You Don't Have to Like New Music

The tagline up at the top of this blog promises "Physics, Politics, and Pop Culture," but unless you count my own photos as pop art, I've been falling down on the last of those. This is largely because, despite being on sabbatical, I've been so busy running after the kids that I don't have much time for pop culture. And also because this is kind of a frustrating pop-culture moment, with a number of media currently dominated by works that just aren't my thing.

That's a critical bit of context for my reaction to a recent Salon interview with music critic Jim Fusilli, which sports the headline "Stop buying old Bob Dylan albums: “Every time somebody buys a reissue, they’re just taking money away from new musicians”." That pull quote in a little more context:

It’s easier to sell them another Beatles box set or a new Dylan bootleg. The industry seems to market old music to old people, so to speak.

Right. In other words, the industry keeps people in the prison that they put them in 30 years ago. You go down a dead end with some people, who say to you, Where’s the new Bob Dylan? Where’s the new Beatles? Well, there is no new Bob Dylan. There is no new Beatles. There is no new Thelonious Monk. There’s no new Duke Ellington. These people and their achievements are beyond the reach of anyone, so maybe it is interesting to empty the vaults and study how they got to be who they are. But for most artists, they had something to say in their own times, and that’s really where it belongs. My feeling is that every time somebody buys a reissue, they’re just taking money away from new musicians. They’re thwarting the growth of rock and pop. I understand the grown-ups’ instinct to do that, because it’s easier. It’s a comfortable place. You will be welcome there. But it doesn’t enrich life very much to just keep doing the same old things.

And, you know, there's a lot going on there, essentially all of which makes me want to sigh heavily. I don't disagree with the core point, but it's phrased in a way that makes me want to go right over to Amazon and buy a bunch of old box sets in retaliation.

For one thing, there's something a little ahistorical about the whole "taking money away from new musicians" thing, as if those new artists somehow have a right to have their albums bought. I don't think the Beatles and Bob Dylan, when they were new artists, were all that concerned that my grandparents weren't buying and appreciating their records-- on the contrary, a lot of those folks took for granted that they were revolutionizing culture, and old people weren't supposed to get it.

And I'm not sure why that should be any different today. The interview includes the obligatory name-check of Kendrick Lamar, and I kind of doubt he's losing much sleep over not selling records to the sort of people who buy Bob Dylan reissues instead. In fact, I'm moderately certain he's actively trying to alienate those folks. They're not his audience, and that's just fine. Really, that's probably how it ought to be.

There's also the lazy leftist trope of Big Bad Corporations, the notion that the reason people are buying re-issues of old stuff is all a matter of record companies "keep[ing] people in the prison that they put them in 30 years ago." I find the habit of ascribing magical brainwashing powers to corporate marketing departments incredibly tiresome.

But the thing that bugs me the most is the condescending subtext of the whole thing, which is highlighted in that last sentence. This whole genre of writing is founded on the belief that pop-culture taste is a reflection of character, and that people who don't share your tastes and interests are, if not Bad People, at least less-good in some manner. They're lazy, brainwashed, just doing what's "easier." So you get the showy disappointment of "it doesn’t enrich life very much to just keep doing the same old things."

And, you know, fuck right off with that, okay? Yeah, fine, the only music I've acquired since the start of the calendar year is a bootleg of Bruce Springsteen playing a 40-year-old album straight through in concert, which probably isn't doing all that much to enrich my life. But you know what is enriching my life? My kids. I'm not spending money buying albums from new artists because I'm running SteelyKid around to a whole bunch of different activities-- taekwondo, Odyssey of the Mind, trips to visit friends-- and helping her and The Pip build forts and play games.

In the same way that I'm not buying much new music, I'm also not doing a whole lot to enrich my culinary life-- I'm eating at Panera and Applebee's with depressing regularity. But as much as I sometimes grumble about those-- and as nice as it was to get a break from them this past weekend when the kids were away-- I'm happy to do it, because going to those restaurants makes my kids happy. And while they're thoroughly exhausting, I'll take hanging around with my cute and happy kids over dining alone at exotic restaurants.

And the thing is, I'm smack in the demographic that's probably supposed to nod along in agreement with this whole piece. While I mostly listen to music in old modes, I generally try to check out new bands in those. For example, here's one of my favorite songs from 2015:

And now that SteelyKid is developing strong opinions about pop music, I find myself listening to a bunch of Top 40 stuff when I'm in the car with her, and have found plenty of stuff to like even in the relatively disposable pop genre that I used to disparage. I'm more familiar with the work of Taylor Swift than I ever would've expected five years ago, and honestly? It's pretty good.

But while I'm mostly in the "right" group of people, who prefer older modes but are happy to find stuff to appreciate in new artists, there's an air of condescension to the whole business that really rubs me the wrong way. To be fair, a lot of that is just Salon's house style, but more and more I find the whole business of finding significance in people's pop culture tastes incredibly wearying.

Kate's absolutely nuts about Hamilton, as are a ton of other people in my social circles, and I've tried several times to listen to it. I have yet to make it through a full track. Does this mean I'm a bad liberal, or objectively pro-Aaron-Burr? Maybe (I did write a paper about Burr for a school project back in the 80's...). Mostly, though, it just means I'm pretty ambivalent about hip-hop and actively dislike musicals. So, you know, combining those things into a hip-hop musical just isn't likely to work for me. And that's fine, in the same way that Kate's failure to fully appreciate the genius of Craig Finn's various projects is just a reflection of her personal tastes, and not a commentary on her as a person.

(She's actually been subjected to way more Craig Finn/ Hold Steady/ Lifter Puller than I have Hamilton, because I play music more or less constantly at home and in the car, and she doesn't. She's way too good to me.)

On a fundamental level, pop culture, like any other form of art, is a diversion, not an obligation. You don't have to like any particular piece of it, if it doesn't happen to speak to you. Discovering a new favorite band can be a life-enriching experience, but so can lots of other things. And if somebody prefers to give a greater weight to other experiences, and just listen to comfortable old music, well, everyone has the right to set their own personal priorities, and they don't need to be made to feel guilty or inadequate for not sharing yours.

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Yeah, Bob Dylan hasn't put out a new album since way back in the dark ages of 2015.

By Ryan Gerber (not verified) on 25 Feb 2016 #permalink

I suspect that the argument would be that even buying new records from Dylan is doing a disservice to new music. There's a rant later in the interview about how awful it is that a lot of Baby Boomers went out and bought Don Henley's latest record.

There’s a rant later in the interview about how awful it is that a lot of Baby Boomers went out and bought Don Henley’s latest record.

Mr. Fusilli ought to know better. When you are a professional recording artist, your job is to record music that people want to buy. That's just as true for Don Henley as it is for Taylor Swift, and the fact that people are buying their records (not necessarily the same people) is evidence that both of them are good at their jobs. Fusilli is entitled to his opinion that we should be supporting Swift rather than Henley, but others are equally free to do the reverse, or support both, or support neither.

I don't have the excuse of kids around the house, but popular music and I went our separate ways in 1993 because none of the trends that were ascendant at the time (hip-hop, country, and grunge) were directions I wanted to go, musically speaking. I have bought the occasional new album since then, and I recognize the talent of some of the more recent musicians I have heard, but I feel under no obligation to buy music I don't like.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 25 Feb 2016 #permalink

I suppose he thinks musicians should all have a five year career and immediately die when they turn 27?

I'm slowly getting into current pop music after an adolescence steeped in rock and metal, but even so about half of the albums I buy are new material from my old favourites.

By Ryan Gerber (not verified) on 25 Feb 2016 #permalink

It's a juvenile attitude as far as I am concerned. In my teens yes 'tribes' were defined partly by the music they liked and if you liked one type of music you weren't supposed to like any other. Going to university and meeting people I liked with different music tastes meant I really listened to music I would have affected to despise previously, often finding I liked that music. I don't discover as much music now as I did then, but that is partly a function of not going to live gigs much and not meetig new people who introduce me to their music the way I did back then.

But thanks for the Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats - S.O.B. tip Chad, I like that ...

I've only heard segments of Hamilton, and it sounds like Opera to me. If I had the libretto for Hamilton and listened to it in pieces, I would probably get it and then I know (from what I can pick up already) that I would like it a lot, but that particular urban accent at high speed is too much at a first sitting. Sort of like the last movement of Beethoven's 9th when you don't speak or hear German. Once I knew the words and what they meant, it was awesome. Ditto for Shakespeare.

I totally love Uptown Funk, and that S.O.B. was great!

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 29 Feb 2016 #permalink

Sort of like the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th when you don’t speak or hear German. Once I knew the words and what they meant, it was awesome.

Lyrics can add a dimension to how you enjoy a piece of music, but it's not necessary to understand the lyrics. The Ode to Joy is one example of this (keep in mind that the lyrics aren't Beethoven's; he set a poem by Schiller to music). My limited knowledge of Russian does not prevent me from liking some Russian folk music. Or, to consider an extreme example, a native English speaker would have to be willfully ignorant of Springsteen's lyrics to consider "Born in the USA" a patriotic song (it's about an unemployed Vietnam war vet, and Springsteen enunciates more clearly than many popular singers).

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 01 Mar 2016 #permalink

I liked Happy until, on Ragbrai a few years ago, 80% of the cyclists seemed to be blaring it out of a cheap bluetooth speaker on their bike. Hearing it all day, every day, for a week, wore it out.

The argument by Jim Fusilli seems to be the old "you kids and your new music now-a-days" turned around to be "you old folks and your old music now-a-days" - and it makes as much sense.

Eric @7:

True enough (since I liked the Ode immediately and didn't sort the words out until quite a few years later when I was reading Clockwork Orange in high school), and I also know plenty of pop songs where the words are often mostly in someone's imagination. "Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen comes immediately to mind.

But the words add an essential dimension that would make the difference between not enjoying "Hamilton" and enjoying it immensely. To my ear, much of hip hop is pretty much the same as the vocal gymnastics of an opera singer, mostly sound and fury, unless I know the words.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 01 Mar 2016 #permalink