Thursday, November 22

I Blame Reagan

David Brooks, "The Segmented Society." November 20

MAYBE I'm mistaken--there was that long period before the Wall came down when I read Brooks only on Sunday--but it seems as though every time the man hangs some wingnut wash out in public he's back within 72 hours with one of these Why Can't We All Just Get Along routines. I can't quite decide if it's calculated or just the natural defense mechanism of the AV Club nerd.
The 1970s were a great moment for musical integration. Artists like the Rolling Stones and Springsteen drew on a range of musical influences and produced songs that might be country-influenced, soul-influenced, blues-influenced or a combination of all three. These mega-groups attracted gigantic followings and can still fill huge arenas.

But cultural history has pivot moments, and at some point toward the end of the 1970s or the early 1980s, the era of integration gave way to the era of fragmentation. There are now dozens of niche musical genres where there used to be this thing called rock. There are many bands that can fill 5,000-seat theaters, but there are almost no new groups with the broad following or longevity of the Rolling Stones, Springsteen or U2.

Dave, I'm just spitballin' here, but y'know, maybe the reason nobody today has that sort of longevity is that they'd have to be that old. Dr. Dre's pushing 25 years in the business, and Chuck D thirty. George Clinton's got a stage somewhere. But they're disqualified because they don't bring in the coveted 50-58 white concertgoer demographic?

Back in the Days of USENET I would frequently be forced to remark on how every argument eventually turned into an epistemology lecture. Today it seems every issue requires an explanation that the history of a thing does not begin at the point you become aware of it, and it is not appreciably broadened by bits of its history acquired contemporaneously. There's no substitute for doing some of the actual digging yourself.

When little Steven Van Zandt (b. 1950) and I were lads it was possible to pick up a considerable chuck of the history of Rock and Roll from listening to it on the radio--it was but a decade old, after all--where hourly Golden Oldies slots introduced you to Bill Haley and Elvis and Chuck and Little Richard and Jerry Lee. We heard doo-wop. We heard the Everly Brothers. We heard the officially sanctioned history of mostly black music as packaged for and sold to young white audiences. We didn't hear Louis Jordan, Chicago blues, Roy Brown or Wynonie Harris, or, for that matter, any of the gospel, jump, country, mountain, barrelhouse, boogie-woogie, swing, stride, or various folk musics that were present at the conception. Those required digging and diligence.

The 70s were the end of that musical integration, not its heyday, as a little diligence would have informed Brooks. National programming fragmented audiences. Black artists disappeared from rock stations once the Album Oriented Rock format descended (in fairness, it's tough to work in many artists of whatever color if you're dedicated to playing "Stairway to Heaven" three times an hour). In 1967 Stax died with Otis Redding, shortly after Motown self-destructed by losing Holland-Dozier-Holland. It was the lush soul of Gamble & Huff and Gladys Knight that crossed-over in the early 70s, but by then they had a home in urban radio, and why not?; they were not exactly a programming match for The Doobie Brothers. The soundtracks to Shaft and Superfly reached rock audiences, but between then and Disco white kids heard "Sweet Home Alabama," not "Living in America".

It's the Balkanization of the audience, not the music, Mr. Brooks. In the early 1970s I listened to the Stones, The Who, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, The Velvet Underground, Roxy Music, Leon Russell, King Crimson, Van Morrison, Richard Thompson, Pink Floyd, Randy Newman, Nick Drake, Sly Stone, Dave Edmunds, Santana, Little Feat, Dr. John, Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks--all subsumed by the rubric "Rock and Roll". How many genres is that today, without counting James Brown or Miles Davis or Hugh Masekela, or Muddy and Wolf and Sonny Boy, whom you sought out in the other sections of the record store?
People have been writing about the fragmentation of American music for decades. Back in the Feb. 18, 1982, issue of Time, Jay Cocks wrote that American music was in splinters. But year after year, the segmentation builds.

Your honor, the prosecution rests; if Time sussed it out by 1982 I think we can safely date the actual occurrence to 1973 at the latest.

Is this important? Well, for one thing, I think it's curious that Mr. Road To Damascus At A Milton Friedman Lecture discounts the role of the market:
Technology drives some of the fragmentation. Computers allow musicians to produce a broader range of sounds. Top 40 radio no longer serves as the gateway for the listening public. Music industry executives can use market research to divide consumers into narrower and narrower slices.

Now, without questioning the validity of market research which tells the four guys who own radio stations in this country that people want to hear the same six songs over and over again, and that their attention spans are so short that any variation will send them screaming for the dial, and without pointing out that it is the relaxation of restrictions on ownership that permits them this sort of unlimited power, we will simply ask where the notion comes from? Why should those Prisoner of Science marketeers want to slice consumers into ever more narrow specimens?

I guess I'm just unclear on the theology. The Market is an all-powerful, scythe-wielding arbiter wholly at the mercy of what people tell market researchers? And Free Will, tapdancing angels, and Adam and Eve's navels come into it where, again?

If you haven't heard me say it before, believe me: I revere pop radio of the mid-1960s, when The Beatles were followed by Aretha was followed by Dylan was followed by Jackie Wilson. But like the man sez, when times are gone they're not old, they're dead. Top 40 radio didn't disappear due to new technologies; it disappeared due to new trends in separating the consumer from his currency. And in a market where the subject/object is literally or metaphorically fifteen years old, with a fifteen-year-old's discernment, attention span, and disposable income, we're now nearly three generations removed from that happy time when white audiences began to accept black music on its own terms. If anything stops The Market from trying to re-integrate pop music, beyond the marketeers themselves, it's that they've trained the consumer to expect a high level of familiarity and a zero-tolerance for anything "foreign".

And what of it, anyway? The Fascists made the runners train on time, The Market provides these warm-bath spaces for people to soak and be soaked in. Why should young urban audiences be listening to some California mope singing about his shirt? Why should blue-collar white teenagers be listening to Sufjan Stevens? Why shouldn't jazz fans feel superior to all of the above? I believe I've found one man's answer:
But other causes flow from the temper of the times. It’s considered inappropriate or even immoral for white musicians to appropriate African-American styles. And there’s the rise of the mass educated class.

Plus, how come it's okay to have Black History Month, but they won't let you have White History Month?

Apart from the fact that I'm willing to pay good money for every working white musician you can name who doesn't earn a living to some degree "appropriating African-American styles", I think we glimpse the real problem here: popular music now longer kowtows to a white middle-class sensibility. If only They would let us rap! Then it'd be something The Whole Family could enjoy!

Shoe a mite snug when They switch it to the other foot, Mr. Brooks?

Look, I not only admire Fats Domino, I still listen to him. This position is no longer supported, even in elevators. Big whoop. There never was an arts-loving public. I have no idea why my pubescent nieces would, or should, want to listen to him; good luck changing that by making him a school subject. Let them discover him on their own, if the time comes. Let 'em treat music as something that goes on in the background if they'd rather. And let David Brooks accept the results of that Free Market he worships so long as "higher earnings estimates" is at the top of his personal chart, even when somebody other than The Man gets him some.


pookapooka said...

Uncle --

What's a "radio"?

objectivelypro said...

The Beatles were followed by Aretha was followed by Dylan was followed by Jackie Wilson

Not to mention Buck Owens, Frank Sinatra, Fontella Bass, Gene Pitney, Roger Miller, Trini Lopez...

Here's what I miss about mid-60's AM: The Standells, Count Five, The Seeds, ? & The Mysterians, Los Bravos, The Electric Prunes, Sir Douglas Quintet, The Left Banke, The Blues Magoos, The Beau Brummels, The Gentrys...

These one-hit wonder bands were able to get airplay alongside the "giants" before fading back to obscurity. Does such a mechanism exist today? iTunes maybe?

Don't be too hard on the 15-year-olds. Sounds like you were fairly sophisticated and discerning at that age. Just like me, of course. (smiley thing)

It's a matter of what's being served up.

yellojkt said...

In 1989, The New Republic ran a cover with a Ricky Nelson level white kid listening to headphones titled "The Face of Rap". That day was the death of rock as the medium for teenagers trying to piss off their parents with their music.