Why Modern Music Sucks – How Did We Get Here?

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin

Some disagree but I believe that modern popular music is in a very bad place. Now I’m not the first to approach this. I know as I have heard about how Rome’s about to burn all my life. It is part of not wanting to accept change. That makes it hard to be the guy who stands up and says that really since at least the early 90’s things were going wrong, but by the 00’s Rock has gone to a pretty bad place.

I borrow CDs from the library and often can’t even listen to them. It got so bad I stopped writing my Driving Music posts as it seemed I couldn’t keep saying how everything I heard was poorly executed, pointless and insulting to me. I try to make sure I am not just letting my personal preferences or lack of ability to understand a new or different thing be confused with a sense of what does and doesn’t have value.  Mumford & Sons’ “Little Lion Man” knocked my socks off first time I heard it; sounded like The Pogues – voice in the wasteland. But it wasn’t enough to stop me from having to eject “Babel”. First time I heard “I Will Wait” it struck me as essentially being a Trance track played with Banjos so as to try to pretend to be Bluegrass and therefore genuine and rootsy. These guys aren’t The Pogues by a long shot.

I look at it this way. Quality always rises. When I was a kid there were some bands I couldn’t take in. I borrowed Gary Numan’s “Dance” from the library. I didn’t understand it but I could tell it was quality and there was value in it. A few decades later I borrowed Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris’ “All The Roadrunning” from the library. I didn’t understand it at the time but I knew there was value in it. Some time later in each case I came back and the record started to make sense. I love both of those records now, they are superb work and visionary. Those records that go back incomplete don’t indicate anything of value at all.

I grew up in the 80’s. At the time people were saying that nothing of value was done post 1969. I recall them saying that A Flock Of Seagulls and Thompson Twins were rubbish, that they couldn’t write or sing any decent songs. I didn’t agree then and I don’t agree now. They were both interesting artists who made solid work. Need proof, Flock wrote an album that today would be considered an Emo classic about Davy feeling unloved and offing himself – one of the few true suicide records ever made (not that I encourage suicide as to me it seems weak). Sure there isn’t another “I Ran” on the record but overall the album is of merit.

A Have An Idea

Ray Charles
Ray Charles

I have a theory as to how we come to where we are right now. Being me and the way I am I have thought about and categorized Rock since I first started to get it back in the late 70’s on my little AM radio. Making sense of patterns and the big picture is the way I am wired.

Quite some time ago I read a book by a lady psychologist about how things had gone wrong for men. It was a scholarly book, not looking to be on Oprah or the like. Sadly I don’t remember the name or author of the book so I can’t give you a link. What I recall was what her research uncovered: modern men didn’t feel able to really do anything. They felt the only way to get ahead in life was to get famous. The fame was what counted. The sooner the better. The method didn’t matter, even if it was immoral or completely criminal. Fame was the only way a person felt they could ever be in control of their life and rise above the misery. I get that.

I left my last job because succeeding was no longer about competing the tasks as requested. I could perform my task as directed and still be branded a failure. The final straw: I had a lady call saying their car needed attention, I explained we were fully booked but as it sounded like a concern they could drop the car in and we would look into it as we could. The woman got all kinds of condescending when I couldn’t say how long that might be (as the issue was unknown till we looked at it) and she chose not to make the booking. A bit later the husband calls and wants to know why his wife was refused help. I explained that sadly she had mistaken me and again made the offer to see the car. Husband tries the same demands which are still impossible to answer, then becomes personal and ultimately hangs up as I am, for probably the fifth time, offering to have the concern assessed and fixed if they would just like to make a booking to get the car to us. I then get called to the bosses’ office where they play both recorded conversations and proceed to tell me everything was my fault. They repeatedly said that I didn’t ever offer to see the car. When I tried to point out that I offered many times, as per the recordings, I was told I didn’t and why did I say we were fully booked? I looked to the boss who trained us in this method. He just looked away. The angry customer was my fault – end of story. Needless to say I quit on the spot.

The story above is to demonstrate how helpless people feel. I got that the lady felt lost without her car but no one can promise the outcome of an unknown. I get the husband was frustrated that he had to rescue his wife. I get the boss was upset at having to deal with an angry customer. What no one will ever get is that any of those things (1st world problems) were deserving of rudeness, outright lies and a suspension of common sense and fairness. No wonder people just want to be famous so they don’t have to deal with anything. A local insurer even used the concept of being famous as a solution for all of life’s problems – but seeing as you aren’t famous then the insurer will solve life’s dramas for you.

The kids and their parents don’t have the savings to quit school or their nonsensical jobs. They are angry – not like I was mildly put-out as a teenager by silly school rules and bullying – but completely bent out of shape. The kids are lost because their parents are just like those terrible customers, just like my bosses. The kids are trained to lash out the moment the milk makes the colors run in their Fruit Loops. Along come more things in the media that suggest they are hard done by (like the economy crashing because everyone is taking far more than they are giving) and it all snowballs from Black Flag to Linkin Park, progressively getting more and more stripped of content and value till everything is Idol contests.

Some good musicians want to be big but the best of em do it because they love (or have) to play (that is no excuse to pay them poorly, which happens plenty). Sadly now the only ones who seem to get even remotely famous are the ones who completely represent the twisted zeitgeist everyone seems to have swallowed. Most of the people who claim to be alternative these days are terrified of having anything approaching an original thought. Even nature documentaries are devoid of anything approaching interesting; they flit from one pretty picture to another the moment a viewer might start to get interested in knowing more.

We are currently stuck in a self-feeding system where fans want more shock or more bling for less input. Bands are doing what they think is the done-thing and expecting instant stardom by licking the dwindling lollipop of culture. Why bother when music is made from drag & dropping loops in Garageband. Any fool can play an orchestra by waggling a finger on an iPad. It’s all about the short-cut, the trick but reality can’t be short cut. Every surfer knows you can’t trick a wave, only yourself.

A Train at the End of the Tunnel

Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury

I see some young musicians are trying to make records that are like the ones that they find in their parents’ and grandparents’ collections. Yep even pressing to vinyl – no “s” kids. Why? Well simply they instinctively know that those old records offer something that modern music isn’t delivering.

Sadly many stray straight off-course by thinking the reason the old records were so good was because they were recorded on tape, or vinyl, or because the bass player was Funky. That puts them back in the same spiral. The old record; the tape and vinyl become a novelty. It looks cool to say we recorded this on a Studer (assuming they were interested enough to know the brand of the recorder) but the record is as hollow as if it were made in Garageband or Pro Tools with loops.

The train hits those poor kids who can’t see out of their box. But there is still a light on the front of every train and some will be realizing that those old records are so much better because they had something to say and said it. “I Wanna Hold You Hand” has far more content than almost any song I have heard in the last few years – and I don’t even really like The Beatles.

What The Beatles did was sing their simple but universal lyric out, not into their chests in fear of being accused of being “cheesy”, but out-loud, to say to everyone listening that they wanted to love and be loved. A return to tradition where fame occurred because you were good and touched a lot of people is called for.

It is doable, if you actually do it.

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