Is the cultural role of pop music maturing, or is it stuck in perpetual puberty? Has it usurped and squandered the ‘shop window’ profile that used to be reserved for more deserving artforms? Or is it just that, as it has moved into mainstream acceptance, it has lost its bite, its ability to express difference or opposition?
Fifty years after Elvis first had hits, the rock’n’roll energy that he brought to a white audience for the first time has been absorbed back into a tradition of ‘folk music’ in the broadest sense, with the effect that this tradition is now less starkly segregated in terms of race and, to a lesser degree, of age. The wave that brought Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan, and later punk and hip-hop, has broken, and we’re now into a period of consolidation.
I’m going to argue that it was a combination of demographic, economic, technological and cultural factors that led to the birth of rock’n’roll — as distinct from folk/blues, pop and dancehall — and it is a similar combination that’s leading to its re-integration. I’m also going to draw in different ways on two articles: one by David Hepworth in Word Magazine on listening habits across generations (this article is not available on line) and one by Michael Henderson in The Spectator decrying pop music as culturally juvenile.
Fifty years ago the first baby boomers were just hitting puberty, and as post-war privations were relaxed for the first time in history teenagers had enough disposable cash to make them a serious presence in the market. Electric guitars and amplification were just ready to expand into a mass market (the early ’50s saw the introduction of both the Gibson Les Paul and the Fender Stratocaster). The cultural landscape was fairly buttoned-up, but was straining at the seams, and most likely to burst in the places where different races and traditions rubbed up against each other, as they did in the American South.
In 02005 no-one of working age can remember the Second World War, and everyone of working age in the First World had ready access to pop music throughout their formative years. David Hepworth’s article reports market research which shows “two age groups… coming together in a unique cross-generational alliance which [is] in some senses driving the music market.” These generations are 39-50 years old and 12-29 respectively; so many of the latter are children of the former. “They live together, respect each other, in many cases shop together and increasingly go to gigs together”, the research apparently demonstrated, at a convention session that asked, “Why this explosion of interest in ‘mature’ music and media? [Is it] just that the mainstream record industry has finally woken up to it because the oldies are less prone to piracy. Or is the market really getting older? Maybe age has nothing to do with it — kids like great songs too”. See this Guardian article for more background on the older music consumer.
Hepworth cites an example of a teenager liking bands like Free, though he was not born when the band was active. My generation, growing up in the ’70s, didn’t do things like that. Our knowledge of pop music more than two years old extended to the Beatles, the Monkees and Elvis. And that was just because they had shows and films repeated on TV. I didn’t buy an album that was older than me until I was nearly twenty (it was Another Side of Bob Dylan). I had passed on a cousin’s offer to go to a Dylan concert earlier in my teens, thinking this Bob Dylan bloke must be suspect, since my parents had heard of him and I hadn’t.
As Hepworth says, the width of generation gap was always seen as the voltage that powered rock’n’roll. If the gap has gone, and the battery is flat, where does that leave the music?
At first, new technology made rock and pop sound alien, first with the coming of electric guitars and then — quite literally, in some cases — with the early synthesisers. More recent technological developments — digital samplers and the mash-ups they have enabled — have emphasised continuity, rather than breaks, with the past.
Technology is affecting consumption as well as production of music. The constraints of retail shelf space meant that, with the exception of specialist ’boutique’ stores, the only profitable option was to restrict stock to this month’s ‘top of the pops’ best-sellers. CDs and discount offers made it viable to broaden the stock slightly. With digital music, ‘shelf space’ is a thing of the past. The iTunes Music Store has a million songs for sale, and online stores are increasingly competing on the basis of their inventory (this report suggests that the total number of recorded songs available is five million). The ‘economically active life’ of recordings has thus been extended radically, with cumulatively significant sales of marginal works — a phenomenon that this influential Wired article has christened ‘the long tail’.
Revolution and Tradition
Fifty years ago rock’n’roll created a moral panic: it blind-sided the Establishment and was seen as coming out of nowhere. Later, punk more self-consciously presented itself as a new beginning, a year zero. Now they’ve all come to rest next to each other, rubbing shoulders with Big Band Special and reggae documentaries, on the airwaves of Radio 2. Or the more eccentric and specialist cases crop up on the World Music and New Music programming on Radio 3. (For non-UK readers: Radio 2 is the BBC’s popular music station for the older listener; Radio 3 has traditionally been the classical and ‘high culture’ station.)
Even if the strain of popular music that emerged in the ’50s has always been juvenile froth, its very longevity has changed how people hear it and respond to it.
Music seems impotent to inspire moral panics these days: any hip-grinding venom it retains is rarely perceived as genuinely threatening. High culture figures like Seamus Heaney praise Eminem, one of the more likely folk devils of recent times, for his “voltage”, “subversive attitude” and “verbal energy”. Musical changes are seen as of a piece with broader traditions and social history. The work of Greil Marcus, Nick Tosches and Charles Shaar Murray has shown that, in fact, neither rock’n’roll nor punk came out of a vacuum.
To suggest that pop has a tradition worth speaking of, let alone studying, would surely be relativistic anathema to Michael Henderson. He cites Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: young people, according to Bloom, “cannot hear what the great tradition has to say”. I haven’t read Bloom, but it is telling that Henderson’s own list of “great 20th-century composers” includes few who were active after 1950. Neither does it include Varèse, Webern, Satie or Cage — the composers from whom rock’s great innovators, like Frank Zappa and Brian Eno, took inspiration. If Bloom and Henderson’s great tradition has been lost from general view, it may not be simply that pop music has barged into the “position of absolute privilege it now enjoys”, but that the old tradition dropped the baton in the face of serialism, Stockhausen and the avant garde.
As decades pass, historians draw different connecting lines and identify alternative threads of influence, redefining traditions. Focusing on the last fifty years, as Henderson does, tells one story. Drawing back to take a longer view, you start to see things in a different relief. The folk tradition from which Bob Dylan emerged grew from the Anthology of American Folk Music recordings made in the ’20s and ’30s. Dylan caused a famous stir when he spliced that tradition with rock’n’roll, but more recently he re-rooted himself with two albums of covers of the old songs (for which he was greeted with ridicule all over again, albeit at a lower decibel level). Everyone covers songs from before rock’n’roll now: from one-time provocateurs like Bryan Ferry and Rod Stewart to young wannabes Jamie Cullum and Gwyneth Herbert.
An increasing number of artists are situating themselves in a web of traditions that extends beyond the pop/rock legacy from the era of Elvis Presley. Stephin Merritt draws on Irving Berlin and Robert Burns, as well as on Steve Reich and the Jesus and Mary Chain. At the end of 01999, he published a list comprising his selection of the one best recording from each year of the 20th century. His list includes Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, which Michael Henderson holds up as the glorious, if anachronistic, greatest songs of the century. It also takes in Abba and the Pet Shop Boys. There are many truly awful rock albums with classical pretensions, but Frank Zappa’s compositions hold up to scrutiny, and Elvis Costello is clearly sincere, if not always successful, in producing work that draws variously on blues, rock, ballad, orchestral and operatic traditions. Then there are those whose work both embraces and refuses a bewildering array of genres, like John Zorn, who has championed John Barry and Carl Stalling as great composers of the 20th century, while recording hard bop, klezmer music and thrash metal cover versions of Ornette Coleman.
So what? Artists have always drawn on a catholic range of sources. Harrison Birtwistle (whom Michael Henderson’s article quotes describing pop as nothing more than “a cosmetic continuum”) drew from folk music in works like Bow Down and Yan Tan Tethera), as did Stravinsky, Bartok and Janacek.
The point is that critics, like Michael Henderson, who seek to throw a net around the last fifty years of pop music are fighting a losing battle. If the ’50s saw a confluence of forces and an eruption of energy that was felt for a few decades afterwards, then the laws of entropy — accelerated by demographics and technology, as described above — have once again come into play, and that energy is dissipating, spreading in all directions.
Pop, or rock, or whatever name you want to give it, is fragmenting, for good or ill (perhaps in the way that the ‘great tradition’ did). It has lost its focus, lost its difference, and merged back into the much broader popular idiom — from ethnic folk to music hall to dance music traditions — from whence it emerged. It has spread back out across generations, and — this is what’s new, aided by technology — it is now spreading to an unprecedented degree across races, landscapes and cultures as well.
I remember seeing a performance of a Luciano Berio piece at the 1987 South Bank season that Birtwistle curated. The score directed the singer to include excerpts from other pieces in her repertoire at some points (Berio wrote it for his wife, the singer Cathy Berberian). The performance I saw included a line or two from The Smiths’ Some Girls are Bigger Than Others, and I remember having a silent bet with myself that I was the only person in the Queen Elizabeth Hall that evening who recognised it. Audiences, like artists, have moved on since then, and I wouldn’t make that bet in similar circumstances today.
[Update, 6 October 02005: here’s a postscript that provides some recent figures to illustrate the trends discussed above.]