Friday, February 15, 2013

The Lost Purpose of Pop Music

In his latest column Bill O’Reilly looks at the loss of purpose behind modern pop music as compared to the music of previous eras. 

From the story –
While watching the Grammy awards last Sunday, it occurred to me that American culture has been defined by music ever since the end of World War II. After the Germans and Japanese surrendered in 1945, millions of GI's returned home to marry and begin families. The big band era of good time music accompanied that, and romantic singers like Frank Sinatra ruled the day.

In the fifties, many young people, tired of conformity, began to rebel. The rise of Elvis Presley illuminated that rebellion. Then the angst kind of died out as Chubby Checker ushered in the Twist in 1960 and Americans began dancing all over the place.

Exhausted from doing the Pony, young consumers eventually began to respond to the snappy melodies of an English group called The Beatles and, once again, music mania gripped the nation. The British invasion featured the four mop-tops, The Rolling Stones and The Animals, among others.

Then Vietnam emerged.

That led to protest music, drug-fueled lyrics, as well as introspective tunes by The Doors, The Jefferson Airplane, and Bob Dylan. Acid rock soon followed and everything was very far out, man.

After about seven years, that intensity died out. The dark themes receded and dancing once again came back. The age of disco took hold as The Bee Gees and other polyester-clad groups dominated the charts. The good times of the late 1970's unleashed Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Earth, Wind and Fire. But it all ended when the AIDS scare arrived in 1984. Suddenly, the uninhibited party became dangerous.

Then music kind of meandered around for a while until rap emerged. At first, the anger-fueled recordings were confined to urban radio stations and a niche audience. But when Elton John sang a duet with the white rapper Eminem on a Grammy telecast, rap went mainstream. Massive parental headaches followed.

Overall his take on the history of popular music is pretty accurate.  I’d call into question his take on when rap music went mainstream and his complete exclusion of the grunge and punk explosions of the 1990’s but that is squabbling over minute details.  Also taking into account that he is looking at popular music through the eyes of a Baby Boomer, his analysis makes complete sense. 

When he tackled the topic of recent popular music, he really hit the nail on the head. 
The rise of the Internet signaled the slow collapse of record stores and the music industry quickly fragmented after the turn of the century. Consumers could now download songs into portable machines and bop at will. Americans no longer had to depend on the radio to hear their favorite tunes.

Since then, there have been a series of pop superstars but no real purpose or point-of-view in the music which, again, may reflect the current time. I mean what do Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez really stand for? Narcissism? Just asking.

Since the death of Kurt Cobain, what has popular music really stood for?  What’s been the cultural purpose and drive behind the music?  Looking at artists like Lady Gaga, Justin Beiber, or even “older” (though they really aren’t old) artists like the Backstreet Boys and N’SYNC and one has to wonder what in society are they reflecting.  Now of those artists Lady Gaga does promote issues of equality (see “Born This Way”) but for the most part it is all about the glitz and the glamour. 

Modern society has become obsessed with fame, celebrity, and the superficial—even more so than in the 1980’s.  Since music not only drives, but is a reflection of society, it is no wonder that the majority of Top 40 music is vapid, soulless fluff.  As O’Reilly pointed out in his column, it’s not for a lack of talent.  Many pop stars are extremely good at what they do (Adele for example) and a lot of them do put their hearts and souls into their music, but more often than not the result is just pretty sounds. 

In the past, music was something that brought people together.  Rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, and soul music helped to begin to bridge the racial divide in the 1950’s and ‘60’s.  The frustration of a generation at war was expressed through the protest music of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.  Even in the 1980’s kids were brought together by artists like Michael Jackson and Prince, but even then things had started to fragment.  Entire portions of disaffected youth found their voice is music that wasn’t yet ready for the mainstream radio.  That music fueled the voice of a generation to break through the hairspray decorated pop to show the world that not everyone was matching to the same beat and that was okay.  Then after a decade of the corporate diluting of that raw angst for the masses followed by the advent of the internet, things completely changed…probably forever. 
We are definitely living in confusing, rapidly changing times as machines are now dominating leisure options for many consumers. Fifty years ago, we all were humming the same tunes heard over and over on AM radio. The good vibrations of The Beach Boys thrilled Maine as well as Malibu. The music actually brought Americans together.

Today, the tuneless lure of cyber-space has pulled us apart. Perhaps forever.

While the internet has aided in the development of niche markets, it’s also helped us as a society to segment and segregate into our own little communities and worlds.  It seems like the time of music uniting the country has passed.  For example, last year’s ridiculously huge international hit “Gangnam Style” was nothing more than a catchy beat and a crazy dance.  Is that all that pop music has to offer?  What happened to the songs that could change the world?  Will we ever have another “What’s Going On?” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit?”  Hole once sang
If the world is so wrong
Then you can break the mold
With one song
If the world is so wrong
Then you can take it on
With one song
But it seems like those days may now be behind us forever.

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