“My” music and theirs: On the last 38 years of pop music from a (nearly) 39 year old

When I was born almost 39 years ago in late October the most popular song in the U.S was either the (grating) novelty song “Disco Duck” or the band Chicago’s pretty (if schmaltzy) ballad “If You Leave Me Now.”  

                                                                    2009 rendering of Vincent L. Stephens by Brook Sloan.

                                                                    2009 rendering of Vincent L. Stephens by Brook Sloan.

Music has moved on from these styles, mercifully, but all movement is not progress. I’m not old enough to be a surly old codger who hates all the “new music.” But it’s hard to resist a notion my (slightly older) friend suggested years ago that at a certain point a gap emerges between what one might call “my music” and the pop music that sells contemporarily (“their” music). The soundscape of today differs significantly and on the dawn of my 39th I’m attempting to survey the music industry over the last four decades.

 Both 1976 hits “Disco Duck” and “If You Leave Me Now” have commercial antecedents. Disco’s most notable stylistic prototypes were songs that emerged from Philly, Miami and other urban centers several years prior to its parody of the genre. Chicago’s initial jazz and rock style, which emerged alongside a similar but harder hitting sound from Blood Sweat and Tears circa 1969, gave way to a lusher, softer sound pioneered by The Carpenters and Bread in 1970. The ’76 hits were essentially retreads. 

 Shortly after these hits both disco and what became the “adult contemporary” music style soared commercially. Mainstream (or “classic”) rock also swelled to great heights with epic sellers from bands like Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd. The ‘70s ended with an almost mythical pole between groove driven music largely derived from funk and R&B, and a static guitar driven meat and potatoes kind of rock that didn’t exactly encourage dancing.

  Despite what those cheesy TV boxed sets suggest there was no core “‘80s sound.” “867-5309/Jenny” was a catchy but minor song not the anthem of the zeitgeist. There was a “big tent” feel to mainstream pop that made room for Barbra Streisand, The Cars, Anita Baker, Duran Duran, Kenny Rogers, Bruce Springsteen, Pet Shop Boys, Run DMC, Phil Collins, Bobby Brown, and U2, none of whom will ever be mistaken for the other. Music video, the consolidation of media companies, the growth of soundtracks, and various economic indicators (greed, corporate welfare) structured some of these changes, as did technological innovations like the cassette tape, the walkman, and the CD.

 In the 1990s hip-hop and post-punk grew more prominent. Despite the stock interpretations from music critics about a subversive takeover of pop by “edgy” youth adult contemporary music and country were actually the dominant radio formats of the decade. A wave of teen pop emerged in the mid-1990s-early 2000s, as did the option to access music digitally. No dominant characteristic really defines today’s pop music. Though performers like Beyoncé, Rhianna, Justin Timberlake and Kanye West generate a lot of attention, for typically banal reasons, the audiences who purchase their music are smaller and less diverse (especially in age) than the most popular music released just 10-15 years ago.

 When I think about music of my time two themes emerge:

 Theme 1: Music originating in Black cultural spaces still shapes the pop mainstream but it is growing narrower and less complex. Blues and gospel are distinctly American musical forms traceable to African-Americans. Jazz, a blend of blues and gospel elements with a European tonal and harmonic system, is not purely black or West African derived music but would be impossible without black American culture. All three genres defined key aesthetic aspects of the jazz age and swing eras, as well as jump blues (think Louis Jordan) which morphed into R&B/soul, which when blended together with country, folk, and other elements became rock ‘n’ roll. Twentieth century pop music is typically divided into pre-rock and rock eras. Another way to look at it is that jazz-influenced pop defined pop until R&B redefined pop. R&B is not as musically complex as swing jazz and bebop but soul, funk and other variations of what is essentially secular gospel has proven itself to be more enduring, adaptable, and difficult to do well than a lot of music snobs would ever admit. Ray Charles, Etta James, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and Prince are bonafide R&B musicians you can’t dismiss.

 In the ‘70s urban music formed the roots of disco and hip-hop. Disco’s mechanized nature and the scavenger like nature of hip-hop, which relies on a collage of samples and technical wizardry, normalized mechanized elements in mainstream pop music production. They also made dance music disproportionately central to modern black music. Aside from what critic Nelson George termed the “retro-nuevo” sound of sophisticates like Luther Vandross and Anita Baker the primary black styles to emerge in the ‘80s were rap and New Jack music both youthful dance-driven musics. In the ‘90s mainstream rap grew coarser, which coincided with increases in its commercial appeal, and New Jack morphed into hip-hop soul. Hip-hop soul inspired a plethora of would be Mary J. Bliges. Neo-soul provided some relief, but for every original like Jill Scott, there are multiple singers trying to doggedly relive the sounds of ‘70s R&B Wurlitzers and all.  

 The more popular black singers of today, such as Usher and Beyoncé, are not much of an advance on their predecessors, but rather distillations whose singing is as dependent on performance and image, and is nominally part of a black tradition but frankly inseparable from the slickness typically associated with pop. Is Usher any more “soulful” (i.e. truthful, vulnerable, and gospel-derived) than Justin Bieber or Robin Thicke? Or do we convince ourselves of this to maintain a cultural illusion. In essence black music has lost much of its meaning and distinction as a form and has descended into more of a brand marker than a cultural signifier.

 I was never much of a hip-hop fan; even as a child I generally found it too macho and crude, and unromantic for my liking. Some, hip-hop performers like LL Cool J, Run DMC, Missy Misdemeanors” “Elliott and Outkast have made genuinely interesting music (including listenable albums) but the genre is very singles dependent and trend driven. It’s not a leap to say that however influential it has been in record production techniques, clothing, and slang, few of its acts have aged well and much of it is as ephemeral as ‘50s novelty songs.  Acts increasingly rise and fall based on the commercial cachet of the producers, dance trends, and other elements tangentially related to music. The genre is always chasing its own tail; it’s a dizzying descent.


                                                                   2009 rendering of Vincent L. Stephens by Brook Sloan.

                                                                   2009 rendering of Vincent L. Stephens by Brook Sloan.

Theme 2: There is nothing resembling a consensus in new pop music; it is far too decentralized, borderline ageist and antisocial. I often share with people that my first rock concert occurred in 1985 when my family and I went to see the Victory Tour in Jacksonville, Florida featuring Michael Jackson and his brothers. As a child everyone listened to Michael Jackson, especially Thriller, including my parents. Though his desire to be all things to all people arguably stagnated and killed him, and perhaps there’s a milquetoast element to some of his music that made it accessible, the idea that my sibling and parents could share musical tastes seems almost absurd today.

 Pop music has a strong niche element. Part of me applauds this—there’s something for every taste. This may have always been true but now it seems more accessible and obvious.  What has been lost in this über fragmentation is the lack of artists who transcends clear boundaries, especially age. Though I’m supposedly part of Generation X and the “hip-hop generation” the musical markers that supposedly define my generation never fit. It was not until the very late ‘80s that the music dominating radio listened to began to feel increasingly foreign and alienating to my parents, who were born in the 1940s.

 Some of this may signify the inevitable generation gap but I think it runs deeper. A lot of people who hated rock made peace with Bob Dylan and The Beatles eventually. I have a hard time imagining these folks (or younger versions of them) embracing Ludacris or Eminem or Lil’ Kim. A dividing line between adult and youth taste seems to expand yearly. Radio stations have shown increasingly little regard for ballads or songs with traditional music values like strong melodicism and romantic lyrics. In their place are a lot of danceable, hook driven ditties sung anonymously. No wonder radio stations embraced Adele so feverishly a few years ago. She was so different from the mainstream in the mere fact that she is a competent singer and sings songs with strong melodies, a modicum of harmony, and palpably human lyric content allows her to stand apart.        

 The places where this fragmentation is most felt is in the perpetual obscurity of jazz and classical music. I’m far more of a jazz listener so that’s where I turn my attention. If you want to know where people of a “certain age” hang out go to a jazz concert!  For generations everyone knew who Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald were even if they were unfamiliar with their music (imagine!). Today leading lights of jazz like Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves and Kurt Elling, and even younger singers like Gregory Porter and Cecile McLorin Salvant are both gifted singers and highly entertaining performers. But they might as well abandon popular song for the most obscure and inaccessible music they can find. Jazz, which has always relied on melodic and harmonically rich material written for popular audiences, is essentially an art music comprising 1-2% of purchased music. Contemporary jazz musicians struggle to compete with the past; reissues of Miles Davis and John Coltrane probably outsell anything a new jazz musician has released this year.

 My point here is not simply to scold but to illustrate the gap between music aimed at young and old, and the gap between what is deemed accessible and inaccessible. Jazz, which dominated popular music for so long, is just one of many barometers of change. The blues is not exactly on fire commercially either. In the late ‘80s Bonnie Raitt (b. 1949), who had been recording for nearly 20 years when she scored a hit album and won three Grammies Nick of Time was recording for Capitol Records.  She recorded her most recent album, Slipstream after a seven year recording hiatus, on an independent label because she grew tired of the record industry. Singers of her generation mostly record for independent labels if at all limiting access to radio and the exposure if affords artists. Aaron Neville (b. 1941) had his greatest commercial success in the 1990s at A&M Records. In the last decade he has recorded albums for Verve, EMI Gospel, Burgundy Records, and Blue Note. He lacks the visibility he had then, but at least he has been able to secure recording contracts. Many singers of his generation are not so fortunate.

 When was the last time you heard new songs from people who were popular in the 1990s like Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, or Celine Dion? All three still record for major record labels but lack mainstream radio presence. Blige’s (born 1971) last top 40 hit peaked at #32 in 2013 and her most recent album The London Sessions peaked at #9 in December 2014 and lasted on the chart for a short time before disappearing; there were no hit singles. Ageism has wedged gaps between generations of listeners and relegated older artists to assume the independent route and/or hunt for proper recording and promotion support. How long before these singers, all of whom are under 50 are too old to be commercially viable? Usher is 36 and Beyoncé is 34. They might want to look over their shoulders. 


                                                                  2009 rendering of Vincent L. Stephens by Brook Sloan.

                                                                  2009 rendering of Vincent L. Stephens by Brook Sloan.

 My dream music scenario does not necessarily involve me sitting with my parents but the idea of music as a form of social glue is increasingly antiquated. If I discuss music with my parents, or even people younger than them it’s usually music made between the 1950s-1990s. There are so many sub-genres and niches that it’s difficult to find a sense of social belonging in music. Even the much hyped populist accessibility of alternative rock and hip-hop is illusory. The regional and city specificity of hip-hop necessitates access to certain channels to engage with its language and references, otherwise listeners gloss over them and focus on the beat. While I appreciate the pleasure of mystery and discovery the issue here is about a shift in values from relative accessibility and populism to an almost perverse dare to listeners: Are you cool enough, hip enough, “down” enough to even know what we’re saying? For most people the answer is probably no, but who cares when the songs are so catchy?   

 I want to be excited about “new” music and can attest to the thrill of listening to recent music from a variety of country (Kacey Musgraves), jazz (Dee Dee Bridgewater, Karen Marguth, Tony Bennett), and pop (Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk”)  performers.  My fear is that this list will become smaller and these pleasures may have to be spaced out as the pool diminishes. That would make pop music feel like something foreign and irrelevant, and engender a sense of cultural isolation within me. I can always look back into the past and explore the catalogs of familiar artists and discover new artists. The digital era has been a boon for exposing me to unfamiliar singers, ranging from the Dutch jazz singer Rita Reys to Malian singer and actress Rokia Troaré.  But the process of discovering new music and sharing it is one of life’s greatest pleasures. I still want at least some of “my music” to emanate from a shared cultural well. I look forward to checking back in at 40.