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.
Yet once the chest-thumping caveman was just one gaudy stitch in the rich tapestry of popular music. Now it sometimes feels like the whole show. Bayles is right that the mating calls of the Afro-American tradition have changed in tone. If desire was once at the heart of this music, now there is something close to hate at its core:
Among male rappers it is now standard practice to boast about one’s mighty sexual organ ripping asunder the bodies of “bitches” and “hos.” Ice-T screams about his “Evil Dick”; N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude) rap about a “preacher’s daughter” who offers to “take a broomstick up the butt,” allows herself to be raped by “a gang of niggers” and (for good measure) “licks out their assholes.”
The standard reaction of the mature consumer to the changes wrought in popular music has always been bewilderment. But Bayles feels more than that. She feels disgust. For anyone brought up on the sweet rhythms of the 1960s, 1970s and even 1980s, it is impossible not to share her reaction. Marvin Gaye never threatened anyone with a broomstick.
Yet ironically, Hole In Our Soul appears when things on this side of the Atlantic have never been cosier between the generations. Britpop has brought a nation together like no music has since the glory days of the 1960s. In the US, the rappers (and their nihilistic white colleagues) have reinvented the generation gap; over here, the generations are united in their love of Oasis, Blur and Pulp.
Bayles is a musical isolationist. She is not one of those Americans who fell for all things anglo after catching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. She has not realised that on this side of the pond even the full-grown pop fan can learn to love the wild new sounds. Of course, they are not that wild; that is Britpop’s great selling point, the reason why our boys are in the tabloids with their leggy lovelies, and busting the top off the billboard chart in the US.
Britpop is traditional rock. Its appeal is that it is at once shiny and new while also replete with nostalgia-pop music is coming home. The only radical thing about it is that the menopausal and the teenager can both enjoy it; it has a place for dear old mum and dad, whose last concert was the Stones in Hyde Park. Unlike the Sex Pistols, the Smiths or even most of David Bowie’s output, Britpop has mass appeal. In the past, the fans of Dylan or The Clash were traditionally as rooted in their time as the acolytes of Dean Martin. That all changed with Britpop. Its commercial strength is that it can be consumed by anyone. All you need is a love of a good tune, appreciation of a charismatic front man and a working knowledge of the lexicon of pop.
But Britpop’s commercial strength is also its artistic weakness. By slavishly following the template created by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the rest, the new generation of bands is denying everything those bands stood for. The Britpop boys and girls have all the ingredients. But they just do not have the chef.
Britpop music sounds familiar the first time you hear it-because it is familiar. It is reverential, and predictable. It is so much based on the work of the grand masters of British rock that, for all its qualities, it has no capacity to startle. Britpop has produced some catchy tunes. But it will never produce a Sergeant Pepper.
Does it matter? Only if your idea of rock music is based on the notion, popular in the 1960s and 1970s, that rock music has to constantly reinvent itself, to discover new frontiers. Britpop suggests that rock music has reached its final frontier. All that is left is a leisurely tour of some of our favourite sights.
But pale boys with guitars are not the only game in town. There is exciting music being made in these islands by young black men and women and white boys who don’t have a rock and roll bone in their bodies. In the popular music of the past 30 years, the progressive spirit always resided in rock music. Dance music was mindless-it was for dancing and nothing else. All that has changed since the dance explosion of the late 1980s. The rave scene may have made Ecstasy the favourite tipple of our young people, but it also sparked off the greatest musical revolution since the Beatles. If you want cutting edge music in the 1990s, then don’t listen to the trad rock of Britpop, listen to dance. Tricky, Massive Attack, Portishead, the Chemical Brothers, Underworld-these are the true inheritors of rock music’s creative spark, artists who have already taken music to places it has never been before. I have no idea what the next album by Tricky will sound like. But I have a pretty good idea what the next album by Blur will sound like.
The consumer of pop music has to ask himself: do I want experimentation? After a hard day at the office, do I really want Tricky messing with my head? Or do I want to be entertained? Britpop will run and run-popular music’s equivalent of The Mousetrap. It has brought pleasure to millions and, in Oasis, may yet produce the most commercially successful British band of all time. Its only crime is that it has reduced rock music to the level of light entertainment.
Britpop does not get a mention in Hole In Our Soul-but then Bayles does not even like the Beatles or the Stones. If she is not moved by Mick Jagger, how could she possibly take to Jarvis Cocker? It’s ironic that Hole In Our Soul’s criticism of modern black music has touched some raw racial nerves in the US. Because if there is any musical prejudice in the author’s heart, it is most certainly against white music.
For Bayles, popular music means Afro-American music. Hole In Our Soul is a 400-page book about American popular music that does not contain one reference to Burt Bacharach-arguably the greatest American songwriter since Cole Porter. Even the likes of Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and the Beach Boys are mentioned only in passing. A lot of great music has come from black America. Bayles clearly believes that it has come from nowhere else. “This country’s ethnically and culturally diverse musics become distinctive only when they acquire the imprint of the black idiom,” she writes. She is a fine musical historian who recognises that white influences were as important on Elvis as black influences. But she cannot see them as equally valuable.
As she lays into the sounds of the modern world, Bayles wonders what dirty names she will be called. A prude? An ageing flower child? But like many of us she is just someone for whom today’s music does not even come close to what came before. To be a fan of popular music does not necessarily mean that you are smitten with the sounds of the hour. Paradoxically, it can mean that you look back fondly on some golden age that you never really knew. For me-a 1970s kind of guy-this would have to be the 1960s with its attendant embarrassment of riches, the world where Bacharach, the Beatles, the Stones, Phil Spector, Motown, Stax and Dylan were all working.
For some of the crowd at the Sex Pistols reunion gig in Finsbury Park in June 1996, the best years were when Johnny Rotten and the boys were in their pomp. “Oasis and Blur are rubbish,” Nathan, 18, told The Times. For Bayles, the favourite years were pre-Beatles, before the blues had been appropriated by white boys, when jazz could lay claim to being the classical music of America and before the brutalist tendencies of the noble Afro-American tradition had been perverted by the “ugly, sadistic and criminally violent” tendencies of punk and heavy metal.
I have loved a lot of the music that Bayles despises-she shows the door to disco, Led Zeppelin, and punk rock-but I can only concur with her view that black American music has never been in such dire straits. Once the stars of black music vied to find out who had the greatest love; now they compete to see who has got the biggest Uzi. “My revulsion stems from the spectacle of young black men who are not brutal criminals, posing as such in order to sell thrills to whites,” says Bayles. The case for rap is that-like punk-it is true folk music, a reflection of inner city life, bringing dispatches from the frontline of urban existence. If black musicians are not as easy to love as they once were, then that could be because they are drawing their water from a poisoned well.
The American ghettos are infinitely fiercer places than they were 30, 20 or even ten years ago. There has been an influx of hard drugs and guns, a break-up of the family and a haemorrhage of the black middle class. On Chicago’s south side, the most dangerous form of transport is the elevator. Bayles is right to be worried about the state of black American music. She should be even more worried by the state of black American neighbourhoods.
But has popular music lost its beauty and meaning? Whether you have milk teeth or false teeth, it is difficult to argue with her contention that fings ain’t wot they used to be. If you compare Oasis to the Beatles, Michael Jackson to James Brown, Madonna to Ella Fitzgerald, it is impossible to fight the feeling that standards have been lowered. But what our ennui ignores is that there is no substitute for being 16 years old. If you didn’t grow up with the Beatles in the background then Noel and Liam wipe the floor with John and Paul. For those experiencing it all for the first time, Oasis represents a vibrant culture while the Beatles belong to the museum.
“The majority still seek the same things that people have always sought in music: not the formal complexity of high art, but not mud either,” says Bayles. “Instead, people seek the primal things: the emotive power of dance, and the emotional power of song.” Too true. But when I see her list of suggested listening-which includes the Eurythmics, Culture Club and Boyz II Men-I reach for my gangsta rap records.
Bayles suggests that the great predicament of black music is “reaching white listeners while avoiding white appropriation.” Where she gets it drastically wrong is by denying that some of those appropriators have-whisper it-actually improved on their influences. Elvis Presley’s triumph was not that he was a white boy singing black music. When he sang, all the categories lost their meaning. He did not steal anybody’s music; he desegregated music.What the world needs now is someone just like Elvis-a charismatic genius who is completely colour blind.
Until that happy day the consumer of popular music has to live with diminished expectations. This music cannot change the world. All it can do is make a difference to your day. But it is only our callow youth that dies. The beat goes on forever.
Hole In Our Soul: The Loss Of Beauty
And Meaning In American Popular Music