05 January 2009

00s vs. 90s

This was a topic raised on the ever-verdant PPMB, and lest there be any confusion, they were talking specifically about music; considering that our current decade has been characterized largely by terrorism, war and now depression, I don't think you'll find too many people touting its merits over the complacent and oblivious, but also quite comfortable 90s.

Unsurprisingly, PPMB sentiment also leaned heavily in favor of the 90s being the better musical decade. I say unsurprisingly for two reasons: 1) the 90s are generally known as the glory years for pop punk, ostensibly the whole raison d'ĂȘtre behind the PPMB; and 2) the prime PPMB demographic consists of people in their mid to late 20s, i.e., people who came of age in the 90s.

I don't know if I'd consciously thought of this before I read it an article somewhere, but it only stands to reason: the music that has the most profound impact on a person's life, and tends to remain a indelible part of that person's life tends to be, first and foremost, whatever happened to be playing at the time they reached puberty and were thrust into the maelstrom of emotion and hormones that is teenagehood.

For instance, I can never hear the opening organ riff to Del Shannon's "Runaway," or the stately yet lugubrious intro to Roy Orbison's "Crying," or the plangent moan at the start of Dion's "Runaround Sue" without instantly being transported back to 1961 and the swirling welter of excitement, anticipation, nervousness and downright terror that came with being 13, and I imagine it's much the same with those who were a similar age the first time they heard the guitar riff to "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Throughout the 1960s I was never far from a radio or a record player, which is probably why, more than 40 years on, I could easily list several hundred absolutely crucial songs from that decade and tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing the first time I heard them. But I generally choose not to, and in fact put more energy into inveighing against the 1960s and very little into singing their praises, musical or otherwise, because, I tell myself, somebody needs to act as a counterweight against my contemporaries from The Most Boring And Annoying Generation (pace Frank Portman), who left unchecked will pursue us till the end of our days with tales of how they invented sex, rock and roll, civil rights, freedom, justice and marijuana.

"Nostalgia is a powerful drug," commented one of the PPMBers, and like all powerful drugs, is to be indulged in sparingly if at all. For years I thought the 60s veterans were uniquely guilty of apotheosizing their own history, but I've watched successive generations attempting to do the same for the 70s, the 80s and now the 90s. The 00s must have their champions, too, but they're probably mostly still in middle school. No doubt we'll be hearing from them soon, but in the interim I'll be happy to stand up on behalf of our current decade.

Musically, that is. I'll reserve judgment on whether Obama can salvage anything from the political and economic disaster of the past eight years, but grim as things may look on the world's front pages and streaming videos, I think we're living in a time when more and better music is available than ever before in history.

Part of this is simply logic and technology at work: when I was growing up, my access to music from my parents' day was limited to scratchy old 78s that provided about as much fidelity as one of those cheap transistor radios that were just starting to come flooding into the country. Today, from the moment a piece of music comes into existence a digital copy will preserve its integrity for as long as there is electromagnetism and a means of harnessing it.

It used to be that if a record didn't catch on with the public at the time it was released, it would soon disappear into the cutout bins of history, possibly - but only just - to be rediscovered by the occasional bargain hunter or hipster, but otherwise forgotten. But now every band with a laptop and an input jack has a permanent record of its work in the electronic age's equivalent of the Library of Congress, and while it's as hard as ever to get people to pay attention to your music - maybe harder, since there's just so damn much of it out there - you can no longer claim it's because the evil corporations and the clueless DJs stopped them from having access to it.

And it's not just that almost every band's output gets permanently archived these days, but also that the quality - at least with regard to production values - is so much better than was available to amateur performers even a decade or two ago. I almost exclusively listen to my music on shuffle, so I'm frequently startled at the difference between what was considered state of the art DIY production back around 1990 - Bad Religion comes to mind - compared with almost any of the pop punk bands coming up today. While BR had big money behind them and access to major label-quality recording studios, today's bands are getting as good as or better sound out of their bedrooms and basements. And when you compare them to indie records done on the cheap - all the early Lookout stuff, for example - the difference is mind boggling.

The best recording in the world won't make up for a lack of quality in the writing and performance, of course, and that will be where old school purists can continue turning up their noses, though I think they'd be wrong to. "These kids today..." the mantra always begins, the conclusion inexorably being some version of "they don't know beans about what it was like back in the day."

Which is great, as far as I'm concerned. An overarching concern with how things used to be done has always been the surest way to undermine creativity, and I'm not just talking about punk rock: Chinese art and science went into a thousand year tailspin which it's only now pulling out of (well, science, anyway) precisely because the guiding principle of all culture became, "How closely does it hew to the work of the masters?"

Anyway, one of the few redeeming features of my recent stay in the Bay Area was listening to the radio (as already noted, it was so damn cold there, both inside and out, that driving around in my mom's car was one of the few places I could be assured of being warm). Mostly I tuned into my favorite dance station, Energy 92.7, which, even though every song is not necessarily prime material, rarely plays anything so bad that you feel compelled to switch stations, a rare property indeed in the world of modern broadcasting.

But one night, en route from 102.1, my mom's classical station, to 92.7, I got waylaid by WiLD 94.9, which as I recall used to be an all hip hop station, but now seems to have gone way poppier. Either that or hip hop has gotten a whole lot better than it used to be, because I ended up listening to it all night.

Oh no, I can hear you saying, he's going on one of his "open-minded" kicks again, and maybe you're right, and maybe it's time. I've been noticing that my iPod delivers a pretty much nonstop barrage of pop punk, oldies, and country (as long as it doesn't stray much beyond Hank Williams and Roy Acuff), and that's about it. Time for some changes, I thought, but I didn't want to hear any more of that indie crap that's forever being pushed as "edgy" and "adventurous" and "challenging" (the only challenge is to listen to it for more than a couple minutes without getting annoyed and/or a headache).

So I rushed out and downloaded two of my favorite new songs, Pink's "So What" and Katy Perry's "Hot'n'Cold," followed up by a few Beyoncé and Rihanna tracks, and a smattering of Lady GaGa and some hip hop. I feel very with it at the moment, even though most of my "new" songs are at least six months to a year old, but hey, at my age, that's like yesterday, right? I would have downloaded a ton more stuff, except that, curious dinosaur that I am, I was actually paying for my music. I can't really afford to be as open-minded as I was back in the days when I got everything for free.

Conclusion, for now anyway: there is an awful lot of awesome music out there, and about 99% (well, 90%, anyway) is not coming out of Brooklyn. Okay, I take that back. There are probably dozens of great bands within walking distance of my apartment. It's just that so far I've only heard the other dozen or so that kind of really suck.

2 comments:

NoMoBtown said...

Re: "I don't know if I'd consciously thought of this before I read it an article somewhere, but it only stands to reason: the music that has the most profound impact on a person's life, and tends to remain a indelible part of that person's life tends to be, first and foremost, whatever happened to be playing at the time they reached puberty and were thrust into the maelstrom of emotion and hormones that is teenagehood."---Hey, I remember that discussion from Pepito's Folder! It must be in the archives somewhere, but who has time to plow through them?

ParkSlope=YuppieToilet said...

"Conclusion, for now anyway: there is an awful lot of awesome music out there, and about 99% (well, 90%, anyway) is not coming out of Brooklyn."

That's funny, because in the past decade, bands that are "from" Brooklyn have multiplied by at least a thousand, and yet they all suck.

That's what tends to happen with art that lacks authenticity and hardship.