There’s few things more dull and irritating in this world than an aging hipster whining that rock and roll music just isn’t as good, man, as it used to be. Whatever, pops. Go back to your patchouli and Woodstock movie—on VHS.
Still, some recent YouTube surfing and a discovery in my basement led me to conclude that pop music had more diversity of sound and genuine genius 25 years ago.
I recently was on YouTube when I found the video for “A Girl Called Johnny,” a song from the 1983 debut album by the Scottish band The Waterboys. I was instantly seized by the odd, angular beauty of the song, it’s quirky-yet-compelling tempo, and juicy saxophone. It was a totally unique sound, and it lifted my spirit more than anything I had heard on my ipod or the radio in the last few weeks. Daughtry sounds like Creed sounds like Green Day. Hannah Montana, Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavine—can you spot the difference? Do I really need to get into country and rap? Pop music seems to have reached an impass. It’s not that the songs are bad. It’s that all the bands sound the same.
After seeing The Waterboys, I found a book in my basement: The Rolling Stone Review 1985: The Year in Rock. The Rolling Stone review was a look back at the rock ‘n’ roll of 1984. I was 20 in 1984, and have stirring rock ‘n’ roll memories from that time. But at 45 I know I’m smart enough to understand how nostalgia works: Everyone thinks the music they grew up on was the best, whether it’s big-band grandparents of Woodstock baby boomers or ’80s aficionados. Besides, pop music is just as great today, I knew. After all, I’m a fan of Wilco, Radiohead, and Mandy Moore.
Then I opened the Rolling Stone book. 1984 was a brilliant year for pop, offering a dazzling quilt of styles and voices. 1984 alone saw the following: The Church, with its chiming, sacramental guitars; the leftist agitprop of Billy Bragg; the Jimmy Cliff reggae masterpiece The Power and the Glory; the ethereal torch songs of the Eurythmics; the spiky glory of Gang of Four; Husker Du’s punk milestone Zen Arcade; Joe Jackson’s jazz-pop Body and Soul; the Talking Heads Stop Making Sense; the indomitable Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders, who released the classic Learning to Crawl; the Replacements pop-punk benchmark Let It Be; the Celtic religious rock of the Waterboys; RUN-DNC’s debut Profile; Sade’s Diamond Life.
I could go on. The thing that amazed me was how unique these artists were: As the music critic Alex Ross once observed, the reason artists sue when their music is sampled is not as much the exact chords, but the sound. No one sounds like the Beach Boys; sampling one of their hooks is not mere imitation, its like taking a bit of their soul. Back in 1984 you could turn on the radio—that is, if it was an alternative station like the late WHFS—hear a song and immediately connect with the person, the human being, who had created that sound. I still vividly recall when I was an undergrad at Catholic University in Washington, getting dressed to go to class one day and the song “Cherry Pie” by Sade came on the radio. I stopped in mid-button of my shirt, stunned: who on earth was this? That dry, sexy, vulnerable voice sounded like no one else. Was it jazz, soul, pop, R&B? Well, yes. I have older brothers and was raised on the Beatles, Dylan, Bob Marley and Sly and the Family Stone. All great artists, and ones whose sound was as individual as their hairstyles. Like them, Sade was something unique. There would be no mistaking chic for Chic, or Chaka Chan. As for the other musicians I listened to that year—The Church, George Clinton, Culture Club 10,000 Maniacs—there was no confusing them with each other.
That I came of age in a golden era of pop music is a hunch backed up by music writer Simon Reynolds, in his terrific book Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984. Reynolds argues, contrary to received rock wisdom, that the punk rock explosion of 1977 was not a Year Zero in which angry young rebels triggered a new era of honesty and authenticity after rock culture had become ossified. He argues that punk rock may have been the end of rock culture; that the Sex Pistols’ 1978 album Never Mind the Bollocks was the death rattle of rock rather than a new beginning. After that, bands embraced different sounds, employing reggae, synthesizers, odd tempos and other experimentation that relied on pre-punk artists like David Bowie as well as the modernist artistic aesthetic that predated rock itself. Reynolds:
Those postpunk years from 1978 to 1984 saw the systematic ransacking of twentieth-century modernist art and literature. The entire postpunk period looks like an attempt to replay virtually every major modernist theme and technique via the medium of pop music. Cabaret Voltaire borrowed their name from Dada. Pere Ubu too theirs from Alfred Jarry. Talking Heads turned a Hugo Ball sound poem into a tribal-disco dance track. Gang of Four, inspired by Brecht and Godard’s alienation effects, tried to deconstruct rock even as they rocked hard. Lyricists absorbed the radical science fiction of William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, and Philip K. Dick, and techniques of collage and cut-up were transplanted into the music… . The record cover artwork of the period matched the neomodernist aspirations of the words and music, with graphic designers like Malcolm Garrett and Peter Saville and labels like Factory and Fast Product drawing from constructivism, De Stijl, Bauhaus, John Heartfield and Die Neue Typograhie.
Out of this experimentation came some wonderful music: The Waterboys, Public Image Ltd. (the new band of former Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten), Cabaret Voltaire, Siouxsie and the Banshees. Eventually, some of the best of these bands—Talking Heads, U2, The Human League—became huge starts. That such an avant-garde movement became loved by the masses is not surprising. For one, a lot of the music was beautiful, and beauty naturally draws the human soul. Secondly, regular folks had already proven themselves capable of absorbing the best of artistic modernism. Essentially, what has happened to rock ‘n’ roll in America is what happened to modern art here in the 20th century. Twenty years ago, art critic Hilton Kramer published an essay, “Modernism and Its Enemies.” In it he argued that in the 1960s America fully absorbed modernism in art (abstract expressionism, the New York School, Jackson Pollack,) and literature (Proust, Joyce), and this led to an attack on the same modernism by anti-bourgeois leftists like Frederick Jameson and Suzi Gablik. In the Kennedy ’60s, Kramer wrote, “modernism first established its authority as mainstream culture.” Critics like Mr. Kramer were hired by editors (in his case at The New York Times) to cover modernism, because, in one editor’s phrase, “the readers are way ahead of us on this.”
At the same time came the rise of the counterculture, Vietnam, and, of course, “rock music.” Here Kramer makes a blunder that is pervasive in our culture—the equating rock and roll with degeneracy, cultural suicide, and leftism. Indeed, or so the thinking goes, it was obvious in the very music that formed the soundtrack to the marches of the ’60s. To Kramer, this was an assault on modernism itself:
But how much of the culture of modernism was it that dreamed of a society in a permanent state or orgy and ecstasy? In actuality, the counterculture of the Sixties derived from ideas which were deeply inimical to the fundamental modalities of modernist thought if we take the latter—as I think we must—to be represented by such figures as Flaubert and Henry James and Marcel Proust, T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and even the early Ezra Pound, Manet and Cezanne and Matisse and Picasso and Brancusi and Miro and the painters of the New York School… . It wasn’t the works of James Joyce or Thomas Mann or Ernest Hemingway or Gertrude Stein which were carried in the rucksacks of the antiwar marchers, and it wasn’t to the music of Stravinsky or Schoenberg that they marched.
Then Kramer offers this: “The Leftist position wishes to delegitimize modernism for failing to fulfill a revolutionary function; the philistine position wishes to delegitimize modernism by making it the scapegoat for social developments it regards as calamitous. Both, I submit, are based on caricatures of history.”
Kramer has put his finger precisely on what has gone wrong with interpretations of pop music, yet is unaware that he himself, as someone who rejects rock music outright, is complicit. For precisely what he describes as having happened with modernism happened with rock ‘n’ roll. Yes, the hippies weren’t listening to Stravinsky. But they were listening to the Beatles. The Beatles’ music was—is—a towering accomplishment of modernism that can be mentioned in the same breath as Proust, Joyce, Schoenberg and Kramer’s other modernist heroes. “Norwegian Wood.” “Here, There and Everywhere.” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band.” The White Album. The hippies and lefties got it dead wrong: These works were not harbingers of the revolution; they were fresh, exciting tunes that often borrowed—like most modernism—from previous traditions. I would argue that “Martha My Dear,” “In My Life” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” could have been written in the 19th century. Indeed, probably the oldest music form employed by the Beatles is the blues, used to bolster the swagger of the song “Revolution.” In fact, it seemed that whenever the Marxists and peaceniks attempted to wrestle rock ‘n’ roll and the Beatles from their sound—mostly lovely, and full of thoroughly mainstream modernist tropes—it wounds up in disaster. While Paul McCartney’s Memory Almost Full is a first-rate album, full of sharp melodies, strings, aural surprises and poetic lyrics, John Lennon’s music now sounds angry, abrasive and embarrassing. “Woman is the Nigger of the World,” “Give Peace a Chance,” “Gimmie Some Truth” and other fist-pumping harangues don’t sound timeless, or innovative, or, well, modernist. They sound scabrous, dated. Ditto much of today’s “punk” and rap music.
And yet, the pseudo-revolutionaries keep trying to drag the Beatles and rock and roll to their cause—and many (though not all) neocons continue to dismiss them. In his anti-’60s book The Long March, New Criterion associate editor and Kramer protégé Roger Kimball rejected the Beatles as not worthy of inclusion into the pantheon of great modernists—and did so in one paragraph, without naming a single Fab Four song. For a critic of Mr, Kimball’s stature, that’s just too lazy. But worse, I think, is the left’s continual attempt to co-opt the Beatles.
In August, rock critic Mikal Gilmore wrote a piece in The New York Times about the Beatles, “Why This Band Plays On.” Gilmore never gets around to addressing why the Beatles play on, which has everything to do with great music and nothing to do with politics. Gilmore does go into an elegy about the high hopes for social change that (supposedly) came with the group, and how those high hopes were dashed—at Altamont, Watergate, Vietnam, etc. Nowadays, Gilmore laments, you can’t even perform an anti-Bush pop song—“Teenagers now are themselves often the harshest critics of young nonconformists.” It probably hasn’t occurred to Gilmore that the teenagers doing that are not febrile right-wingers bent on blowing up culture. They are modernist defending modern art.
Sadly, these days a lot of pop music has lost that energy and originality. It all sounds the same. You basically have five genres: rap, soul, angry-girl alt-rock, country, and rock. You can choose between buzzing resentment pop of Kelly Clarkson, or the buzzing resentment pop of Katy Perry. Unimaginative, computerized dance anthems come from Britney, Beyonce, and Lady Gaga. Coldplay and the Fray—the names even sound alike—deliver vulnerable, piano-driven rock. And, of course there’s rap: is there any real difference between Gorilla Zoe, The Dream, and Kid Rock. I know, I know—Kid Rock is white, he’s from Detroit, his genre is redneck rap. But can you honestly argue that that is a difference as great as that between, say, the Talking Heads and Prince? I won’t even get into country, which long ago became a parody of itself.
On top of that artists, don’t even evolve anymore. Beyonce is still putting out lazy derivatives of Destiny’s Child, and probably will be the rest of her life. Carrie Underwood and Trisha Yearwood will inflict redneck revenge anthems with exaggerated accents as long as it pays, and probably longer. Rap will remain rap. The last truly inspired, unpredictable rap record I heard was 3 Feet High and Rising by De La Soul—released in 1989. In the 80s, part of the fun was watching a band go from the garage to the heights of musical and poetic power. U2 would evolve from the spiky punk of Boy to the sacramental majesty of “One.” Culture Club wasn’t much more than a novelty act performing dance tracks to, with 1984’s Colour by Numbers—a great record that still holds up—a blue-eyed soul combo with real talent and imagination. Lloyd Cole, a Scottish singer-songwriter whose album Rattlesnakes is one of the finest records of the 80s, went on to record Don’t Get Weird on Me, Babe, which sounds more like Burt Bacharach than Cole’s first album. Do I even need to mention Elvis Costello?
I’ll always love pop music. Every Tuesday when the new music arrives on iTunes, I lean forward in my desk chair with anticipation. But more often than not, the downloads don’t pierce my heart with the unexpected the way “A Girl Called Johnny” did—and does. I’d give anything for something beautiful, bizarre and surprising. Where is this year’s Talking Heads?
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism and Rock and Roll, forthcoming from Doubleday. His YouTube page can be found here –http://www.youtube.com/user/MarkGauvreau.