When the two Voyager spacecraft were launched in 1977, included on board were phonograph records made of gold-plated copper that contained sounds and images intended to convey the diversity of Earth culture. Given the relatively tiny size of the two Voyagers as they sail through the vastness of interstellar space, it’s unlikely that an alien civilization will ever encounter them, much less delve into their contents. And if spidery life forms from some other solar system are able to queue up the one-of-a-kind LPs and actually play them, we won’t know about it: Voyager 1 isn’t expected to reach the vicinity of another star for 40,000 years or so.
Still, you want to put your best foot forward, and one can only imagine the wrangling that took place as the committee chose the records’ contents. In the end, the musical selections included pieces by Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinksy and Chuck Berry. Not long after the first probe was launched, a character played by Steve Martin on a Saturday Night Live episode reported that aliens had indeed played one of the records and sent back an urgent four-word response: “Send more Chuck Berry.”
Sure, it was just a comedy sketch, but it gives one hope that other civilizations will get along just fine with ours. In most movie and television treatments, the aliens are a crew of scaly lizard-like conquistadors (think V for Visitors or Independence Day) who want to enslave us or plunder our resources or just eat us à la carte. But what if all they really want to do is bop to the beat of “Johnny B. Goode” (the Berry tune chosen for the Voyager record)? Okay, but now ask yourself, you middle-aged highbrow aging hippie: What if the Voyager probes had been launched in 2007, say, and the aliens ended up listening to Eminem or Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre instead? Would rap have convinced them that we Earthlings are (or were—remember, this is 40,000 years from now) a bunch of materialistic, thuggish, wildly self-centered misogynists? Which brings up an uneasy question, namely: Are we? Wildly self-centered, at least?
he serious point lurking in all this is that, yes, music matters here on Earth, as it might in other planetary systems as well. What we like about it, how it moves us individually and in groups as we sing along with and dance to it, how it intersects with the rest of our world, and, not incidentally, how we go about making it and selling it—all this tells us something important about ourselves. And how music changes does, too.
We are coming to the close of a milestone year in the history of popular music, and therefore a fitting one in which to look at the recent changes that have taken place in music and in our culture in general. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys, among other bands. But it’s also the threshold of other anniversaries that are just as resonant: The Cuban Missile Crisis is now fifty years old, and we’re just about a year away from the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination.
It’s also worth noting that no less than six James Bond movies appeared between 1960 and 1969, fitting reminders of an era in which popular culture and politics not only collided but reached critical mass, setting off chain reactions that still shape our lives today. With the advantage of hindsight, we can see how art forms like movies and music are inseparable from the society that shapes and is shaped by them. Often my college students write nostalgically of the fabled Sixties, a period they never knew. They say they “miss” the music, the drugs and the sex, although how they could pull on more powerful weed and have more sex than they’re having now is a mystery to me. A lot of them are particularly irritated about having missed the music when it was new. As time passes, ever younger music fans shift the goalposts of musical memory: “Why couldn’t I be around in the ’70s?” complained “HeyGrayDay”, writing in some obscure interactive internet nook, after hearing for the first time the Grateful Dead’s “Look Out of Any Window” from the 1970 American Beauty album. “All the music today is absolute shit. And this is coming from a 16-year-old girl. I’m done with all this techno pop LMFAO Flo Rida Jennifer Lopez crap that is the new norm. I want to hear songs like these on the radio. Please.”
What the young’uns probably haven’t learned in their history classes is how troubled that time was. There were be-ins, sure, but there were also very edgy sit-ins at Southern lunch counters. There were light shows when Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead and the Byrds played the Fillmore and the Avalon, but at the same time, napalm was falling over Khe Sanh and Con Thien in Vietnam. Yes, the Beatles and the Stones brought a new sound, not to mention new hairstyles. But JFK is still dead, and so is the optimistic spirit he took with him to his grave. Nostalgia always tilts toward happy; that’s just human nature. Then again, maybe it’s better that they don’t know.
Of all the things that happened roughly fifty years ago, which was the one that marked a dividing line not just between time periods, between one way of viewing the world and a totally divergent outlook? Some might vote for Marilyn Monroe’s offing herself at the age of 36. That punched a hole in the shimmering aura of American entertainment culture bigger than any that had been punched before. But the JFK assassination wins the ballot by far. The best description of the difference his murder caused appears in a 1983 Rolling Stone essay by novelist Don DeLillo called “American Blood: A Journey through the Labyrinth of Dallas and JFK.” Before Dallas, writes DeLillo, Americans saw the world as a coherent narrative—a Western, essentially, with good guys and bad guys, lone-gunman killers and Gary Cooper-style sheriffs to oppose them. But by the time the rifle fire had stopped echoing in Dealey Plaza, the world had changed. America suddenly entered a moment of “randomness”, says DeLillo, that continues to this day. On the afternoon of November 22, 1963, this country woke violently from the sweet sleep of the postwar period, an idyll of good jobs and stable family life that came after a conflict in which white-hatted American virtue trounced villainy.
Until the JFK assassination, life did seem like a Western movie or TV show in many ways: You lived in your town and didn’t think too much about what was going on elsewhere, because our leaders were good and strong people who knew how to take care of all that for us. Then one day “a stranger walks out of the shadows”, as DeLillo puts it, “a disaffected man, a drifter with three first names and an Okie look about him, tight-lipped and squinting.” According to the old scenario, the sheriff gets rid of the scalawag and life goes on. No Texas tough guys stopped Lee Harvey Oswald, however.
Whatever else happened next, starting fifty years ago, one thing we can be sure of is that the music changed. Music used to be entertainment, and its lyrics were romantic, clever or downright vapid. A lot of that persisted after November 1963, but popular music, and especially music for the young, quickly got heavy, political and sometimes downright philosophical. Starting with “He Was a Friend of Mine”, about the Kennedy assassination itself, folk and folk-rock emerged thanks to Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and many others. It went electric, rock went mainstream, and soon millions were listening to songs like “Eve of Destruction”, “For What It’s Worth” and “Ohio.” Even the Beatles got serious (after getting very stoned), and Jimi Hendrix covered Dylan’s ever portentously cryptic “All Along the Watchtower.” We had come a very long way in a very short time from the Andrews Sisters’ “Three Little Fishes” singing “boop boop dittum dottum wattum choo”, and even from Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel.” The elders, straining to keep up with a musical culture that was not only louder and more electric, but that was now supposed to even mean something, didn’t know what to make of it. Being born to be wild seemed somehow quite different to them from asking how much is that doggie in the window. The vaunted generation gap of the time had more to do with shifting musical tastes, the mores they reflected and advanced, than it probably did with anything else.
Mainstream gagsters had some fun with all this. From time to time on episodes of “My Favorite Martian”, which ran from 1963 to 1966, “Martian” Ray Walston would produce a tiny box and play from it a snippet of “Martian music”—which was just a rapid-fire fritzing of dissonant buzzes and popping sounds—pronouncing it beautiful. Mere human Bill Bixby reacted with total bewilderment, which the audience was supposed to understand as code for a typical adult reaction to something like the Byrds’ synthesizer-inflected “Eight Miles High.” There were arguments within the subculture, too, and occasionally within the music itself. Don McLean’s popular 1971 song “American Pie”, rueing “the day the music died”, in fact excoriated first the Beatles and then Roger McGuinn and the Byrds for polluting rock-and-roll with synthesizers and heavy lyrical themes:
Helter skelter in a summer swelter
The birds flew off with a fallout shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast
It landed foul on the grass
Those arguments and those changes now seem to most of us to be so mild as to be nearly imperceptible. Change has always happened more rapidly than our ability to understand it, which is but one of reasons why life is so much fun. But changes in what an increasing number of scholars are calling technoculture are taking place today at warp speed. “Technoculture” isn’t in most dictionaries yet, but it will be, if only because it explodes what we thought was an unravelable chicken-or-egg argument about the relationship between the music itself and the package it comes in. Do we like the music of, say, The Who because of the music itself, or do we like the music because of the wildly effusive personality of the entire act? This question, I have come to realize, no longer means the same thing in the post-JFK era. The reason is that the relationship between the music and its delivery system is vastly different from the way it was only a few decades ago.
ny of us can look at that world through any number of lenses, but since more people love music nowadays than they do religion, say, or science, it suggests that if you want to understand how most of us approach life in the 21st century, you ask a DJ, not a philosopher. Let me explain. There’s a nightclub three blocks from my house where I’ve heard everybody from Bonnie Raitt and the Neville Brothers to Los Lobos and Warren Zevon. I’ve seen live performances of nearly every kind of music that presently exists, from classical to gamelan to rap. An exception until recently was electronic dance music, which can take the form of house, techno, dubstep or trance. So when I heard that Bassnectar, a DJ whose real name is Lorin Ashton, was appearing at my neighborhood club, I bought a ticket.
The night of the show, the noise level was painful before I even entered the building. As a Southern man, I’m culturally obliged to cross my arms and lean against a wall whenever I see one, but the vibrations were so intense that every solid piece of the structure pulsed as though it were electrified. The ticket taker I spoke to said that Bassnectar would be using the club’s already considerable sound system but adding his own monster amps on top of them to bring the sound to the level of unbearability. On stage, Bassnectar moved from laptop to turntable to spin his beats as screens flashed geometric patterns as gaudy as the sound was loud. On the floor, muscular, shirtless young men and young women in shorts and bikini tops bobbed up and down. They weren’t mouthing lyrics—there were none—but chopping the air the way fans do in sports stadiums. Apparently there’s a significant risk of dehydration at events like this, so two ambulances were parked outside next to the entrance. When I later asked the EMT guys if this was common practice, one jerked his thumb at the club and said, “Only for these shows.”
The club was more crowded for this show than I’d ever seen it before. No wonder promoters are trying to move in on what is a fairly straightforward operation: one person, a turntable, and whatever else you feel like adding. The whole show is portable and relatively worry-free; you don’t have to house and feed a six-man horn section and hope that one of them doesn’t get mugged in an alley or shot by a jealous husband. You don’t even need a single actual musical instrument. The headline of an article by Ben Sisario in the April 4, 2012 New York Times says it all: “Electronic Dance Concerts Turn Up the Volume, Tempting Investors.” I’m thinking of buying shares in a company that makes earplugs.
As we moved to the smart-phone era from what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, in his brilliant study Liquid Modernity (2000), calls the days of Fordism, the soundtrack changed as well. Roger McGuinn once speculated that the underlying rhythm of popular music in any given era mimics that of the most sophisticated new transportation device of the day; that’s why he adapted the synthesizer to make the Byrds’ music sound like space-age travel. But it’s a generational thing. To my ears, Chuck Berry sounded about right with his V-8 Ford chasing Maybelline, and so did Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock”, Elvis’s “That’s All Right”, and, above all, Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” All that stuff went at least 70 miles per hour in a big-hog Chrysler or Plymouth on a hilly country road.
That was then, and this is now. They weren’t around in my day, but even my students know the difference. One wrote in a recent paper that “no one genre or artist can be blamed for stupid music”, that the fault lies with the “mass media market machine” that turns music and other media into “an exact science solely for the enjoyment of the masses.” That’s because, she added, “in a day and age that is advancing faster than I can download an iPhone app, it makes sense that people want immediate satisfaction”, which pressures media “to evolve faster to meet the demands of the people.” She meant the market, the electronic cash register; but I took her point. America is now about franchised fast food, not gourmandise. It’s about Hollywood gossip more than it is about the films Hollywood makes, and there’s no mystery as to why that is, given the quality of the films. And that, my students tell me, is indelibly connected to the terrible and “stupid music.”
Hold on, I thought: This sounds like something someone my age would say, not a twenty-year-old. I remember sitting in the back seat of my father’s Buick with my friend, both of us holding our stomachs and howling with laughter as Fats Domino or Jerry Lee Lewis came on the radio and my dad pleaded, “Can’t we listen to pretty music?” Youth has always dismissed its elders’ preferences, which is as it should be. How else does progress happen? So what kind of American kid despises his own mainstream culture and popular music, as so many kids today seem to do? Does that suggest some kind of problem, perhaps?
One shouldn’t exaggerate. There is plenty of good new music out there, and once you’ve found it, it’s easier than ever to purchase and play it. Maybe a lot of the complaints amount to typical youth snobbery. Said one student, for example,
Great music is happening today in abundance and anyone who feels differently is not looking hard enough. The realness is out there, but most people don’t want to find out and would rather brush their teeth with the garbage fed to them.
Yet this same student pointed out that the technology has allowed the proliferation of so many options that audiences have become hopelessly fragmented. As a result, there’s no general sense of what’s good and what isn’t. When Bruce Springsteen was asked to give the keynote address at the 2012 South by Southwest convention, he balked at the idea that there was such a thing as a “keynote” in music today. “There is no unified theory”, he said. “You can take Kiss, Phish, the Beatles, or Springsteen himself, and make a case that each makes either the best of the worst music you ever heard.”1
Of course, youth tastes in pop music always divide into contending schools. Even in my day some people liked the California sound of the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean while other people hated it; some loved the rumbling roughness of the Rolling Stones and others loved Motown. Some couldn’t get enough of Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane, while others couldn’t switch it off fast enough. Some devoured Dylan’s earnestness and the deliberate weirdness of the Velvet Underground and the Incredible String Band; others thought anyone who listened to that stuff needed a psychiatrist. But most of us listened to all, or nearly all, of whatever came on the radio. Now kids can carve out their own narrow niches with ease. “If you literally know only one song you like”, one of my students pointed out, “you can type it into Pandora and instantly have thirty new bands of a similar ilk at your fingertips.”
In other words, you can be unique in your musical tastes, just like everyone else. But joking aside, the result is a far more individuated audience. One can have a little fun with this: If Fats Waller were writing “I’ve Got Rhythm”, today he would have to call it “I’ve Got Rhythm and You Don’t, Because It’s Mine, Mine, Mine.” (He was known to ad-lib lines like that.)
But it’s not entirely funny that there is no more youth culture music solidarity, no more defining whole generations by sound—especially now that the impossible has happened: Lots of kids actually like the stuff their parents listened to at their age. My students say they listen regularly to, for example, The Beatles, The Band, Bob Dylan, The Zombies, Neil Young, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers, Aretha Franklin, Cream, Jimmy Hendrix, Dr. John, Fleetwood Mac, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel, Rod Stewart, Van Morrison and The Doors, along with twenty others I wouldn’t have suspected they even knew about. And all of this music was written and recorded long before any of these kids were born.
At their age, all I knew about my parents’ music was that I didn’t like it. It made me feel as though I were in a roller skating rink; it was to ears what lime Jell-o with marshmallows at church socials was to my taste buds. Now the kids tell me that what they don’t like is the mass-market music of their own era, and that the real action now is about the music trying to break away from itself. As pop becomes more electronic, indie musicians and the labels they record on are trying to pull music back to its acoustic beginnings. Then there’s the whole lo-fi movement, which uses old-school technology to put out music that sounds homemade and under-produced. I am told that some big acts and big labels are using lo-fi cynically; as a result, as one student explained,
we are distancing ourselves from and purposefully obscuring what has already existed, appropriating previously developed material and transmogrifying it without offering any generational innovation of our own. We fetishize the past while simultaneously denying it.
I’ll have to figure out exactly what that last part means before I decide whether or not I agree with it, but I do know about the dubbing and over-tracking phenomenon that has become so popular and apparently lucrative. The technology of recording now enables just about anyone, whether he or she knows how to play a musical instrument or not, to take pieces of old recordings—a drum track, a bass riff, dogs barking—and layer it over with other canned sounds to get a new “song.” This is not about money as a barrier to artistic entry but about having any musical talent at all. As to the former, it’s worth pondering the fact that, in 1953, anyone with four dollars in his pocket could record two sides on an acetate disk at Sun Studios; that year, Elvis Presley cut a record there, purportedly as a Mother’s Day present. Today, anyone can record an album on the CD Baby web site and have it distributed to iTunes, Amazon and other online services for a one-time setup fee of $49. In 1953 dollars, that’s only slightly more than Elvis paid.
It’s because of the question of talent—how much and what kind of talent is required these days to make music—that the new music cannot exist without the old. If you search YouTube for “Video explains the world’s most important 6-sec drum loop”, you’ll learn of a short solo played by the drummer of a group called The Winstons that appeared in a song called “Amen, Brother.” The song was the b-side to a 45 rpm record that appeared in 1969, but it has been used by group after group ever since. It’s a “six-second clip that spawned several entire subcultures”, as the notes to the video say. But the video’s author, Nate Harrison, transcends his immediate subject to produce nothing less than, in his words, “a meditation on the ownership of culture” and “the nature of art and creativity.” Perhaps that explains why more turntables and other electronic sound gadgets have been sold in recent years than guitars.2 There’s a gloss on the nature of creativity for you.
Moreover, we have democratized the process of making commercially viable music (or what passes for it) just as the delivery system has also become more diffused, so that the entire business model of the music industry is now shaking, rattling and rolling. That helps to explain why, in another kind of individuation, there is hardly such a thing as an album, an ensemble of songs meant to relate to one another in a whole that is more than the sum of the parts. Songs are more often bought one by one. The future of solvency in the music business seems to lie in internet providers like iTunes and stations like Sirius/XM. While clicking an order tab on the same computer I’m writing this essay on isn’t as satisfying as getting on my bike and peddling to a music store to get the latest 45 by the Everly Brothers, I can’t do that any more. Ironically, the cost of a vinyl single in the mid-1950s is about the same as the purchase price for that same song online today, taking inflation into account.. And I can get every song I loved when I was ten years old, plus all the ones that have been recorded since, and I can dial up videos on YouTube for free and see amazing stuff by some of my favorites I never even knew existed.
This is just a little of what I mean when I say that the relationship between the music and its delivery system has changed to the point that old questions no longer make sense. Techno-culture has now almost completely fuzzed the distinction between how the music is created and what it actually is. Now the question comes to be more like, did the reverb switch come before that wobbling D minor chord (“borrowed” from some Kinks song from 1969) or did the chord come before the reverb switch? And who exactly should get credit for this song anyway? The mixmaster lording over the assembly process, the technological innovators who made it all possible, or Ray Davies et al.? Davies also wrote a song about the music business back in 1970, called “The Money-Go-Round”, that lamented the artist getting ripped off by the companies and the middlemen. He didn’t realize how good he had it, and how simple things were then.
n “Lola”, Davies did say, after all, that it’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook-up world. If only he had known then how right he would turn out to be. But all is not lost. Many kids these days understand the interactions between the music, the musicians, the audiences, the technology and business models better than we ever did, and it’s vastly more complicated than anything we had to deal with in the 1960s and 1970s. The kids are alright—they’ll figure it out.
One hopeful sign is rock-and-roll’s resurrectionist movement. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, Eli “Paperboy” Reed and Ryan Shaw are all soul revivers. They make a living doing it, too. So does Bettye Lavette doing interpretations of the British Invasion music, and note the recent album of Buddy Holly songs performed by contemporaries as different as Cee Lo Green and Fiona Apple.
One group on that Rave On Buddy Holly album is The Black Keys. The Black Keys are as stripped down as you can get. It’s two guys, one who sings and plays guitar and another who pounds the drums; visually, they come across like the duo you’d see in a Holiday Inn lounge when you were traveling on business and went downstairs for a drink and found yourself tapping your foot to a pair you thought might make something of themselves someday if only they could get a break. The Black Keys are really, really good, and not just because their roots are in fifty-year-old music whose rhythms and chord progressions are timeless. It’s because they are excellent musicians.
So if NASA ever sends out another Voyager probe with a “golden record”, I’m for keeping Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Chuck Berry. But I’d definitely add The Black Keys.
1His remarks appeared in the March 28, 2012 Rolling Stone.
2J.C. Herz, “Game Theory: Making Music Without the Instruments”, New York Times, January 20, 2000.