Why Everything Was Better 10 Years Ago (Chapter 1)

Let’s get one thing out of the way early:  I’m not an old man.  Yes, I’m now in my early thirties, but given the advancements in modern medicine, I’ll likely look back on these as my “tween” years by the time I’m buying new organs at Target on double coupon day.  However, there is no force on earth more able to make a relatively young man feel like he should take up residence in the local barbershop, quite like the internet.  This wonderful series of tubes has managed to bring us closer together in ways we couldn’t imagine, and frankly, in ways we were never intended.  It has also revealed one clear, irrefutable truth:  Most of us shouldn’t be broadcasting our opinions.  Yes, I am aware of the irony of making this statement on a blog, on the internet, with an opinion no one asked to hear.

Perhaps in no area (other than possibly the political process) has the blogosphere affected more change than in the world of popular music.  For years the “cool kids” sought out the “cool music” of their day, thumbing their collective noses at the “industry” that was undoubtedly holding back the next great artist, focusing only on cruel profit margins and dismissing artistic integrity.  While that has certainly been the case from time to time, this conspiracy did leave one gaping logical hole – the invisible hand of capitalism.  Trust me, David Geffen wasn’t worried about artistic integrity when he brought his checkbook to Seattle and signed every long-hair in the city with a guitar and a flannel shirt.  We were quick to dismiss the quality control afforded us by record labels, heralding the next earth-shaking artist as a mere fluke and wondering “how they slipped by the suits at the label,” never realizing that behind the revolutionary sound we heard were two dozen like-minded bands, who happened to be pretty awful.

So, with the emergence of the internet, music once again belonged to the people.  I will freely admit that from around 1994-2005 I was a bonafide hipster.  I may have not always looked the part, but my cultural tastes oozed elitism in a way that encouraged those around me to toss off the shackles of the mainstream and embrace the latest act that was sure to change the world (that I would forget about two months later).  Unbeknownst to me, I wasn’t an original snowflake.  I was one of millions of people just like me, fueled by short attention spans and a desire to catch on to the next big thing long before any of the squares could ruin it.  Unfortunately, we all rallied around the internet like a great music nerd convention, and like all great nerd conventions, this one devolved into a shouting match over the auditory version of Capt Kirk vs Picard.

In my youth, before the internet was available in every home, coffee shop and rest stop in the country, the underground tastemakers were your friends and peers.  When someone whose interests you respected offered you a mix tape/cd, or suggested a band, you took their suggestion seriously.  You’d built a history of trust with some, knew who had similar interests, and above all knew that if someone had put forth the effort to bring you a copy of a record, it was only polite to give it a spin.  Many times, that politeness translated into an obsession with a new artist, one who may define your listening habits for months or years to come.  Music was a communal experience.  We learned of new bands while riding in cars, dancing at parties or sitting around someone’s living room and sharing in the experience of something new.  The evolution of this practice, one now done digitally, forces us into isolation – hearing new artists for the first time in our pajamas, through computer speakers or earbuds.

In the past, sharing new artists took patience and dedication.  I can remember needing a feeling of certainty about a band before sharing it with my peers, sharing only what seemed to be a “can’t miss” album, not wanting to be labelled “the guy with bad taste” of the group.  The difficulty of gathering people together to listen to something has been replaced by the ease of sending a digital file to a friend.  What was once a breathless rush to share an amazing piece of art with someone, often waiting days or weeks to meet the person face-to-face, is now as easy as hitting “share” on Spotify or Facebook, throwing any flavor of the month to the masses as casually as you can click a button.  Unfortunately, that lackadaisical approach to sharing information has transformed the art of music criticism and promotion into a catch-all for any fifteen year old with a laptop and a broadband connection.

Make no mistake, we need hipsters.  Hipsters brought rock and roll out of the segregated clubs and into the malt shops.  Hipsters turned Be-Bop-A-Lua into Let it Be, and turned Pet Sounds into Punk Rock.  When glam and synthesizers threatened to crush the rebellious spirit of rock and roll, those same hipsters revived Punk Rock, roaring into the 1990’s with an edge that left a sea of battered, bloodied Loverboy fans in their wake.  Hipsters have inspired the emergence of everything from the electric guitar to the Ok Computer, and for that we owe them a debt of gratitude.  However, the hipsters of the past had an edge over the hipsters of today:  They were professional hipsters.  Believe it or not, there was a time when people were paid actual money to listen to music, to evaluate talent and to determine that maybe we should pay more attention to The Sex Pistols than The Marshall Tucker Band.  These days, with everyone having a voice, we’re actually forced to debate that issue… and the debate is killing us.

Landmark albums have always been a major part of popular music.  Every decade or so, an album appears seemingly out of nowhere, one that shatters convention and drastically changes the course of what we consider to be “good music”.  In the 60’s, The Beatles, Beach Boys and Velvet Underground shaped what music could become.  The 7o’s exploded into psychedelic adventure with artists like Pink Floyd and David Bowie, while bands like Sly & The Family Stone and Marvin Gaye advocated social change – before Led Zeppelin eventually kicked our doors down with a sonic wall of noise unlike anything white people had ever heard.  Punk Rock charged us into the new era of music with The Sex Pistols and Ramones stomping out the disco movement from both sides of the Atlantic, bringing a ferocity that was only tamed by acts like The Cure and The Smiths, later in the decade.  When the indulgence of the “Me Decade” had run fully rampant, Nirvana and N.W.A. arrived… all revolutionary acts, all stood to inspire countless acts to follow, and all signed to major label distribution deals.

Aside from being pushed by “the man,” each of the above musical revolutions had one thing in common:  Each was also heralded as a savior upon arrival by the “mainstream” press.  Yes, the hipsters may have argued semantics, like whether or not Mudhoney or Screaming Trees were better than Nirvana in their day, but none of it actually mattered.  Those conversations were reserved for bars and coffee shops, never influencing the masses.  While the waifish, t-shirted throngs argued the superiority of Mark Lanegan’s growl or the raw, edginess of Sub Pop era “Grunge” bands who lacked the widespread accolades being foisted upon Kurt Cobain, countless teenagers picked up guitars and began learning to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.  Young people, in whom the spirit of rock and roll truly exists, were oblivious to the petty bickering and cynical snubs of their older, “wiser” music aficionados.  From there, a generation of bands rose from the garages and basements of America to take back the guitar.

Today, our petty bickering isn’t just being aired for the world to see, it is somehow managing to define the musical tastes of an entire generation.  While our society is due for another musical explosion, the kind of record that unites the world and fuels the future, it is being met with message board snark and hissing reviews on YouTube.    The cyclical nature of popular music tends to suggest that we are not only due for that evolutionary explosion, but we are actually quite overdue.  The last, great cultural landmark album to make its stamp both critically and in the popular culture may have been Radiohead’s masterpiece, “OK Computer”… thirteen years ago.  Meaning that an entire generation of kids are now reaching the prime age to pick up an instrument and change the world, having never lived to experience such a musical event.

Such albums have bubbled up, seemingly ready to tackle the conventional and spare us all from the hum-drum world of stale, lifeless radio.  Yet time and time again, just as those records began to truly show their ability to influence, they were met with scorn from “fans” who lived only to prove their worth by disparaging the artists work in the interest of staying ahead of the mainstream.   If ever an album seemed to be poised to explode, taking the world in a direction we’d never seen and ensuring its place among the legendary releases of days past, it seemed to be Arcade Fire’s brilliant major debut, “Funeral”.  It hit on every note:  technical wizardry, powerful lyrics, pop sensibilities, and nearly any other piece of the puzzle required to become a generation-defining, seminal record.  Tragically for Arcade Fire, while the album certainly made its mark, the impact was drowned out by pointless debates over its worth, beating it about the head and chest and turning a beautiful work of art into nothing more than a piece of an argument.  It became impossible to simply embrace the charms of “Funeral” without arming yourself to the teeth and battling back fans of Animal Collective, Dungen or Fiery Furnaces – all vying to lay stake to the claim of “Best Album of the Year”.

While before us we saw what could have been a major shift in the state of modern music, our valiant hipsters brought their closed-door shouting matches into the mainstream, killing the momentum and turning a movement into an afterthought.  The argument became more important than the music.  The nerds crawled back into the basement, arguing over which of the cheerleaders was hotter over a game of Dungeons and Dragons, forgetting the fact that they were still being beaten up by the football team on a daily basis.  And while we argued over the petty, debating the relevance of one album in the grand scheme of things, the public at large continued to make Nickelback into the biggest rock band on the planet.

But then again, maybe that is the legacy of Arcade Fire.  While the world waited for the next genre-busting experiment from a previously unknown group of rock gods, maybe the explosion came with a whimper… and maybe that whimper was the explosion.  As more and more music becomes available, and as more opinions cloud what could be (turning it into what never was), we may find ourselves staring at a new dawn in the world of rock and roll.  The mega-album may be a thing of the past, and the great fracturing of rock and roll may be an unavoidable reality.  It seems almost unthinkable to ponder a world in which the generation-defining album has become a thing of the past, but the evidence is mounting and the jury seems poised and ready to deliver a verdict.  While I’ll always long for the days of the communal, “let’s all hop on board the bandwagon” album, the cynical hipster still living in me fears that those days are gone.  If that’s the case, then I guess I’ll just have to adapt along with the rest of the world.  But there is one thing I’ll say for certain:  If I hear the word “dubstep” one more time, I may kill myself.

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