A Music Minute (or two)

Can we talk about music for a minute?  Because, by now, you know I can sure talk, and music is one of those topics I could just go on and and on and on about, if given the chance, as surely you will see.  I want to talk a little about the history of modern music, how we got here, and where I perceive us to be, from an entirely layman’s point of view, because I am no music scholar but I do love to get my two cents in here and there.  I have added links right into the body of the writing for your listening and viewing pleasure (ed. right click on the links to open them in another tab, otherwise you’ll be leaving and then having to find your way back again to your place in this article), particularly for those of you who may need help navigating around just what it is I am talking about. (A note to music aficionados:  this post is representative of MY history of music, as I experienced it and remember it to be.  I have neither the space nor time here to really make a decent attempt at full exploration so what you’re getting is snippets, really, that contribute to the greater goal of writing a cohesive, and arguably witty, post.  You will be frustrated with me at times.  But I ask you, please read through to the end of the post BEFORE your frustration gets the best of you.  I’ll redeem myself, I promise you…)

As a kid growing up in the ’80s (alright, the ’80s AND the ’70s), the one thing I remember about music, aside from the music itself, was a real feeling of nostalgia for the ’60s.  The whole era seemed so shrouded in wonder for me.  As I grew into my teens, I remember having conversations with other kids my age about the generation we somehow missed.  “Man, the 60s would’ve been so cool!  I was definitely born at the wrong time. I would have, like, been a total hippy!” (before facebook, “like” was an ’80s thing). Out of this nostalgia came a sense that much of the great music had already been made, and that many of the great musicians were already gone.  That’s not to say it was all nostalgia.  Far from it, actually. There was definitely some great stuff going on musically when I was young.  Admittedly, I don’t remember too much from the ’70s myself, outside of what I was exposed to through my parents.  They weren’t really music aficionados, as I remember it.  They liked the Beatles, but we never had any of it in the house.  I do clearly remember Roger Whitaker, Crystal Gayle, Tammy Wynette, and, later, “Hooked On Classics” albums.  They had more albums, too, many more, most of which have stood the test of time in storage in my parents basement. There was also disco.  And Donny and Marie, and David Cassidy. (Lots more, as well, and I’m getting to that so just cool your jets!!!) This is vinyl I’m speaking of as we didn’t have an 8-track player (wait… what??? oh, this… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/8-track_tape) and cassettes weren’t quite out yet.  We did listen to the radio in the car, however, where we would hear songs like “Video Killed the Radiostar” by the Buggles. (the first video ever played on MTV, kids!  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hiJ9AnNz47Y&feature=related)

The defining moment for me, though, was when a friend’s mother, seemingly out of the blue, bought me an album.  My friend, whose name was Tiffany, had the coolest mother in the world (wish I could find them again…).  In the universe, even.  She was, this cool mom, a “roller skating queen” who had spiked platinum blonde hair and wore tight, black SATIN pants with crazy platforms and pumps.  This woman’s swagger MUST have been the blueprint for the “Iona” character in Pretty in Pink, she was that cool (http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-D1t9z-z591U/TcFRLchlIzI/AAAAAAAAA_w/vrYNcs9tZw8/s1600/vlcsnap-2011-04-23-02h35m35s96.png).  And, yes, she bought me an album.  But not just any album.  She bought me The B-52s “Wild Planet.”  I wasn’t even 10-years old and my world had just been rocked!  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7t7cGwN7_0)  If you have clicked on the link (or if you are already one of those “in the know”), you know exactly how cool Tiffany’s mom was.  Yeah, she was pretty fantastic.

So, the ’70s ended quite well for me, in terms of music.  But it was in the ’80s where music really came to life for me.  The thing about the ’80s was that it was a bright, florescent time, seemingly fueled by consumerism.  This can be evidenced in ’80s era pop.  But there was also somewhat of a musical counterculture, a backlash, in a way, to all the pop and consumerism.  So while Micheal Jackson, Tiffany, and others dominated the airwaves, other things were definitely going on.  Bands like The Cure, The Smiths (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYLmptz_r_o), New Order (a band that had grown out of the tragic demise of ’70s band Joy Division).  A lot of this music seemed to go hand-in-hand with what was happening in film at the time.  And if we are going to talk about film in the ’80s, we can’t do it without talking about John Hughes.  Hughes made movies that seemed to capture what was happening in music: movies about disillusioned teens and young adults, struggling to fit in and find a place within mainstream ’80s culture.  Teenage angst, if you will.  Essentially “feel good” movies, they also did embody the sense that there were those on the fringe of popular culture who, although trying to find their own place, weren’t satisfied with simply “fitting the mold.”  Arguably, this was the place I found myself in and music certainly helped with getting over that.  Over all, ’80s music was pretty darn good, all things considered, when you really go back and have a listen.

And then, of course, came the ’90s.  As much as the “alternative” music of the ’80s seemed to be a backlash against pop culture, the music of the ’90s, the early ’90s in particular, seemed to be a direct assault on it.  Bands like Nine Inch Nails (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ao-Sahfy7Hg), Rage Against the Machine and, of course, Nirvana were not only becoming popular, they seemed to be dominating the whole industry.  The number of alternative rock bands of various different yet closely related genres within the alt rock umbrella was astounding (and, for the sake of this article, I am making this alt rock umbrella quite big!  I do realize that it can be broken down and down and down again but, for the sake of my own sanity, and to stop me from writing ANOTHER thesis, I need to take a step back, I hope you all understand).  Hard hitting alt rock bands comprised of women were also flourishing (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Y6NHbiWbps&feature=related). Where were all of these bands coming from?  It was as if they just appeared, out of nowhere.

But the 90s didn’t “just happen” Lots had been going on pre-1990, both within music, and within society to flame the musical fuels (exhale, music lovers!  This is where I will FINALLY address it.  Feeling better, now?).  To figure out what happened in the early ’90s, we need to look back to at least the three decades preceding it.  Bands like Lou Reed’s The Velvet Underground (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WgUs7yWnDJ8), closely connected to artist Andy Warhol and the beat poetry generation of the 1960s, which itself grew out of the beat poetry of writers such as Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac, would have direct influence on bands such as Nirvana, the Pixies, Sonic Youth, and many others.  Punk bands such as the Sex Pistols and The Ramones were making music during the disco era of the ’70s. The impact of punk on later genres of “alternative” music in undeniable.  Other types of music would also help to set the stage for what happened in the early ’90s, such as ska, a genre of music actually developed in the 1950s that can find its roots in jazz and blues, along with the musical stylings of the Caribbean. Ska bands like The Specials, Madness (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-uyWAe0NhQ&feature=related), and others, were generally associated with the Mod scene in Europe and, later, North America.  And many of the bands that enjoyed any degree of mainstream popularity in the ’90s actually got their start before then.   Iggy Pop (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y4hPnZUMBwA) had of course been actively involved in music since the 60s.  Henry Rollins and Black Flag, Sonic Youth http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0OdSoKfTP1k), and The Pixies all started writing and performing in the early and mid 80s.   Even the Seattle grunge scene, arguably the impetus for the opening of the alternative music floodgates in the early ’90s, wasn’t just sprung upon us. Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Nirvana, and many others had been playing the Seattle scene, in different incarnations, for several years.

Forgive me for being a little nostalgic now.  Yes, nostalgic, as were those pining for music the way it was back in the ’60s when I was a kid.  Music is different now, though. It can’t be nearly as defined or categorized as it was when I was working at a record store way back in the good ol’ days.  I remember a few years back when I was at university, speaking to some younger undergraduate students about music.  They were talking about concerts.  I mentioned that I had seen Nirvana live just a few months before Cobain took his own life, expecting that they would find that pretty cool.  I mean, my God, if I had met someone who had seen, say, The Doors live when they were my age, I would have thought that was pretty amazing.  But the response was pretty surprising actually.  They didn’t say much at all.  Finally, someone said “Oh.  Really.”  But the look on her face was a combination of both humour and pity.  I took this to mean that the situation was humourous, because I was, and that I was worthy of pity because perhaps I didn’t “get” the whole music scene today.  And, to some degree, I don’t.   Maybe I should re-title this piece “What Old People, Like Parents, Write about Music, When They Just Can’t Let Go.”  I’m sure my daughter, who seems to scoff every time she hops in the car and “Mom’s music” is playing would definitely agree with this sentiment.  And, I do have to admit that music, for the most part, isn’t necessarily being written with people my age in mind much anymore.  Not that I think that “people my age” are outlandishly old.  We’re not at all.  It’s just that the music industry seems,at times, to be so outlandishly young!

I heard it said once, and maybe it was Alan Cross who said it, I’m not sure (actually, I may have dreamed all of this, but I’ll go with it), that music comes in three decade cycles.  In other words, we can expect that there will be a dramatic change in the music industry every 30 years, probably in the form of backlash that has built up against both the music industry and society at large.  However, it doesn’t seem to me that this could be a very well tested, scientific hypothesis.  We can conclude that music  in the ’60s was born at a time when people were still relatively war-weary (there had only been one full decade of “peace” since the end of WWII, after all) and seemingly tired of the cookie-cutter clean edges of 1950s sensibilities. Likewise, the music of the ’90s was a revolt against ’80s consumerism and bubblegum pop.  But, as I’ve discussed, such music was being developed even before its “arrival” in the mainstream arena. It can be argued, then, that it wasn’t really that music was rising up out of the ethers to comment on society, but rather that society was finally ready to hear such music.  So, going back to the 30 year cycle thing, well, I cannot really comment on music in the 1930s.  It was the Dirty 30s, a decade sandwiched in between the Roaring 20s and the second World War.  And, if we are talking about contemporary music in the way we have enjoyed it over the past, say 60 years (which I am), there is no point going back any further in time to determine cycles, as we’ll likely not find any that could back this 30 year thesis up in the 1800s! (can you prove me wrong?  I’m too tired to do it myself at this point).  Which leaves us with only one direction in which to go, and that is forward.  If I have done my math right, we have 8 years left before a “new cycle” could present itself, IF you follow this hypothesis (which may very well have come to me in a dream in which case, I am talking about nothing beyond my own dodgy hypothesis, so please don’t bug Alan Cross about this!)  I’m not sure what that will mean, if anything.  Music seems to be, very literally, all over the board today.  There doesn’t seem to be any cohesiveness to it (which, if you remember, was actually a critique of the Occupy Movement, leaving me perhaps to think that this new generation of movers and shakers knows something we don’t and that all will be very well without our old categories, thank you very much!).  But I have heard some really, REALLY great music being made today, as well.  With all of this diversity, which is really refreshing, it is hard to predict what will happen next, both in musical terms and societal ones, which actually makes this quite an interesting time.  There’s a lot about *right now* that makes life very exciting and, because of that, I am interested to see what shape(s) music will take in the future.  Heck, I’m excited about what will happen tomorrow, quite frankly.  But I’ll also be keeping an eye on 2020, not rushing to get there but rather waiting to see what impact society will have on music (and the arts in general) and vice versa over the next several years.

I can’t believe I just wrote all that!

For me, this post will never be finished.  There is just so much more that could be discussed.  To say that this post isn’t even the tip of the iceberg would be a gross understatement.  There are important bands, full genres of music even, that I haven’t even considered here.  But this post is a start.  Again, as always, writing this has fulfilled something in me. As I move through this blog, I’m excavating little pieces of my own thoughts, feelings and history–pieces of my identity, really–that have been waiting to emerge, or re-emerge, evolve, or implode, whatever the case may be.  This post has certainly been a great writing experience.  It’s also been very challenging to parse it all down.  This has taken me much longer to write than anticipated, actually.  I hope you’ve enjoyed it, even though it doesn’t really tell you much about music that you couldn’t find out yourself (or don’t already know).  And I would love some of your own reactions to this post, or thoughts on music, whatever they may be…

And now, another song.  It’s like musical roulette over here.  You never know what I’ll leave you with next!  (with every post I do, and will, leave you with a song…)  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z5rRZdiu1UE

2 thoughts on “A Music Minute (or two)

  1. Pingback: Highlights from the week of TheYogaOfMe Blog week 1 | theyogaofme

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