“Somebody needs to figure out a new way to smash a guitar”

it’s been a while

In the 1950s, we had beatniks and rebels without a cause.
In the 1960s, we had mods and hippies.
In the 1970s, we had glam rockers and punks.
In the 1980s,  we had metal and…other stuff.
In the 1990s, we had flannel and more flannel.

not just for lumberjacks

Then starting in the 2000s, we had…everybody dressing up like their favorite character from the last fifty years. The fashion became the passion, and folks with no connection to the subculture those styles came from regurgitated rather than invented something of their own. Often, these styles drew from music communities that formed around a particular grievance or attitude, – a relationship that can be symbolized by, say, reggae music and dreadlocks. Of course, the foundation for both of those was Rastafarianism, and anybody that knows anything about that branch of Christianity knows how stupid an affluent white person with dreads is. Or at least they should be stupid for not being informed on their stylistic choice, but nowadays there’s no meaning behind the styles – the superficial is all that matters.

This may be the reason why I’m still wearing the same clothes I had in high school.

This trend in pop culture hasn’t gone unnoticed. Simon Reynolds, author of the book on punk Rip it Up and Start Again, has a new work out called Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past.  In it, he argues that contemporary  popular culture is looking backwards instead of forwards, and the onset of the internet age and being able to download any song ever recorded is accelerating this. As book reviewer Nicholas Carr says in The New Republic,

Over the last two decades, [Reynolds] argues, the “exploratory impulse” that once powered pop music forward has shifted its focus from Now to Then. Fans and musicians alike have turned into archeologists. The evidence is everywhere. There are the reunion tours and the reissues, the box sets and the tribute albums. There are the R&B museums, the rock halls of fame, the punk libraries. There are the collectors of vinyl and cassettes and—God help us—eight-tracks. There are the remixes, the mash-ups, the samples. There are the “curated” playlists. When pop shakes its moneymaker today, what rises is the dust of the archive.

This is, I would argue at least, because the baby-boomers still have control over the major popular culture institutions. New music gets fit into the narrative that the 1960s was the best time for music, ever. Rolling Stone magazine is a great example of this.  In their list of the top 500 songs of all time, 9 of the top 10 songs  are from 1959-1971. The only other band to break in was Nirvana – a Generation X band that, along with their grunge comrades, saw their attempt to carve out their own story from that of the baby-boomers instead co-opted into the status quo. Even the recent Rolling Stone contest to put a new unsigned band on their cover, ended with it being awarded to the Sheepdogs, a group from Saskatoon that could easily be mistaken for Stillwater, the band from Almost Famous.

Thankfully, the Sheepdogs are an incredible band that deserves all the recognition and exposure they get. It just happens to be that they obviously fit into the existing narrative in popular culture that’s already been around a long, long time. Of course, like with grunge, there were attempt to break free of that narrative, and start anew. Twenty years ago, the bands that punk fanzine Maximmum Rocknroll were decrying for being “dinosaurs,” are still filling stadiums today. (With people like me in the audience.)

Published in the year that marks the 100th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan‘s birth, Reynolds books shows how the mediums of music exposure have become the focus, rather than the music itself.  As Carr relates,

Reynolds argues that the glut of tunes has not just changed what we listen to; it has also changed how we listen. The rapt fan who knew every hook, lyric, and lead by heart has been replaced by the fickle dabbler who cannot stop hitting Next. Reynolds presents himself as a case in point, and his experience will sound familiar to anyone with a hard drive packed with music files. He was initially “captivated” by the ability to use a computer to navigate an ocean of tunes. But in short order he found himself more interested in “the mechanism” than the music: “Soon I was listening to just the first fifteen seconds of every track; then, not listening at all.” The logical culmination, he writes, “would have been for me to remove the headphones and just look at the track display.”

Technological innovation has given people instant access to musicians that would otherwise be out of reach. This is fantastic, but if you aren’t someone who is interested in hunting down the latest dynamic band, and only in hearing something that will hold your attention for a few passing moments, such creativity passes you by.

Indeed, as Michael Azerrad, reviewing Reynolds’ book in the Wall Street Journal, asserts,

There is no shortage of wildly innovative, truly progressive artists today, but they are exceptions that prove the rule, and so Mr. Reynolds insists on asking: “What makes actual young people stop chasing tomorrow’s music today and pursue yesterday’s music today?” His answer lies in the feedback loop between the modes of pop-culture production and consumption.

A consequence of these modes in that the incubation that allowed music communities like those in Liverpool in the 1960s, New York in the 1970s, and Seattle in the 1980s  to develop is removed – and its replaced by images, mash-ups, and quick sound bites. Music communities still exist of course, there’s a fantastic one building in Edmonton by the way, but in order to succeed – these bands have to take full advantage of the new communication mediums that Reynolds argues are keeping people detached from the music itself.

The danger that comes with the loss of isolation for music communities is that they lose their potential for subversion from the status quo. The quicker something is picked up by the mainstream, the faster it loses its edge. There’s no subversion to fight against an age of excess, which Reynolds argues has been building since the beginning of the internet age:

When you look at the culture of the West in the last decade or so—the dominance of fashion and gossip, celebrity and image; a citizenry obsessed with décor and cuisine; the metastasis of irony throughout society—the total picture does look a lot like decadence.

An opposition is needed to that decadence, but real subversion is hard to find when the same music is played again and again. Currently, popular culture invokes nostalgia and delimits creativity. Style has replaced passion.  It’s true, however that imitation can inspire something wonderful – and perhaps soon that will allow for the mainstream attention to be transfixed  on something new.

And like I said, there’s a great music scene in Edmonton right now. Maybe that would be a good place to start looking. And when you do, hit the “repeat” button instead of “next.”

Explore posts in the same categories: American Glamour, Matters of Debate

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7 Comments on ““Somebody needs to figure out a new way to smash a guitar””

  1. William Gilgan Says:

    So we should listen to music the way we used to, but not the same music we used to listen to. right?

    Excellent post.

  2. Vijayaputra Says:

    This was an excellent read. Hopefully, this looking back which seems to be all the rave in music, movies, and fashion will lose steam sooner than later. I also like your suggestion that listeners should tune in to grass-root music scenes for that ‘sound of tomorrow.’ I wasn’t sure about your term ”age of excess” though (at least in this particular context). The phenomena in question could just as well be called an “age of pushing the limit,” “age of cultural syncretism,” or “age of flattening.” I guess it depends on the point of view you choose.

    Also, don’t you think there is room for subversion within a culture that is able, and even willing more often than not, to be ironic and satirical about itself?

  3. “Punk spoke up for angry kids. Why won’t today’s bands follow suit”


  4. “Why Music Needs to Get Political Again”


  5. A.J. Says:

    Fact: the earliest records of dreadlocks originated in ancient Egypt. I’m talking B.C. .. There is evidence of Gauls and Germans and other tribal cultures in the height of ancient Rome’s power that suggest more than hairstyle or choice, but rather lean more towards lack of maintenance, or maybe simply lack of a brush. I’m not calling you out, just suggesting that not every person’s reasons for getting dreads are inspired by Rastafarian traditions. They adopted the hairstyle, but didn’t invent it. I also realize the Rastafarian religion originated in Africa.

    And for some reason i find myself agreeing with you on the point that pop culture moves backwards. in a sense, I think it’s because people don’t want to lose sight of truly good music, and/or subcultures, at least that’s how it is for me. I like music from various time periods, not just this and the last few decades. Although, my appearance might not reflect that. I think the same can be said for a lot of people in my Generation.

    21, Born in ’90

    • Hey A.J., thanks for the comments! You’re right to point out that dreads existed long before Rastas – it’s just that nowadays, by and large, the hairstyle is associated with them. There’s lots of people that know the swastika existed long before the Nazis co-opted it, and for many the Confederate flag signifies something other than the support of slavery. But these symbols have become deeply connected with blights on human history, and it’s going to be a while before that changes.

      I think what folks need to do is give stuff more thought, like you clearly have. Others, however, see dreads as a way to show they’re alternative, a confederate flag to show they’re a rebel, and a swastika to give people shock treatment. These three things don’t really do that anymore, at least by themselves. Once, they were codes that those in certain subcultures communicated through, but now are meaningless (at least in that sense).

      Another example is that having a mohawk doesn’t mean you’re a necessarily a punk. It’s the attitude behind that hairstyle that makes you one. So when I go on a rant about people with dreads, it’s directed at those that think it’s their easy ticket into a community, a way of thinking, or a lifestyle without having to follow that up with anything deeper. I can’t count the number of times I’ve met someone with dreads that’s never looked at the style’s Celtic heritage at all, let alone heard of Rastafarianism – but they thought it would be a great way of getting attention. It’s a superficial co-option, and it doesn’t foster creativity. That’s what I find frustrating about symbols becoming just another fashion accessory.

      (But I guess at the same time I have to temper my ranting with the potential adopting a certain style has for it being a gateway into understanding more about where it comes from – like someone getting dreads because they think they’re cool, and then learning more about them and being interested in that heritage…cause that’s a really good thing)

      Anyways, I guess at the end of the day, appearance doesn’t matter, and people shouldn’t be judged on it – you could be a CEO of a big company and have dreads, or a punk rocker in a button up sweater. So I reckon just keep doing what you’re doing, and hopefully our generation will find a new way of smashing a guitar soon.

  6. […] meaning. These days, in the West, the fashions and styles associated with music don’t hold the subversive power they used to. The same is not the case elsewhere. These forms of personal expression still hold subversive […]

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