I found myself this weekend in one of those perennial conversations about which contemporary bands are likely to hold up over time: Which albums of the past five years, say, are we still going to be listening to a decade out? But as I was mulling this a little later, I was suddenly struck by one of those things that was probably already obvious to everyone else: There are a handful of strange inflection points where rock nerd culture and mass culture are in eerie synchrony for a few moments before skittering off in their respective ways for a bit—and one of them was my early teens.
Usually in any given year, there’s the stuff we all hear on the radio or out at a pub, and there’s the stuff the critics and the obsessives are gushing over. Over time, some of the stuff the nerd culture had been fixated upon is dismissed as fad, and some filters out to a broader audience and gets absorbed into the canon. So, for instance, looking back at 1988–89, we can point to a handful of phenomenal rock albums released in a brief period—candidates for the short list of stuff we’d beam out to the stars to convince the advanced civilizations not to wipe us out just yet. Daydream Nation. Disintegration. On Fire. The astonishing one-two punch of Surfer Rosa and Doolittle. That’s probably as uncontroversial a critics’ list as one could ever make, but excepting the Cure album, you probably weren’t going to hear any of them on a commercial radio station, or find them within spitting distance of a top-40 chart. You had to be a bit of a rock nerd yourself just to be aware of them at the time. Which seems par for the course, more or less.
But now jump forward three or four years. Poll your local rock nerd about the standouts from that period and—after pointedly mentioning Slanted & Enchanted first and grumbling something about how “Bleach was better”—he’ll probably name Nevermind, Siamese Dream, and maybe Automatic for the People. That is to say, the same huge-Billboard-hit albums every suburban 15-year-old was statutorily required to own in the early 90, with singles in almost oppressively heavy rotation. And maybe this is an “outsight” of my own, but it’s actually kind of stunning in retrospect how unusual this is. I can’t think of any other two or three year span—certainly not in my lifetime—where the rock nerd’s list overlaps so strongly with mass culture. (Ironically, partly out of sheer contrariness, I resisted getting into most of these until years later, effectively wasting history’s assistance in my formative years.) So I find myself wondering: What, exactly, happened there? Pure fluke, or something else?
It also occurs to me that, owing to the cultural fragmentation online distribution makes possible, the two categories I’m invoking here aren’t obviously even applicable anymore. I look at Billboard’s Top 200 Albums for last year and basically draw a blank. There’s maybe half a dozen in the second half of the list I’ve actually heard in full, but in only a few other cases could I name—or, for that matter, even hum—a song from the album. I thought I’d fare better with the top singles list, but nope, not a one that rings a bell until “Rehab” about halfway down. Whereas for the parallel lists from the mid-90s, almost everything is at least kinda-sorta familiar. This is not because I’ve become an old fart and stopped listening to new music, but because I’m getting my recommendations from Pandora and Last.FM and a bunch of niche blogs that only turn up stuff that’s already reasonably well-tailored to my preferences. Which is to say, “Top 40” is probably well on its way to becoming one more niche genre, populated by artists the vast majority of the listening population regards as obscure.
If I felt like getting my curmudgeon on, I suppose I could fret that this poses a threat of lock-in as we all increasingly live in the bubbles of our own past tastes. But that would pretty obviously be wrong and, indeed, ridiculous. In 1995, you had to be part of a pretty specific cultural and geographical milieu to even be aware of, say, No Wave or IDM. Good luck actually hearing any examples if you happened to live in Boise—or hell, even learning the names of the albums to look for. Sure, our musical encounters are a little less random, but they’re potentially massively more diverse, as are our chances of following a chance encounter with something interesting to the source. Hell, there’s a free iPhone app that lets you hold your phone near the speaker when you hear something novel, identifies the song on the spot, and gives you a link to buy it immediately.
It probably does make the weird alignment of the early 90s less likely though. Back then, with few other options, the music nerds were still at least watching MTV—if only 120 Minutes. Now—with MTV relegated to producing reality shows—we don’t have the same kind of central culture hubs. To the extent that we do, they can’t count on captive audiences. For the reasons mentioned above, it’s gotten much easier to develop a more specific, personal musical taste, and much younger, at that. And once you’ve done it, it’s much easier to defect from the common cultural pool. Which means not only are mass level cultural cascades generally less likely, but the people whose participation would make it possible for good niche stuff to go mainstream are also the most likely to have gotten the hell out of Dodge already. Though given the increased ease of defection, hey, so what?