Ed takes on what could be a pretty interesting topic – objective quality vs. personal preference in popular music – but unfortunately it degenerates into yet more contrarian hipster ranting.
Honestly, there’s nothing objectionable about Radiohead. They are a perfectly average group of musicians making perfectly dull, inoffensive music. There is nothing wrong with them. I find it nearly impossible to imagine someone responding to Radiohead with “Oh God, I can’t listen to this horrible racket!” It’s the kind of thing young people can listen to while in a car with their parents without offending either.
My first objection, then, is a simple matter of personal taste. I tend to hate things that fit the preceding description. One could say that I am deeply offended by inoffensiveness. I don’t hate their music; I hate that they are so boring, so unoriginal, and so predictable. If you are a Rock Musician and the parents of your fans “get” your music – or perhaps even like it – you are doing something wrong. Take a risk. Piss someone off. Hurt someone’s ears. Challenge people. Don’t just keep churning out boilerplate that makes people say “Oh, how nice.” Bands that everyone can find a way to like are, by definition, forgettable.
Mozart. The Beatles. Morphine. Masters of Reality. How long of a list do we have to compile here of musicians both famous and obscure who wrote fantastic music without having to rely on abrasiveness and shock value? As some of his commenters point out, if making your parents cover their ears and grimace is the standard for excellence, I guess GG Allin and Scandinavian black metal bands are the final word on the subject. But even Pantera’s most extreme record went to number one on the Billboard charts. What about the children of people who grew up listening to that stuff? What are they supposed to do to rebel? Reinvent big band music? Become nü-crooners?
And which is it? Are musicians supposed to be striving for greatness, aiming to transcend their influences and stretch the boundaries of their genre, or are they supposed to be writing music to please the glowering fourteen year-old with hand-scrawled circle-A anarchy symbols on his skateboard and Hot Topic pants who thinks life in his parents’ suburban home is, like, so totally worse than Nazi Russia? ‘Cause I can’t think of a faster way to consign yourself to irrelevance than to pander to a notoriously fickle audience with the attention spans of fruit flies. Or is it the forty-five-and-older demographic I see eternally fighting it out in guitar magazine letters and YouTube comments over whose favorite band is the bigger sellout for changing their songwriting formula?
I’ve heard it before! I don’t wanna hear it again!
Incidentally, who do we have to thank for this idiotic obsession with novelty for novelty’s sake? Is it the punks? Technically, Henry Rollins wasn’t talking about derivative bands when he said that, but it could still very well sum up punk rock’s anti-tradition attitude. Ironically, the same hyper-individualist refusal to locate oneself within a tradition, the strange insistence on wanting to exist in a vacuum, unencumbered by anything that came before, turned out to lend itself almost perfectly to a disposable consumerist mentality that treats bands and musicians with the same casual disregard as last season’s fashions. It’s been done before! It’s old! It’s boring! It’s too popular! I need a new shiny object! And often, the same people who make a fetish of novelty lament the fact that the music industry long ago gave up on trying to slowly develop bands and build a loyal fanbase over several years, preferring to sign ten similar bands, throw them against the wall in hopes of one of them managing to stick with a forgettable hit single or two, the profits from which will cover the money invested into the nine failures, who are then unceremoniously dropped and sent packing back to their day jobs (with the one survivor likely to follow in a few years when their follow-up fails to duplicate their early success). It’s a great recipe for encouraging conformity and contrived trend-hopping.
I was talking about something like this last year with my friend Arthur, and he wrote:
Schiller wrote about the fundamental contrast in cultural history between what he called the naive and the sentimental — the original, less sophisticated but more powerful kind of art (Homer, e.g.) and the belated, more sophisticated but less visceral and emotionally powerful (modern) art. Something like a transition from naive to sentimental has happened in rock music, and probably would have happened even if Reaganism and cynical consumerist manipulation had not taken place. Artistic movements that begin spontaneously tend to become more self-conscious and backward-looking as they develop: revolution cools into evolution, and, as with modern jazz, a creeping classicism sets in where once all was anarchy and freshness.
There’s nothing wrong with rock music, but expecting it to still have the same sort of novel, dynamic cultural relevance that it did forty years ago is misguided. There is a sense that it’s all been done before, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It’s not going to change the world, but there are enough talented songwriters tinkering with the forms laid down long ago who can still change yours if you’re open to it.