One of the inevitable consequences of getting older is the grim hold of nostalgia that becomes more and more pervasive. The music you loved in your teens is burned into your synapses and inevitably it evokes a more innocent time. Whatever generation you are, the music you loved then always holds a special place. It makes it difficult to be objective about things you hear because you’re not hearing them with the sixteen year old ears that absorbed the things you’re comparing them with. Consequently, the new never matches up to the comfortable old, and you end up being a caricature of an old stick-in-the-mud mumbling sentences that always begin “in my day…”
Well that’s the theory. And it’s the argument advanced by most who seek to defend the dire state of mainstream pop. The thing is, I’m of a generation who grew up with some of the biggest crap imaginable polluting the airwaves. I was a pre-teen / early teen in the days where the radio was dominated by the Osmonds, David Cassidy, Sweet, Slade etc etc. People get nostalgic for that stuff, but let’s face it – it was shite. True, there was the compensation of having the sweet soul sounds of the Chi-Lites, Stylistics and their ilk as well as the odd act like Bowie and Roxy Music, but it was little comfort. By the time punk came along, pop was dire. Even in the eighties when the Pet Shop Boys, Madonna, Prince and others were proving that there was credible life in pop music, there was an enormous amount of guff around. These days, a song as good as Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” is like a diamond in a dungheap. It’s almost astonishing that something so good can actually be on the radio and sell shed-loads.
The truth is that pop, like classical music and jazz before it, has long passed its peak – the point where it was both groundbreaking and popular. In all music forms there seems to be a golden age when commercial and artistic success runs parallel before a schism occurs. The divergence is often sudden. In classical music it probably occurred around the time of the Great War. In a tumultuous world, new arts were being born that flipped the bird at mass popularity – Dada, futurism and cubism in visual art, expressionism in cinema, and modernism in music. Jazz took up the populist mantle, but by the forties, the bebop pioneers were going to places that no mainstream audience was likely to follow. It led to some incredible music, but as far as the popular sphere was concerned, the racks were soon stuffed full of Jamie Cullum records.
Pop’s era of synchronicity between the cutting edge and the popular probably lasted no more than a dozen or so years from 1956 or 7 to the end of the sixties. It was the only time when you could be new and groundbreaking and score #1 hit records. In 2007, there is a dizzying array of great music being produced – some artists like Joanna Newsom, PJ Harvey, Sigur Rós, Björk and Arcade Fire are incredibly successful considering how radical their music is. On the whole, though, the music that sells most is conservative and derivative. Perhaps there will be a new musical revolution at some point where artistic excellence and commercial success are synonymous. It’s happened before, why not again?