We don't agree on anything the way we agreed about Prince, Nirvana and MJ -- and our cultural life is poorer for it
I love Massive Music Moments.
I live for those times when an album explodes throughout American society as more than a product — but as a piece of art that speaks to our deepest longings and desires and anxieties. In these Moments, an album becomes so ubiquitous it seems to blast through the windows, to chase you down until it’s impossible to ignore it. But you don’t want to ignore it, because the songs are holding up a mirror and telling you who we are at that moment in history.
These sorts of Moments can’t be denied. They leave an indelible imprint on the collective memory; when we look back at the year or the decade or the generation, there’s no arguing that the album had a huge impact on us. It’s pop music not just as private joy, but as a unifier, giving us something to share and bond over.
Actually, I should say I loved Massive Music Moments. They don’t really happen anymore.
The epic, collective roar — you know, the kind that followed “Thriller,” “Nevermind,” “Purple Rain,” “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,” and other albums so gigantic you don’t even need to name the artist — just doesn’t happen today. Those Moments made you part of a large tribe linked by sounds that spoke to who you are or who you wanted to be. Today there’s no Moments, just moments. They’re smaller, less intense, shorter in duration and shared by fewer people. The Balkanization of pop culture, the overthrow of the monopoly on distribution, and the fracturing of the collective attention into a million pieces has made it impossible for us to coalesce around one album en masse. We no longer live in a monoculture. We can’t even agree to hate the same thing anymore, as we did with disco in the 1970s.
If you’re under 25, you’ve never felt a true Massive Music Moment. Not Lady Gaga. Not Adele. Not even Kanye. As the critic Chuck Klosterman has written, “There’s fewer specific cultural touchstones that every member of a generation shares.” Sure, Gaga’s “The Fame Monster” spawned several hit singles. Adele’s “21″ and Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Watch the Throne” were massively popular. Kanye’s brilliant “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” was beloved and controversial and widely discussed enough to give a glimpse into the way things used to be. But those successes don’t compare to the explosive impact that “Thriller” and “Nevermind” had on American culture — really, will anyone ever commemorate “21″ at 20, the way the anniversary of Nirvana’s album has been memorialized in the last month?
Numbers don’t tell the whole story about how these cultural atomic bombs detonated and dominated pop culture. But at its peak, “Thriller” sold 500,000 copies a week. These days, the No. 1 album on the Billboard charts often sells less than 100,000 copies a week. What we have today are smaller detonations, because pop culture’s ability to unify has been crippled.
I miss Moments. I love being obsessed by a new album at the same time as many other people are. The last two albums that truly grabbed an enormous swath of America by the throat and made us lose our collective mind were “Nevermind” and Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic.” They sprung from something deep in the country’s soul and spoke to a generation’s disaffection and nihilism. They announced new voices on the national stage who would become legends (Kurt Cobain and Snoop Dogg) and introduced the maturation of subgenres that would have tremendous impact (grunge and gangsta rap).
Some might argue “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” had a unifying impact on a large swath of America. Others point to Alanis Morrissette’s “Jagged Little Pill.” Both albums were important. But did they pull together gigantic diffuse constituencies of Americans? Eminem is perhaps music’s biggest star of the last decade. He stands for many things (the freedom to be antisocial, self-empowerment, the legitimization of whiteness in hip-hop culture), and “The Marshall Mathers LP” was a huge success. But no Eminem disc has changed America or made a true generational statement.
Nowadays my music conversations run like this:
“So what are you listening to?”
“OK, cool. I’ve never heard of them.”
“What are you listening to?”
“Oh. I gotta check them out.”
No connection is made. Pop music has historically been great at creating Moments that brought people together. Now we’re all fans traveling in much smaller tribes, never getting the electric thrill of being in a big, ecstatic stampede. It’s reflected in the difference between the boombox and the iPod. The box was a public device that broadcast your choices to everyone within earshot and shaped the public discourse. The man with the box had to choose something current (or classic) that spoke to what the people wanted to hear. Now the dominant device, the iPod, privatizes the music experience, shutting you and your music off from the world. The iPod also makes it easy to travel with a seemingly infinite collection of songs — which means whatever you recently downloaded has to compete for your attention with everything you’ve ever owned. The iPod tempts you not to connect with the present, but to wallow in sonic comfort food from the past.
Back when MTV played videos, it functioned like a televised boombox. It was the central way for many people to experience music they loved and learn about new artists. Thus MTV directed and funneled the conversation. Now there’s no central authority. Fuse, where I work, plays videos and concerts and introduces people to new artists. But people also watch videos online, where there’s an endless library of everything ever made but no curation, killing its unifying potential.
These days, there are many more points of entry into the culture for a given album or artist. That can be a good thing — MTV, after all, played a limited number of videos in heavy rotation. Now there’s the potential to be exposed to more music. But where there used to be a finite number of gatekeepers, now there’s way too many: anyone with a blog. This is great for the individual listener who’s willing to sift through the chatter to find new bands. But society loses something when pop music does not speak to the entire populace.
I remember the night “Watch the Throne” came out — at 12.01 a.m., Twitter lit up with download links and then people quoting lines and excitedly trading notes about the songs and the sound. One hundred-forty character instant reviews popped up in quick succession for hours. Questlove was blown away by a certain song. Michael Smith from ESPN by another. A professor I follow was captivated by both. It was such a rush to be in an intense community constructed around one album. In the midst of all that, I sighed. I thought, This is the way it used to be. Only smaller — even with Twitter to amplify our voices. When you listened to “Thriller” in its infancy, the nation listened with you.
Hollywood, too, is struggling to unite us. “Star Wars” and “The Matrix” and “Pulp Fiction” were so big they changed American film — as well as our visual language and Madison Avenue. You didn’t need to actually see the films to feel as if you had consumed them. Their impact was so pervasive, they seemed to bang down your door and announce themselves. The Harry Potter films and “Avatar” stand out for the size of the marketing and ticket buying associated with them. But did they bring large, diverse swaths of America together? Did they speak to something deep in the American soul?
It’s not just technology’s fault. In order to get everyone’s attention, an artist has got to be proposing some sort of revolution. It may be a social revolution (“Don’t join the rat race!”) or an aesthetic revolution (Nirvana bringing their punk-rock sensibility to the masses or Run-DMC rhyming over rock records). You’re stoking revolution when you rewrite what it’s possible to do in music (hip-hop in the ’80s) or what an artist can do in America (Prince wearing panties, heels and blouses and still coming across as cool as hell, Nirvana giving voice to the disaffection so many Gen-Xers felt).
When you’re stoking revolution, you have the chance to grab the intense love of a large swath of people, many of whom may not care for the particular genre you come out of but still get swept up in your innovative message. Today’s artists are less interested in aesthetic or social revolution than they are all about greed or nostalgia. As Simon Reynolds notes in his brilliant new book “Retromania,” retro — sonically, sartorially or stylistically — is a revolt against the present moment. It’s a plaint that something is missing (quality or purity or realness or showmanship or something else). But it doesn’t offer a solution; it’s escapist. It’s the enemy of revolution, which dares to imagine a new future, not a clearly articulated past.
Maybe there are artists out there who want to stoke some sort of revolution. There must be, right? But where? Perhaps they’re stuck in obscurity, unable to get the push they need. Last week at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee meeting, Steve Van Zandt from the E Street Band told me: “Nothing is inevitable.” What he meant is that no one is so talented that success is a given without a skillful manager with the vision and ability to sell them to the various facets of the music industry. “The Beatles would still be in Germany,” he said. “The Stones would be playing a dinner theater.”
He’s right — stars don’t just naturally ascend. There’s no meritocracy in music. Audiences don’t find great bands because their songs are undeniable. The infrastructure of the music business — the managers, the marketers, the radio programmers, the DJs, the A&Rs, the chief execs — all those people are necessary to help put talented artists on a platform large enough that they’ll be seen by a mass audience. But the music biz is slowly crumbling. It has lost its way and its mojo. When businesses have their back to the wall, they’re less likely to take chances on kids proposing some sort of revolution — even though that may be exactly what they need to do.
Maybe the audience doesn’t want revolution. Sociologists say millennials are less interested in rule-breaking and less trusting of the grand generational statement. Maybe they don’t want to try to speak for all their peers. Millennial king Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook has no political component. It makes no statement; it’s just a portal to connect with your friends and acquaintances. Facebook can be used to connect politically minded people, but it doesn’t propose anything. It’s a vessel into which you can pour whatever you want. Also, revolutions are generally desired by the young, who have everything to gain from overturning society as well as a desire to put their mark on the world. But the modern audience of culture consumers is not just composed of the young. My colleagues at Fuse like to talk about “threenagers,” who are similar to what others call “kidults” — people in their 30s (and 40s) who are as into and invested in pop culture as teenagers and emerging adults typically are. The older you are, the less likely you are to want pop culture to offer a societal revolution. And you’re not likely to look for revolution from recording artists, who are younger and less wise than you.
With pop music struggling to create the Moments that once seemed common, we have lost something that could bring us together. There are niche joys everywhere, but nothing I can obsess over alongside a million others. Nothing that makes a big statement and speaks to what America is or should be or will be. Nothing that has a chance to pull me closer to my friends and acquaintances in a hallway or at a concert that’s really a lovefest. I want music that bonds me to my peers and my generation. I’m stuck with music that makes me happy, but makes me feel like I’m alone.
Touré’s latest book is “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What It Means to Be Black Now” (Free Press).
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