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The (Rock) Stars Are Aligned

August 11th, 2008 · 14 Comments

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?

Tags: Art & Culture


       

 

14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Sigivald // Aug 11, 2008 at 4:35 pm

    Daydream Nation?

    Are you high? Do you want the aliens to start bombing?

    (I do agree about most of the rest, though, especially that the “mainstream” and charts matter less and less all the time.

    Thanks to everyone’s personal websites and all that, new musical experiences are trivially easy to share and spread, unlike The Before Times.)

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Aug 11, 2008 at 5:06 pm

    Gimme a break; it doesn’t have to be your cup of tea—there’s plenty of stuff that gets much more respect than eartime from me—but it’s pretty clearly a brilliant album. Or are you one of those folks who just loved the early stuff and could never get into DN because it wasn’t Confusion Is Sex? In any event, put it this way, if we’re talking about the consensus view, I think there aren’t many rock critics who wouldn’t at least put it on a top-ten list for the decade.

  • 3 PJ Doland // Aug 11, 2008 at 5:41 pm

    You’re high.

    Nobody will remember Sonic Youth.

  • 4 Julian Sanchez // Aug 11, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    Uh… the album is widely regarded as a classic 20 years after its release. What time horizon are you working on, Peej? If you’re saying the telepathic cockroaches who rule the planet in the 38th century won’t dig Teenage Riot, hey, maybe. Otherwise, I’d say that’s a prediction already falsified.

  • 5 Dave Riordan // Aug 11, 2008 at 6:38 pm

    So the question is when will there ever be another alignment of popular culture and the taste of elitist douche bags? I don’t think there will be and it is because EDBs have evolved to a point where they would not let it happen. In 1991 an album of the quality of Nevermind was SO GOOD that even the black turtle neck wearing coffee house set had to admit it’s greatness.

    EDBs now could not imagine being into something popular no matter how good it is. It would go against everything they believe in. That belief being that they have a understanding of what is good that unwashed masses will never get.

    I think the internet is to blame. In 1991 if an EDB herd Nevermind he might like it and buy it. Now that same person would go online to see if Nirvana was obscure enough to listen to. When he found out it was not he would call it crap and go back to his imported Joy Division bootleg.

  • 6 Sigivald // Aug 12, 2008 at 4:59 pm

    I’m one of those philistines who never “got” Sonic Youth (despite a love of drone and noise music, and “alternative rock” – you’d think that would make me a Sonic Youth fan, but my repeated attempts to like Daydream Nation have all been resounding failures.)

    And me, I’m pretty willing to say the critics are sparkin’ giant rock-pipes if they think it’s “brilliant”. Or maybe they have some strange critic-sense us mere mortals lack.

    (But on the other hand, both the average man and the critic can agree on “brilliant” in various other areas of art, such as representative painting.

    Does that imply that Sonic Youth is more like some particularly horrible sort of abstract art, perhaps the Pollock of indie rock?

    More of a Kandiski fan myself. Or Sunn O))).)

  • 7 Jesse Walker // Aug 13, 2008 at 2:17 am

    You’re a young man, Julian. Back in the day, Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins received plenty of nerd sneers. Yes yes yes, they were both “alternative” and mainstream. That mostly goes to show how abused the word “alternative” was in those days. 1991 was not “the year punk broke,” except in the alternative universe inhabited by entertainment journalists.

  • 8 Jesse Walker // Aug 13, 2008 at 2:25 am

    (Hmm – maybe “alternative universe” wasn’t the best phrase to use…)

  • 9 Julian Sanchez // Aug 13, 2008 at 3:08 am

    Well, sure, at the time… because a bazillion teenagers were snapping all those albums up. They were all but required to recoil back when it was happening. I’m just saying *in retrospect* those folks (or their successors) will own up to the fact that some of the most popular artists of their day also happened to be making really good albums.

  • 10 Sam C // Aug 13, 2008 at 7:37 am

    Sigvald: ‘And me, I’m pretty willing to say the critics are sparkin’ giant rock-pipes if they think [Daydream Nation]’s “brilliant”. Or maybe they have some strange critic-sense us mere mortals lack.’

    The situation is that we have some people (including me) who think Daydream Nation is brilliant, and some (including you) who don’t (it’s nothing to do with critics vs mere mortals, or elitist douchebags vs salt-of-the-earth manly working men who somehow know that people who disagree with them are only pretending).

    One way to resolve this is to go completely subjective: DN pleases my aural tastebuds* but not yours. But you don’t seem to want to do that: you think I’m actually wrong about the facts, not just different in taste.

    (* I wish I hadn’t thought of ‘aural tastebuds’ – yechh.)

    So, what facts am I wrong about? Am I hearing something that isn’t there? Have I not heard some other music which would show me DN’s weakness by comparison? (and incidentally, I have several Sunn0))) albums – they’re fine, but not as good as their heroes, Earth).

    I’m interested to know (genuinely – no sarcasm). Because right now, I think you’ve answered your own question: you don’t get DN because you lack ‘some strange critic-sense’, i.e. a particular learned sensitivity. The consensus on DN, as on Pollock, should make you think ‘maybe I’m wrong about this’: it’s evidence that you’re missing something. Maybe people who do get DN are hearing better than you are, just as people who get Pollock are seeing better than you are.

    (PS to Julian Sanchez – long-time reader, first-time commenter. Thanks for the interesting blog.)

  • 11 marc w. // Aug 13, 2008 at 12:20 pm

    I’ll certainly agree that Sonic Youth have stood the test of (20 years of) time, but I’m with Jesse – Smashing Pumpkins and, to a lesser extent Nirvana, were reviled by most ‘rock nerds.’ Sure, it may depend upon your definition of ‘nerd’ in this case, but the point stands.
    Personally, I still can’t listen to more than 5 seconds of Smashing Pumpkins, and, at least to me, they don’t belong in the same sentence with the likes of Sonic Youth. To be fair, they’ve probably sold a gajillion more albums, but that’s not really the metric of historical acclaim that you’re going for here.

    I totally agree about the bizarre netherworld that is ‘Top 40′ music. I think it’s quite likely that it too will become just another subculture, but if that were true, we should already see ‘top 40′ sales moving closer to other genres – ‘college/indie rock’ or ‘post-rock’ or something. Is that actually happening, or are we wishcasting here?
    Part of the reason for Top 40’s opaqueness to me (and you, I guess) is that it’s increasingly driven by younger and younger (and also more female) consumers. This has been going on of course for 50 years, but it’s still shocking to me to see just how far it’s moved. The period of the early 90s you wrote about featured a number of somewhat abrasive/dissonant guitar pop/rock albums breaking into the top 10. I simply can’t imagine that right now.
    This isn’t to say that music now is crap or disneyfied or anything like that – it’s just a weird artifact of having a list like the billboard charts.

  • 12 Sigivald // Aug 13, 2008 at 4:08 pm

    Sam: Ah, I think you mistake my point (doubtless my fault for stating it too-forcefully in joking response to Julian – and for being sarcastic, in a way I thought obvious, about “magic critic-sense”, the same way I disagree with the art critics who think Pollock is a genius rather than a hack.)

    [But I don’t necessarily buy the “consensus” argument, since critical reporting is also an act of social signalling; if “the cool kids” like something, a “consensus” can be built that that something is “great” even when the real consensus is “I want to be a cool kid and this is how I can show it”.

    Problem is, of course, that also applies to disagreeing with the consensus…]

    I agree with you, in fact, that taste can’t really be argued and that neither of us is right or wrong for liking Daydream Nation or the opposite.

    I’m less sure I agree that “Daydream Nation is a brilliant work and one of the N best albums of period P” (as some critics propose) is a non-objective statement that someone can’t be factually wrong about, but I agree that the criteria for demonstrating it either way are vague and ill-defined and that arguing about it is pointless except as diversion.

    (I think I do reject that they’re “hearing better” than I am or that Pollock-likers are “seeing better” – because at least for the latter, none of their explanations about why Pollock is So Good hinge on their seeing some subtle detail; contemporary critics praised his process or his “place in art history” [cf. the Wikipedia article on Pollock].

    I suspect there are subtleties in Daydream Nation I might well appreciate more now than the last time I tried it, given my (evidently shared) appreciation of eg. Earth.

    But I’d also hope that a “best album of the decade” or “one of the best albums ever” wouldn’t need that level of training to enjoy, just as the best paintings and symphonies and books are accessible without special preparation.

    Maybe that’s the core of the disagreement right there, in fact.

    Hey, look, a whole giant set of parentheticals becoming a theory of aesthetics, just because Julian mentioned a Sonic Youth album.)

  • 13 Jesse Walker // Aug 13, 2008 at 4:32 pm

    Julian: I dunno. I can only speak for my little crew of college-radio DJs who mostly ignored the Subpop-Seattle mafia, but a few years later some of us were happily embracing Beck, Wilco, and other acts beloved by both the nerd scene and the mainstream. And a couple years earlier, we had been effusive in our praise for Public Enemy’s collaborations with the Bomb Squad. So when we reacted to Nirvana — more with a shrug than a sneer, since they weren’t bad so much as absurdly overpraised — it wasn’t just a matter of recoiling from teenybopper popularity.

    (Though in my case, I will cop to being annoyed that the flannel shirts and ripped jeans I’d been wearing since 1982 or so were suddenly being mistaken for a fashion statement.)

  • 14 Julian Sanchez // Aug 13, 2008 at 7:09 pm

    Well, it would be hard to disagree with “overpraised” however much one likes them, given the level of hype. But I finally *got* a copy of Nevermind about two years back, and listening to it semi-fresh, after not having heard most of the songs for a few years, I was pretty struck by how well it holds up.

    Re: The objectivity of taste, I think it’s a little from column A, little from column B. If you prefer folk to thrash metal, that’s probably a de gustibus non disputandum thing. Though if there are whole genres you can’t get into *at all* I’m more inclined to say “you’re probably missing something.”

    Within genres, I think certain kinds of judgments are probably semi-objective, insofar as there are trajectories that seem pretty universally one-way. Starting with Green Day and coming to prefer The Replacement is pretty common; the reverse may have happened somewhere, sometime, but I’m guessing it’s a lot less common. And I’m assuming we all have had the experience of needing our ears prepared to appreciate a particular artist or type of music. I guess you could just treat that like a brute fact–“my taste changed”–but I think it’s more plausible to say that you get attuned to the details that distinguish more skilled or original songwriting and playing.

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