Music is fucked-up these days, isn’t it? It used to be so simple, stop by Karma Music or Camelot, grab a new CD, take it home and pound it into your skull until you know every note and every word. If an album was solid enough to rise through the radio and MTV rotations, it was probably good enough to warrant due attention, assuming it satisfied the minimal stylistic standards I held as a teenager.
Then I heard the Velvet Underground, and then the internet exploded.
Simon Reynolds, for the Guardian, on looking into the Pitchfork’s top 10 albums of the past 10 years:
I was immediately struck by the fact that seven of the albums were from 2000 and 2001, with one other record from 2002 and another from 2004. The only album from after the mid-decade point was Panda Bear’s Person Pitch. Now what significance can be derived from this dense clustering (eight of the ten) of “greatest albums” in the first three years of the decade? You could interpret it two ways: firstly, music deteriorated as the noughties went on, or secondly, it grew harder and harder for people to reach consensus about which groups mattered, what records were important. The first scenario seems unlikely, so I’d have to go with the second. It resonates with how the decade actually felt: diasporic, scenes splintering into sub-scenes, taste bunkers forming, the question “Have you heard X?” increasingly likely to meet a shake of the head or a look of incomprehension. … This made me wonder if the same syndrome was affecting everyone. Was everybody drifting further apart from everybody else?
This accurately reflects my experience of what it is to be a serious music fan in the new century. Whereas being a music nerd used to mean you knew about the same populist bands as your tasteless “I just listen to whatever’s on the radio” friends, plus a couple dozen bands you were glad to recommend to them, these days it’s plenty likely that your “low-brow” friends are listening to a dozen bands you’ve never heard of and that they don’t even care about the stuff you think is so great.
Furthermore, even the so-called “ubiquitous” acts that amateur critics believe have penetrated the mainstream and are well-known by, well, everybody (Reynolds cites Daft Punk, Jay-Z, the Avalanches, and Dizzee Rascal. What? Nobody’s heard of Dizzee Rascal and even rap-nerds who’ve heard of him don’t listen to him.) are likely to be met with dumb looks or indifference by most normal folks. Sure, everyone’s heard of Jay-Z, but how many non-rap aficionados have actually heard more than 3 of his songs that don’t feature Beyonce?
So these days I just assume that no one around me is listening to anything that I am. This, of course, is when I turn to the internet, the only place I can actually find a group of people who might think like I do. Look, there they are, writing blogs about crazy new music that only music nerds could possibly appreciate.
Anyway … Reynolds also makes a fine point of the fact that music is far more available to us than it’s ever been before. Whether you’re talking about free streaming from Pandora, instant downloading from your iPhone, samples galore on every single blog and conveniently aggregated on Elbo.ws., or super-inexpensive accessibility by *ahem* less-legal methods, the fact is that at any given moment we can fire up our laptops and in 5 minutes time pull in more new music than we can possibly absorb in a week’s time. Does it make music less precious? I think so. I’m constantly amazed when I browse through my iTunes “Recently Added” playlist and discover that I’ve completely failed to get into the latest from fairly significant groups like Kings of Convenience or Clipse, or the newest Atlas Sounds digital EP. That’s 3 CDs I almost ignored, that never would have happened when I had to pay $13.99 a piece for them.
Between the fact that knowing about the latest, most essential releases doesn’t buy me props with anyone (since those like-minded online music nerds would never give digi-cred to anyone, lest it lower their own status) and I have so much new, good music for which I pay hardly anything, there’s little motivation for me to listen to anything but my absolute favorites, which tend to be records that fit an ever-more-specific set of criteria despite their vast stylistic variance.
Still, though, the new new definitely has value, at least with me. Maybe it’s cause I get bored easily, but I’m always looking for where the music is going next, both for entertainment and scholarly purposes. That’s another reason that Kings of Convenience album gets slept on. It may be just as great as their last album, but it sounds much the same. We already know their capabilities, listening to their record neither gives us an edge on the competition, nor gets us any closer to discovering the sound of 2012. So, the only reason left to listen to their album is pleasure. Who’s got time for that?
And so finally we come round to that. How much of your time do you spend listening to music for pleasure? And how much of it do you spend trying to find some music you’d want to listen to for pleasure? (I’m about 35/65 right now, I’d guess.)
So Reynolds then brings up the ultimate x-factor for judging a record – importance. Aw hell, what is that supposed to mean? Funeral is the big example (both Reynolds’ and Pitchfork’s) of a recent “important” album. But how can they judge that? Sure – it’s popular, but important? I mean, if you look at the other albums we consider “important” (and most the examples that spring quickly to mind are from the 60s and are from the big 3 – Stones, Dylan, Beatles) are considered important because of their consensually-recognized quality and their legacy. They’re important because other people who’ve tried to make “important” music listened to them. It’s about influence.
In 2003, Spin Magazine listed the 15 most influential albums not recorded by the Big 3 or Elvis. The list included the Velvets, the Stooges, Sabbath, No Depression, Marvin Gaye, Kraftwerk, the Ramones, Joy Division, Black Flag, etcetera. Half the list is from the 70s, proof perhaps that influence requires time to play itself out. The most recent album on the list is Diary from 1994. Influence in this case pretty much means the writers are able to list of bunch of well-known maybe even important bands whose sound was partially derived from the album in question. My question is – What bands have been influenced by Funeral? Isn’t it a little early to say it’s important? The importance Reynolds is talking about in this case is consensus, and it seems he’s right that consensus is becoming ever more rare (and not just among music lovers, film and literature are splintering as well).
In the comments, Deiseboy writes “It used to be exciting checking out end of year lists when albums at least appeared to have wider cultural meaning.”
Maybe that’s the issue, too. Digital singles are the currency, nobody cares about albums, cultural choices are as much about fashion as your choice of clothing. Maybe things have finally flipped, people used to derive ideas about their identity from the music they happened to choose to listen to. Perhaps now young people choose their music based on the identity they want to inhabit. Lucky for all of us, there’s a hot, new band for every mood and every taste.