Every year at about this time for more than a decade, I’ve written a “Year In Review” article for The Reader that looks back at the events of the past 365 days and outlines the trends and direction of the coming year in popular music. This year, Music Editor Chris Aponick is handling those duties, but if I was writing a YIR article, the main message would be this:
Imagine that it’s 1969.
A major catastrophe has struck the eastern United States. President Nixon and a congress headed by Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn) and John William McCormack (D-Mass) are doing what they can to pull together resources to help our fellow citizens in this time of need, but it’s just not enough. In a stroke of genius, an enterprising young person comes up with an idea to host a massive concert at the just-opened Madison Square Garden to generate funds to rebuild communities devastated by this unnamed disaster.
For the concert to succeed, only the most popular acts of the day would be invited to perform — a list that anyone in America could name off the top of their heads: Al Jolson, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Whisperin’ Jack Smith, the Kentucky Serenaders, George Olson and Jelly Roll Morton. You know, the music that everyone was listening to in 1969 at the height of the Viet Nam War.
Wait a minute, doofus, that’s not the music of 1969. Yeah, I know. In this Bizarro World, instead of inviting the current rock acts of the day, concert organizers invited the hottest acts from 43 years earlier, from 1926. Sounds crazy. An effort doomed to fail. And yet, it was a no-brainer, just like what happened two weeks ago.
When it came time for organizers to pull together a lineup for the 12-12-12 relief concert for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, the short list of top-name performers was obvious: Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, The Who, Roger Waters, Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones, acts whose heyday was 40+ years ago. Sure, Alicia Keys, Chris Martin and Kanye were there, but no one came to see them. They came to see the dinosaurs along with a few “more current” faves like Billy Joel (“Piano Man,” 1973), Bon Jovi (“Wanted Dead or Alive,” 1986), and Michael Stipe (“The One I Love,” 1987).
This is a reflection of the current state of pop music in this country. There are no new superstars making groundbreaking music anymore; and there hasn’t been in decades. The last universally recognized game-changing rock band was probably U2 in the ‘80s. Radiohead came close. Arcade Fire was important, but their music is far from known by the Great Wad.
Everything else is manufactured. Look at the charts. Bieber, Kelly Clarkson, PSY, Rihanna, Ke$ha, Taylor Swift, all diversionary fluff that no one would mistake for important game-changing music. And sure, there was plenty of fluff in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but there always was something that people could point to as timeless, embraced by a nation instead of a tiny sliver of indie music nerds who “know better” about what’s good.
Despite all the technology, there’s no longer a method for elevating talent, there’s no way for the cream to rise to the top. Because, believe me, the talent is still out there. There was some great music in 2012. You simply didn’t hear it because it wasn’t on your radio. When radio became irrelevant as a way to identify and escalate talent, we lost our national music identity.
What about television? Look, these people that emerge from American Idol or The Voice are performers; they’re not songwriters, they’re not musicians. In many ways, we’ve gone back to the pre-Beatles days of Pat Boone and Bobby Darin empty haircuts. What made The Beatles important was that they wrote and performed their own music.
But even more discouraging is that somewhere over the past few years, it has become painfully obvious that the dream of “making it” in rock ‘n’ roll is now and forever gone. There was a time not so long ago when a group of musicians could get together, write some great songs, practice, perform and record some demos that they would shop around to mid-level independent labels in hopes that maybe — just maybe — someone would spot their talent, sign them to a “deal” and put out a record whose sales would generate enough money so they could quit their day jobs.
Sure, bands still dream of getting signed, but they know better than to think that they’ll ever make a living selling records in this Spotify era when $10 a month gives a listener access to (nearly) everything. When Spotify launched a couple years ago, no one really understood how artists would get paid. Now we know — they get paid, but at a rate of around 0.004611 cents per play, according to an article on pitchfork.com. That equates to around $46 per 10,000 plays (before the split with their record label). Good luck with that.
Ironically, among the few bands who would actually make decent money off Spotify are those dinosaur acts like the ones who played at the Garden a couple weeks ago (though some of them, such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, have the wisdom to keep their music off the service).
I don’t know, maybe the music back then really was that good, that timeless. Maybe it will never be matched. But for the sake of future generations, I hope I’m wrong, or else in 43 years — in 2055 — when the next disaster occurs and a benefit concert is organized, the last great rock stars will be long gone.
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.