Has rock music become brutal and tuneless or are we just getting old? Tony Parsons says that the musical generation gap is more evident in the US than in Britain, with its tame and familiar sounding Britpop. But the real excitement is in dance musicby Tony Parsons / August 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in August 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
When did the music die for you? When Buddy Holly’s plane crashed? When the Beatles broke up? When Jim Morrison took his last bath? When the Sex Pistols signed off? When Kurt Cobain pulled the trigger? When Liam Gallagher started growing a beard?
The music never really dies, of course; it just feels that way. Today’s screaming fan is tomorrow’s boring old fart. One day you are squatting naked in the mud at Woodstock, wild-eyed with bad acid and snogging a Hell’s Angel. The next thing you know you are entertaining clients in the corporate hospitality tent at an Eric Clapton concert in aid of the Prince’s Trust.
Nothing measures the cruel passing of time like our reaction to the changes in popular music. Sooner or later the serious consumer is forced to ask himself: am I getting old? Or is this new stuff really rubbish? For Martha Bayles, author of Hole In Our Soul, popular music has been going downhill for most of the 20th century: “From the shrieking clamour of thrash metal to the murky din of grunge…popular music seems terminally hostile to any sound traditionally associated with music.”
And you can’t hear the lyrics, can you, Martha? But Bayles has a point. For most of the 1990s, much of American music has been geared towards what she calls, “the next jolt of outrage.” The whining nihilism of Kurt Cobain’s Nirvana, the millennial burlesque of Madonna’s plastic disco, and the bitch-slapping, Uzi-wielding, psychotic machismo of the gangsta rappers all produced very different music. Yet they shared a common subtext: their shock tactics were not just a marketing device (as they had been with the Sex Pistols), but the message itself.
Bayles’ central thesis is that a brutality has infested pop and that “the anarchistic, nihilistic impulses of perverse modernism have been grafted onto popular music, where they have not only undermined the Afro-American tradition, but also encouraged today’s cult of obscenity, brutality and sonic abuse.” The hole in her argument is that the Afro-American tradition-black music to you and me-has always had a place for bad boys and their wicked ways. Indeed, this music was built on the exchange of bodily fluids. A blues song such as Howlin’ Wolf’s Dust My Broom had little to do with cleaning up around the house. A soul classic such as The Contours’ First I Look At The Purse, released just before Tamla Motown struck out for the white suburbs, had nothing to do with financial matters.