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The segmented society


Jode

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This is a great column by David Brooks of the New York Times about the disintegration of what we used to call "rock and roll". Nowadays there is genre after genre after genre; no one's listening to music outside their comfort zone; and young musicians have little sense of the history and evolutionary process behind what they listen to. Steven Van Zandt is trying to do something about it.

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/20/opinion/20brooks.html?hp

 

I read a similar article a few years ago where the author mentioned that one day in his teen years, he heard Aretha Franklin, Ravi Shankar, and Led Zeppelin in succession on his favorite radio station. what a quaint notion THAT is these days.

"I had to have something, and it wasn't there. I couldn't go down the street and buy it, so I built it."

 

Les Paul

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I read a similar article a few years ago where the author mentioned that one day in his teen years, he heard Aretha Franklin, Ravi Shankar, and Led Zeppelin in succession on his favorite radio station. what a quaint notion THAT is these days.

 

Jack FM basically does that. They're one of the only radio stations I can stand listening to at the moment because they are so completely random with what they play. I like random.

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I don't normally agree with Brooks' political views but I do often like his cultural commentary.

 

I agree, the music scene sucks and half the reason is that people don't know, or even disparage, 'the canon' of American music. As a result they can't tell shit from shinola.

 

But to me much of the advances in popular music decades ago came from new technology combined with the mass movement of blacks from the South to the North - these were exceptional circumstances that created a uniquely vibrant cultural era which can never be duplicated. I don't see American music ever reaching those diverse heights Brooks mentions.

 

But white indie rockers who have no use for 'the pop canon' aren't helping at all. Nor are people who strive for innovation instead of quality. Nor are people who value spoken-word poetry more than music. When attitude (read 'punk' or 'street-cred') became more important than the musical substance the musical quality had no choice but to decline.

 

I surf the radio all the time in the car and yeah it's not that good but I don't really remember when it was all that phonomenal - thus, the 'surfing.' I do like the variety of Jack FM. I had satellite radio for several years, until it was stolen out of my car, and I thought it was great, way better than the radio.

 

But taste fragmentation like Brooks discusses is here to stay - you'd need to abolish the computer, dvrs, video games, etc. to stop that.

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Well, yeah.

 

If you listen to The Beatles, it's amazing to see the huge number of influences they drew upon. Not just the Indian stuff, but a lot of British Music Hall stuff, rock and roll, American folk, musique concrete, plain old pop songs and so on. There's nothing like that these days.

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The cool thing about the late/60s/esrly 70s scene - listening in retrospect is what appears the sheer openness of the whole scene. Perhaps that is a distortion of time.

What I do know is when I play Santana live at the Fillmore West from 1971 there is a roar of recognition and crowd approval when the band play 'In a Silent Way' the then recently released Miles Davis tune.

This is a mainstream (admittedly counter-culture) rock band at the top of the charts playing a gig at a major venue (OK Bill Graham had hipped the crowd to jazz but that's the point) and playing a contemporary jazz tune and getting it recognised and appreciated by the crowd.

Could that happen nowadays? Is there even a possibility? Also, it seems that at that time musicians were making music because they liked it and it came naturally rather than to shift units. I'm not naive enough to think that that didn't come into it - just that many artists were signed and allowed relative freedom compared to later.

Luckily Santana was around to make Caravanserai, Lotus and Welcome in the early 70s. If he'd recorded them any later the record companies wouldn't have released them and instead you get the dross which was produced by so many major artists in the 80s as record companies sought 'their' vision of a potentially money earning album.

Thank goodness the internet is freeing musicians a little again.

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I think Brooks has some valid points here. And I think he came close to the mark with his article, but seemed to miss what I see as the culprit in this ongoing division of the musical landscape.

 

My own belief is that the marketing people are responsible for the further segmenting of musical society. Why? Because it seems that record companies do not know how to market an act unless they can fit them into some sort of niche. When they've found the particular slot for an artist to fit into, they can then attach a label and try to deliver the product (a band or music in this case) to their target market. I think this methodology applies to the mainstream, which seems to be where Brooks is coming from with his editorial.

 

Interesting point in this whole discussion. Brooks talks about indie-rock, which seems to be the style du jour as far as the hip kids go. That's what a good number of labels are getting behind right now. Well, a friend of mine was managing a rock band on a major label. But they didn't really fit in the indie-rock niche, despite having a marketable image, good songs and two good records. As a result of not fitting in that niche the label did not support the band with their marketing arm. Why? They didn't know how. Thankfully for the band, they and their management took the lead on the situation and released their own videos on the internet. The result? The videos went totally viral and became some of the most downloaded clips on the internet. All this was done with no help whatsoever from the label. This really showed me that the labels were very much out of touch with people.

 

Is Brooks right about musicians now having little sense of musical history? Yes, here I agree with him. And the axiom of "you can't know where you're going unless you know where you've been" applies just as well in music as it does in the study of historical events. And truthfully, I think that the more interesting things that I've heard musically are from artists who are somewhat cognizent of the past.

 

Another thing that I think Brooks totally misses on is Hip-hop. He totally glossed over that. Hip-hop has been the single biggest unifying force in modern music. It's been bringing together more young people now than any flavor of rock music. But has Hip-hop been subject to the whims of the marketers? Certainly. And it's been sold to the public big time.

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"My concern is, and I have to, uh, check with my accountant, that this might bump me into a higher, uh, tax..."

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And the axiom of "you can't know where you're going unless you know where you've been" applies just as well in music as it does in the study of historical events. And truthfully, I think that the more interesting things that I've heard musically are from artists who are somewhat cognizent of the past.

 

I don't know to which extent I agree with you.

 

My guitarist is into a bunch of experimental, post-rock stuff. And ok, I can see how it owes a debt to Pink Floyd's early stuff like Meddle and so on. But does he need to know there was a Pink Floyd album thirty years ago that sounded like a lot of these bands do now? Not really. He just plays his records and is happy.

 

I, on the other hand, have a much broader rock culture than he, and it's useful in the sense that I am not easily impressed by stuff. I can see if something is REALLY new. But rock is always reiventing itself these days, a bit like a cinema which shows the same film over and over throughout the day. My guitarist and I are simply watching different sessions of the same movie. :)

 

But then again, I still need my chops, without which any amount of rock history is useless. We could be on the same playing level, and no amount of reading Lester Bangs would help me.

 

 

 

Back in the early 80s, when I started gigging, people would tell me that all that new-fangled synth stuff had its roots in the 70s (Kraftwerk, Suicide, Giorgio Moroder et al), and even though I could JUST see what they meant (barely), it didn't matter to me. Just as my non-plussed attitude doesn't matter to my guitarist today.

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