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A Look Back At The 00s: The Death Of Music Has Been Greatly Exaggerated
Judy Berman , 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 . . .

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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.

Ash
Dec 9, 2009 5:31pm

"If Reynolds had aimed to bury a specific movement, like gangsta rap or crunk, I would have been the first in line to agree." But OB4CL2 IS gangster. So, it's not irrelevant as you cite that album as an example of what makes good hip-hop. That doesn't make sense - or am I missing something?

I thought Reynolds was talking about ringtone, chart rap? He was wrong, but I'm not sure you're any more right. Music isn't undergoing a perpetual rebirth, it's just in motion.

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SIMON NUMBER NINE
Dec 9, 2009 11:03pm

a friend at work posits the theory that all good music happened between 1968-1984.he claims no one bothers to really learn to play anymore and that any new genres are just re hashes of whats come before.he's knocking 50 now,about the same as the people mentioned in the article,any connection?

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Luke Turner
Dec 10, 2009 2:03am

In reply to SIMON NUMBER NINE:

People learning to play is one of the great obstacles to musical progress.

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Joly
Dec 10, 2009 5:29am

I recently read Pete Frame's excellent 'The Restless Generation" about the 50s. In it he documents how boring old farts - I'm sorry, I mean middle-aged pundits - all declared rok'n'roll dead at the end of the decade. With some justification, in Frame's view. What they couldn't know is that the seed had been so firmly laid that in the youth that within two years there would be an world shattering explosion of beat groups.

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JOHN ROBB
Dec 10, 2009 10:06am

what is dead? music is as life affirming, powerful and intoxicating as ever- there are endless mini genres of bands creating at full pelt. there is more variety than ever. The anglo american musical axis is breaking down and street musics from all over the world are filtering the mainstream, there is less dominating by the white males, the underground is brimming with great music, there are as many youth tribes as ever before, rock is huge with fascinating riffing noise merchants filling stadiums...it's been a great decade you can operate in your own genre and compliment it with a pick n mix of mashed up styles from any other genre you want- music is freeing itself the mass media and the corporate machine...!

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Ben
Dec 10, 2009 11:00am

The idea that a genre of music can 'die' is inherently foolish. There are people somewhere in the world still putting heart & soul into playing just about every form of music ever devised - the only thing that changes is media focus and the consensus of public taste, and it I think it reflects poorly on Reynolds that he can't see that.

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David M
Dec 10, 2009 12:53pm

Is this the same Guardian who wrote that butt-plug article about hipsters and beards? I realize that he was writing for his audience, but that kind of attitude to the music belies an inability to hear things on their own merits. Is this due to a compulsion and unquestioning adherence to the factionalist ideas upon whose grave Eno dances a merry ambient jig? A new genre?

Some people have a ship to jump/sabotage/cling to, staring at the horizon through a laptop screen waiting for the rescue boat... others are swimming in the sea.

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Adrian Ferra
Dec 11, 2009 4:13am

I’ve read a lot of commentary that disagrees with the SFJ and Reynolds pieces. Most of the comments sound like they are in the first stages of grief - denial, then anger. Eventually you will go through bargaining, depression and finally acceptance.

To me, its obvious that hiphop is dead. Where is the vitality? The signs of life you’ve mentioned are not even hiphop. MIA? - about as hiphop as Belle Stars or a Blondie for the ‘00’s. (Also, what kind of ethnic reductionism is required to label grime and MIA as hiphop?)

The only ’09 hiphop music mentioned is a Wu-Tang project album. On my music blog I had that one listed as #4 in my top 75 examples of long term decline.

Lets all just face the facts - there is no vitality within ‘09 hiphop, and it no longer energises other music cultures. In fact I would posit that the embrace of euro-bland by the likes of Gaga and the B.E.P. is a reaction to the rigor mortis in mainstream hiphop.

HIPHOP.
197? – 2009.
RIP
‘Don’t call it a comeback’

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Baby Jebus
Dec 11, 2009 2:04pm

The timing of said pieces isn't coincidental. It's the end of a fucking decade- the time when harassed editors commission predictable valedictory thinkpieces. Such as this one, about some other ones. [I haven't read any of them btw, but I was amused to see a desperate riposte to Reynolds in the Graun, which suggested that hip hop was, uniquely, popular everywhere but Antarctica. Fuck knows why they're using writers that have never heard of metal, but it made me laugh.

Come on Luke. That's like saying 'people learning to write is one of the great obstacles to critical progress'. [Imagine relevant emoticon here]

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Luke Turner
Dec 11, 2009 2:34pm

In reply to Baby Jebus:

I was slightly in jest. But I do think technical proficiency, too much respect for 'craft' and the hoary old bastards of the canon holds back musical progress.

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Sexy Boots
Dec 11, 2009 3:16pm

In reply to Luke Turner:

Excuse me but there's something of a chasm between 'technical proficiency' and 'respect for the craft'. Dare I cite Hendrix, perhaps one of the most technically proficient fretmen the world has ever seen? Did his proficiency retard the progression of rock or launch it into reeling into the farthest reaches of the musical cosmos? Or Radiohead perhaps? Astonishing technical proficiency and yet they have found a clarity of expression that marries the cerebral and theoretically advanced modes with glassy, hum-to melodies? And don't for a moment presume that technical proficiency is the sole preserve of hoary old bastards? What do you think those kiddies are doing in their bedrooms clumsily navigating widdly woo Matt Bellamy riffs?

Having said that... I know what you mean.

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Luke Turner
Dec 11, 2009 5:17pm

In reply to Sexy Boots:

See that's the thing, it's all subjective innit. Not a massive fan of Hendrix, went off Radiohead about a decade ago and I think Muse are awful in their ostentatiousness, like putting a pair of gold-painted plaster lions at the end of a Barrett Home suburban drive.

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glenn branca
Dec 24, 2009 7:34am

Judy Berman sounds to me like an Eno groupie. His article as she describes it is both Eno being self- aggrandizing: his music has inspired 20 different movements "last time I looked". Not to mention the fact that the "uncool" has been cool for about 20 years now. My article does NOT proclaim the "death of music" and I'm sick of hearing this, especially from people with an obvious agenda.

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