage was Katy Perry to present an award. Yes, Katy Perry…you know, the female version of Howard Stern who so vehemently tries to deny her religious upbringing that she uses every platform she has to “shock” her listeners/readers/viewers, and throws down a hit single to the same effect about how she “Kissed a Girl”. Understand me, please; I could care less about her preferences or which way she sways. But I’ve always, ALWAYS thought of music as an avenue to convey something more. So when you use that platform to talk about something in order to shock, I give you little credence. It’s the same reason I enjoy Marilyn Manson musically, but think he’s a hack lyrically. Give me something substantive to chew on, don’t give me your shock-jock garbage that’s meant to say little other than to invoke debate on whether or not you’re a lesbian or a satanist. To open the show (and the only “highlight” I really cared to see) was the return of the mighty Eminem, who opened the show declaring through his new single that he’s “Not afraid/to take a stand”. Wow Marshall, that’s pretty bold….as a 38 yr. old man. How’d you manage the intestinal fortitude to do so under such extreme life circumstances? Oh wait, I saw Nine Mile, I remember…you had to do it via a “rap off”.

When this is the standard, I don’t hold much hope. And if it seems like I’m only knocking the rap/dance/pop template, know that I don’t hold the rock side with much regard either. Why? Nickelback and Creed. A few years ago, alternative music had My Chemical Romance, and Green Day has been a radio staple for years. Sorry fellas, but the only dude I’ll listen to who wears eyeliner is Alice Cooper or The Cure (both of which made amazing music in their respective genres before you hacks came along).

One of the most brilliant things I’ve seen in recent weeks, was a cover of Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl”, performed by William Fitzsimmons, an amazing folk artist. Whether intended or not, he took a song that was meant to shock people because a female sang it, and turned it into a love song sung by a guy, or at the very least a song that sounded more sincere. And that’s why I still hold hope for music at all, even if not in the popular realm. Gone are the days of the Stones, Zepplin, The Who, James Taylor, P-Funk, etc. Yes, I realize many of those are still around, but no one today is coming out with music the way those bands/artists did. Today is nothing more than over-produced, auto-tuned, remixed and re-tooled garbage made not out of a spirit of excellence, but more as a money-making machine, spitting out whatever the masses want (who are infiltrated by what Hollywood and pop culture feed them), and caring little for substance or musical longevity. For those of us who still want something more, we have to dig a little deeper, look a little harder, and eventually, we do find music that resonates with us.

There will always be exceptions, of course. There are bands who, love them or hate them, are still taking a stand on issues, and still releasing “pop” records that touch the listener on a deeper level. U2, Coldplay, Beastie Boys, Matisyahu, and Dave Matthews are all great examples that, even if you’re not down with them stylistically, or even as personalities, they still make music that in some form or another, causes the listener to think. Even Lady Gaga, for all her pop and quirky sensibilities, uses her popularity and platform to broaden knowledge on issues close to her heart.

So I find myself at this place where “popular” music, by and large, does little to appeal to me in any way. The storytellers are few and far between, and the lyrics of substance have mostly become a thing of the past. It’s the same mentality that bore the straight-edge movement begun by Ian MacKaye and the DC scene in the 80’s, and the same mentality that bore the songs of protest of the 60’s and 70’s. And even though it became the voice of a generation and a musical and fashion trend all by itself, it’s the same spirit at the beginning of what became the “grunge” scene in the 90’s, with bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. It’s music that doesn’t need an audience, it just needs to be made. That dichotomy is part of its appeal, though. When music is made solely for the sake of the one making it, something clicks. It’s why bands with the smallest followings have some of the best music you’ve never heard. They care more about expressing something real, be it faith, a political stance, an ideal, than they do about record sales.

I listened recently to an old interview with Henry Rollins, just after he took home his first (and only) Grammy. The interviewer asked him how getting a Grammy changed his life. He responded, “Are you kidding? It’s sitting in my closet upstairs.” He went on to explain that while awards always meant little to him compared to creating something, he also held them with a grain of salt when one looks at the other recipients who’ve also received one over the years. When, as he put it, “Jethro Tull gets a Grammy as a ‘metal’ artist, you learn to care less because of who they’re giving these things out to.”

So those of us who still care about music will continue to search. We search for the William Fitzsimmons’, the Henry Rollins’, the Fugazi’s and Quicksand’s of the world, knowing that more often than not we’re going to run into Creed and Usher. And while it may seem silly, music is still the one thing (and sometimes the only thing) that brings us together in large groups for a common purpose.

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Comments

  • Mike  On September 14, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    Good stuff.

  • Bobby  On September 14, 2010 at 10:49 pm

    Love it. Great insights!

    I stopped listening to the radio awhile ago and switched to audiobooks. Not because I’m getting older, music just started boring me – at least what I was hearing was. If you find good stuff – let me know =)

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