Recently, I conducted an interview with a guy in a rock band on a very hip indie label. We talked about the changes his band has gone through, the joy he gets from being creative, the punk-rock attitude that informs everything he does. We also reminisced about the good times we had on one of the band's earlier tours. Something about a midget bar near the Einstein A-Go-Go in Jacksonville Beach and the Meat Puppets getting into a fight onstage. Einstein A-Go-Go, Meat Puppets … yeah, kids, I'm talking about a tour that happened in 1990. That's 16 years ago, the year that many of this year's high school juniors were born, and the year that I was a sophomore in college and had nothing better to do than traipse around the Southeast with the bands I liked.
To me and to the rocker I was interviewing 1990 just doesn't seem like that long ago. In addition to the typical quickening of years that comes with age, it's just a simple fact that the 16 years that separate 1990 and 2006 don't feel nearly as transformative as the ones that came between 1990 and 1974. His band is still well-respected, both among die-hard fans and newer converts; despite a three-album stint on a major label, his band never lost sight of its DIY roots.
More noteworthy, however, is the fact that nothing's happened to music since 1990 that would make a young listener treat his 18-year-old band as a legacy act, rather than as another release on their favorite indie label.
Think about it. Between 1974 and 1990, arena rock lumbered its way into the mainstream, prog-rock lost its head in its ass, disco came and went, punk exploded, hip-hop was born, hardcore happened, electronic music and heavy metal both laid down the rules that define them to this day and "new wave" turned into "college rock" which spawned two forever-fighting siblings: "alternative rock" and "indie rock."
Since 1990? Nothing.
I just heard the collective groan of: "Oh, he's gone and turned into the nostalgic old guy babbling on about 'those kids and their music these days.'" And, while that's partially true I'm never one to deny the strong role nostalgia plays in the musical tastes of an aging wish-I-was-a-hipster it's hard to deny the rigor mortis that's set in on the sounds of today. Whether it's metalcore, pop-punk, dance-rock, angular indie rock, trance, hip-hop thugs or solipsistic singer-songwriters … well, kids, we had 'em all back in the day. Of course, they've all been sonically refined over the past decade and a half, and that's cool. Much of what I listened to when I was young was but a new version of something that came before.
However, the truly sad part is that for this current generation, there simply haven't been that many hard-left turns taken stylistically. It's not that music was better "back then." It's that it was pretty much the same. With the exception of M.I.A., I can't think of a record that came out in 2006 that would have sounded out of place in 1990. What this means is that a generation of kids is growing up on music their parents not only tolerate, but also relate to and enjoy. Which totally sucks.
It shouldn't be this way. A colleague of mine posited that the current state of music is better than it has ever been and that music lovers of 2006 are situated to enjoy more music more easily than any of the music lovers that came before them. The infrastructure for touring bands is well-established, as is the indie-label distribution network; add to that the numerous technological advances that make it astonishingly easy to discover and obtain new music (not to mention make it) and you've got a recipe for one of the most musically literate generations ever.
The thing is, music is just one ingredient in "the kids'" pop-culture pie. Why is your average high-school kid just as content to play video games or cruise MySpace as he or she would have been to sit around listening to records? Because although younger music fans still self-identify with music before anything else, the way that corporate radio stations and record labels have dropped the ball in the face of change has meant a musical environment that's irrelevant to them. They could take it or leave it. That sort of attitude means kids don't start bands unless they think there's money to be made, and when kids start bands to be successful rather than to get laid or be weird you end up in a world where not much changes musically.
An all-nostalgia make-your-own podcast:
Stereolab: "Super Falling Star"
His Name Is Alive: "Fossil"
Wedding Present: "My Favourite Dress"
Sonic Youth: "Marilyn Moore"
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: "Deanna"
Sloan: "I Am the Cancer"
The Flaming Lips: "Stand in Line"