Those who have read my music criticism in the past know that I prefer compositions that are melodic and musically logical. I like music to sound good, and I don’t think that’s too much to ask, thank you very much. I like a wide variety of types of music, from Haydn and Bruckner to Clarence Williams, Frank Sinatra, Fats Domino, the Beach Boys, the Rev. Gary Davis, Deep Purple, Bill Monroe, King Crimson, Badfinger, Ella Fitzgerald, Roy Wood, Hank WIlliams (Sr. and Jr.), Sly and the Family Stone, Neal Morse, and dozens upon dozens of other composers and popular artists. If it sounds good to me, I like it.
Unfortunately for souls such as myself, popular music has become increasingly charmless and depressing in the past couple of decades. Writing in the excellent All Music Guide in an article titled, "Is Rock & Roll Really Dying? A Case Against Rock Dourism," AMG critic Thom Jurek laments the rise of gloom and doom in popular music:
Listening to rock & roll radio has become a chore. It’s not the ten minutes of commercials or the narrowing of formats. CD stores and online music retail sites have the same problem — though, truth be told, the offerings are more diverse.
The bands that rule the airwaves now are Korn, Nickelback, AFI, Tool, Godsmack, and their ilk. Rock & roll, that great music that celebrated freedom and exhilaration, has become repressively dour. The bright and wild colors of rock & roll have faded to a shade of dark gray.
Lest he be lambasted as a right wing, Hitler-loving, moneygrubbing, churchgoing, abortion protesting, married with children social conservative, Jurek hastens to state his shameless fondness for 1980s hair bands and correctly argues that the music of that decade was much more fun than what is popular today:
[T]he music of the early to mid-’80s resembled thematically the same kinds of irritation, rebellion, and boredom that kids in the mid- to late ’50s experienced. The music of both eras spoke boldly that kids were going to be kids. They were going to work and college, sure, but they also wanted what was outside the socioeconomic circle: they were going to make love; drink, drug, and party; drive fast; and escape the increasingly restrictive social mores introduced by the new conservatism of the Reagan era.
Apparently I missed observing the "increasingly restrictive social mores" of the Reagan era, in that the 1980s appear to me to have been a continuation of the increasing individualism of post-Cold War America in all realms of society, especially given that Jurek’s point about the hedonistic nature of the most popular music in the 1980s is itself proof that the decade was by no means culturally conservative. Nonetheless, Jurek is correct to observe that the music of the time was greatly different from what it is now:
The late ’80s also ushered in the turning to the dark side, and the celebration of all things young began to turn sour. While many would make the case for grunge as the changing force, the shift began in 1987 with Guns N’ Roses’ "Welcome to the Jungle" and Jane’s Addiction’s "Jane Says." Metallica’s breakthrough single "One" from And Justice for All — despite the fact that 1986’s Master of Puppets went platinum after being ignored by radio and MTV — showed another side of melancholy and rage. The music — and the videos around them — no longer reflected the culture of young people as a group but reflected the alienation of the individual.
The 1990s unearthed an explosive reaction against the new "traditional family values" that were reflected in the hypocritical political circus of Washington, the religious right, and the Parents Music Resource Center headed by Tipper Gore.
Why social conservatism should have elicited two such vastly differing reactions is left unexplained (because it surely isn’t true), but the observation that musical gloom and doom was on the rise and has yet to recede is unassailable:
There was a reason for excess and a reason for escape, and the story was told by Nirvana, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Tad, Pearl Jam, Tad, Ministry (check "Stigmata" from 1988 and "Burning Inside" from 1989), Nine Inch Nails (who can forget the anger and sinewy alienation in "Head Like a Hole" from 1989 or "Closer" from 1994?), and Alice in Chains. If Nirvana rallied young people around them with their anthemic "Smells Like Teen Spirit" — an openly critical and expository tune about the sham of living in society — then Alice in Chains defined it and then wrote it in stone on 1992’s multi-platinum Dirt. Virtually every single hard rock band that has come down the pipe in America owes them a debt, for making bleak, angry pessimism and nihilism accessible and salable to young people.
After Alice in Chains there were the Stone Temple Pilots, Therapy?, Trouble, Tool, and on and on into the present era, when Korn’s sarcastically titled Life Is Peachy reached the number three spot in 1996 and topped it in 1998 with Follow the Leader. David Fricke, in a Rolling Stone review of the album, titled the piece "Korn Feels the Skate Generation’s Pain." And they did. That headline also sums up so much of what mainstream rock & roll is now about: feeling the pain and wallowing in it. It’s about as far from the central pole of rock & roll’s early escapism as one can get. Their followers — Linkin Park, Papa Roach, Nickelback, Limp Bizkit, Godsmack, Mother Earth — follow in their footsteps and dig deeper into pain as an end in itself as violence, suicide, and sheer personal implosion become the ends. Kids flock to the gigs, buy their records — or download them — and become a community of separates, wearing their iPods no less.
The individual becomes the central focus of the music and the first-person pronoun "I" becomes the sole means of expression.
Jurek argues that rock and roll music in the past stood for communal values, although it is important to acknowledge, as Jurek does not fully appreciate, that the communalism was typically limited to particular age groups:
The explosion of teen rebellion as a manner of developing community and celebrating life has vanished. The "I" in the music of the late ’50s and the early to mid-’80s was expressed simply as a reaching-out point for others to join the party. In the new dourist rockism, the first-person is singular, a diary chronicler of angst and pain who invites no one, though one is welcome to enter that world from one’s own chronicle of loneliness, alienation, and rejection.
It is important also to acknowledge that there is a good deal of music out there that does not reflect this "loneliness, alienation, and rejection," and that musicians have a right to make
the kind of music they like, but Jurek is certainly correct on the facts:
The dourist movement registers everywhere, and it’s lasted almost 20 years if we trace it from "Welcome to the Jungle." One has to wonder if everything in rock does indeed cycle repeatedly, or if this time out the music merely collapses from the sheer exhaustion of expressing pain and other negative emotions ad nauseam. Let’s hope so. In the meantime, pull out those Cinderella CDs and listen to Whitesnake’s recent Gold double disc. Or better yet, pull out the Beastie Boys and Warrant, then go back to Chuck, Little Richard, Carl, Elvis, and Eddie, dig in, take off your shoes, and raise a toast to living for its own sake and listen to those two generations talk to each other with laughter. Long live rock.
I won’t join Mr. Jurek in listening to any ’80s hair bands soon, but the ’50s rockers he cites are certainly a tonic for those weary of the moaning and noise so common in today’s popular music, and just for fun I’ll also throw on some Move, Bach, Dave Clark Five, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Django Reinhardt, Flash, Thin Lizzy, Blind Willie Johnson, Mozart, Johnny Cash, Triumvirat, Bing Crosby, Al Green, Brian Wilson, and a few dozen other choice items until this thing gets sorted out properly.