A Look Back At The 00s: The Death Of Music Has Been Greatly Exaggerated
, December 9th, 2009 12:13
Judy Berman takes issue with Brian Eno, Glenn Branca, Simon Reynolds, Sasha Frere-Jones and anyone else who wants to declare large chunks of popular music dead . . .
Have you heard the death knells chiming, pop fans? Recently, three respected voices in music each declared the end of a different cultural monolith. At the Guardian, Simon Reynolds joined The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones in euthanizing hip-hop. Meanwhile, Brian Eno graced the pages of Prospect magazine with a short meditation on “The Death of Uncool.” But by far the most hyperbolic obituary was Glenn Branca’s New York Times blog post “The End of Music.”
The timing of Reynolds, Branca and Eno’s pieces is coincidental, but also fortuitous. As it turns out, these three heavyweight culture pundits are all participating in the same argument. Each, in his own way, is raising these central questions: Are there concrete beginnings and endings in music? Can a genre, a movement or even the very concept of new music actually die?
Reynolds has decided that it can – and selected hip-hop as a prime candidate for the pop-music graveyard. “By any sensible metric, rap has slipped hugely from where it was when this decade began,” he writes. “It's not dominating the pop charts anymore, and neither is it irrigating the mainstream with new beats, styles, and slanguage.” Reynolds also has little patience for protestations about the genre’s diverse underground and the dozens of vital local scenes popping up around the country. While the former is nothing more than an irrelevant niche, the latter simply aren’t original enough.
This argument is unsettling for more than a few reasons. For one thing, Reynolds relegates phenomena like grime and M.I.A. – who released her most widely celebrated album, Kala, in 2007 – to the first half of this decade. One also wonders how he can avoid mentioning Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II, a record that proves that even Wu Tang remain relevant in 2009. But what’s most disturbing here is the failure to analyse what it means to declare hip-hop dead. What is it that we’ve killed, anyway: a genre of music? A cultural movement? A collection of sounds, postures and recording techniques?
If Reynolds had aimed to bury a specific movement, like gangsta rap or crunk, I would have been the first in line to agree. These formulaic, misogynist, materialistic forms couldn’t abide last year’s collapse of global capitalism. They became instantly irrelevant. But, although they once dominated the mainstream, superstar emcees don’t own hip-hop any more than The Beatles own rock – and you don’t see anyone (besides Glenn Branca) proclaiming that rock is dead. As Non-Prophets’ Sage Francis observed way back in 2003, “African medallions didn’t sell platinum albums / And that’s part of the reason you think hip-hop died / It was here before you were. It’ll be here in the future.” Certain incarnations of rock and hip-hop culture can become outdated, but it’s impossible to imagine a world in which either ceases to exist as a sonic framework. To borrow an overused economic cliché, they are too big to fail.
It should go without saying that the same is true for music as a whole. In a piece that dwells entirely within the realm of abstraction, Branca opens with a spurious state of the music industry: “Orchestras are struggling to stay alive, rock has been relegated to the underground, jazz has stopped evolving and become a dead art, the music industry itself has been subsumed by corporate culture and composers are at their wit’s end trying to find something that’s hip but still appeals to an audience mired in a 19th-century sensibility.” I’m not sure what would prompt Branca to argue that rock has become marginal. And I can’t even begin to imagine what his avant-garde acolytes must think of his pronouncements about jazz and contemporary composers.
“For more than half a century,” Branca tells us, “we’ve seen incredible advances in sound technology but very little if any advance in the quality of music.” Never mind that the past 50 years have yielded everything from punk to electronic music to, of course, hip-hop (not to mention the author’s own influential compositions). Branca ends his bellyaching by musing about whether the “paradigm shift” that awaits us is in fact “the end of music” – when we’ll have nothing left to do but listen to old songs on new iPods.
As anyone who’s actually been listening to new music will realize, we’re nowhere near this kind of doomsday. But I can imagine what Branca may really be talking about: Whether he knows it or not, he’s not lamenting a dearth of ambitious sounds so much as a paucity of major, cultural movements in music. And this is where he could stand to learn something from his contemporary, Brian Eno.
In his piece, Eno finds much to celebrate in the death of uncool – by which he means the death of a monoculture that serves as an arbiter of what is or isn’t hip. As an example, he uses musical genres: “There used to be about a dozen: rock, jazz, ethnic, and so on. Now there are almost as many dividers as there are records, and they keep proliferating. The category I had a hand in starting—ambient music—has split into a host of subcategories called things like ‘black ambient,’ ‘ambient dub,’ ‘ambient industrial,’ ‘organic ambient’ and 20 others last time I looked.” As a result, today’s listeners are open to a panoply of sonic styles. Nothing is off limits. Eno realizes and celebrates what Reynolds and Branca won’t admit: that the increasingly fractured pop landscape has yielded a diverse and constantly evolving constellation of new, synthetic forms. Reynolds and Branca want us to believe in a zero-sum musical universe: For something new to thrive, something old must die. This is why, for them, the division, dilution and diffusion (of specific genres or all music) is a kind of death. But to me, it’s more like a perpetual rebirth.