Last week I claimed that the “digital revolution” is destroying popular music as we’ve known it in the past. This week I want to conclude this theme.
Today, there are literally thousands upon thousands of good rock bands – they’re a dime a dozen – all vying for radio air time, which makes it difficult for DJs to select any one in particular. Then too, the bands are scattered around on 30 or 40 different top-pop charts: Rolling Stone has listings for Heavy Metal, Classic Rock, Alternative Rock, Electronic Dance, Contemporary, Hip-hop, Rhythm and Blues, Punk Rock and Gothic Rock and that’s only a partial list. The lucky bands managed to snag the elusive No. 1 slot on this chart or another, where their popularity spikes within a couple of days and then they fade away into relative obscurity, except for their most ardent fans. (Perhaps in 15 years they’ll resurface for a reunion tour.)
Reliable sources have reported that one electronic dance music DJ – see last week’s column – wrote a song on his laptop in a couple of hours, while flying from Nebraska to Las Vegas. Upon landing, he went directly to a recording studio and, in a matter of minutes, ran it through a synthesizer or two and a bank of digital filters and effects, creating a sound that was rather shallow and “tinny” – there wasn’t an actual musical instrument, not even a guitar, anywhere in the product – but it was good enough to release on the public at his EDM scene that evening. Undoubtedly, it shot to the top of the EDM charts, where it held the position for two days.
The early punk rockers like the Sex Pistols and Patti Smith were right: “Ain’t no more rock superstars.” How long has it been since Madonna has had a song in the top 20 on whatever chart? Or Alice In Chains? And does anyone over the age of 14 really give a damn what Justin Bieber sings or does? By contrast, past artists like Bing Crosby had a song in the Hit Parade’s Top 20 every month for 20 consecutive years. The Beatles had a similar stretch, but it lasted just 10 years. Perhaps most impressive, Sinatra had an album in the Top 40 every single month for 50 years.
I don’t mean to imply that the current lack of enduring popular superstars is necessarily an unwelcomed change. In some ways, it’s very progressive and democratic. Instead of one star like Sinatra hogging all the fame and money for 50 years, that esteem and wealth is now scattered among thousands of bands and singers.
But this lack of durable stars, the apathy toward performers in EDM clubs, the fading popularity of CDs, combined with the scattering of rock on so many pop music charts, and the fact that downloaded tracks can be deleted after a few days, all indicate that popular music and artists have become throwaway commodities, far less significant and influential than they were yesterday. In short, popular music has been splintered and trivialized.
I suppose that’s OK. I mean, there’s still a lot of good music out there. It’s just harder to find. And most people, myself included, won’t take the time to look for it because, you see, it just isn’t that important.