In a little less than a month, I’ll be turning 40 years-old.
As this has been a year of relative silence from me, (as my day-to-day responsibilities have grown and the endurance with which I can pursue my passions, namely Letters From A Tapehead, have become nil), I’ve been faced with an inbox brimming with evidence that I may have reached some level of irrelevance, that my experience, understanding, and ideas regarding music may be outdated. It seems the natural conclusion when you’re well past the point of no return, unable to bargain with your record collection or penchant for late nights at any number of venues for a few more years of connection. I’ve been pondering what it means to be faced with the likelihood of meaninglessness in music's modern age; to be someone for whom music is no longer meant to target or embrace; to be a near-obsessive record fanatic sometimes confused by the so-called cream of pop's current crop. And, now, I get to be one of those guys: the aged and superior grump completely disinterested in anything now and new.
It’s not because I want to be here. It’s because I AM HERE.
So, assuming the position of elder attempting to stay in tune with an otherwise young demo in the midst of moving forward, I wonder if the role of critic is necessary these days. And, when I ask that, it’s because I wonder if music matters as much as it used to. Does that thing you download, the sound file that sometimes doesn’t even require purchase, or a stereo, that shapeless thing taking up memory on your laptop or smart device, have significance? Or, is it all just noise?
Without trying to come off like the aged and superior grump I’d mentioned earlier, and hopefully not to the level of archetypal Babyboomer solipsism and narcissism, I do take comfort with when I found music, a time when it all seemed as confounding and worrisome as it did exciting and dangerous. I saw an age when a song lyric from a Prince song could inspire a group of senators’ wives to vilify artists for using their First Amendment rights. I remember N.W.A. garnering media and FBI attention for bluntly criticizing the police force. I heard “Cop Killer,” a song that not only inspired the ire of then-sitting President of the United States, George H.W. Bush, but had subsequently been deleted from Ice-T’s Body Count album because the controversy was that heavy. I got to see Madonna kiss the feet of a Black Saint and dance in a field of burning crosses for “Like A Prayer,” committing a degree of blasphemy through art which I would consider a bolder move than wearing a meat dress to an award show. 2 Live Crew were put on trial for obscenity for the lyrical content of their album, As Nasty As They Wanna Be, the lead single, “Me So Horny,” I remember being played at dances when I was in 7th grade. The single was censored, but the message was still loud and clear. And there were men on television, falsely moral and greedy men, preaching the Lord’s gospel, decrying rock and metal as corrupting forces whose messages of Satanic devotion were baked into records and only audible if you played them backwards.
(For the record, every metalhead I knew growing up as a teenager in the late 80s/early 90s either became a musician or an overly impassioned music geek with an enviable record collection. Metalheads keep the culture and economy alive.)
As the retrospective critiques and anniversary pieces regarding albums-now-deemed-classics work to analyze and reconsider what were significant documents of an era, I do think about whether or not it’s understood what records meant. And maybe that uncertainty is something that comes with the ease and immediacy of downloadable music having been one whose access into music was gained by forking over untold sums of money, dubbing and trading cassettes, and scanning the pages of any rock rag I could find. It's possible that the methods are the same, only the tools have evolved.
I’m aware of how unfair it is to pit myself and my experiences against a generation whose consumption of music changed with technology. And I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the fact that the unfortunate deaths of both David Bowie and Prince were felt by music fans both old and new. I continue every year to enjoy good music from artists that challenge convention. If it’s possible for a relevant artist like Kendrick Lamar to come up with something as brilliant as To Pimp A Butterfly, an album whose social ambiguity, abrasive language and musical density equals that of Ice Cube’s Death Certificate or Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, then I don’t question art’s want of importance.
I do, however, question sometimes audiences’ abilities to listen and contextualize. And this isn’t a jab at millennials. It wasn’t millennials who leaned on reality TV to come up with the next President of the United States. It was a collective populace whose understanding of the world now requires bumper-sticker length summation and slogans easy enough to “share if you agree.” I realize that I’m generalizing, but I feel we’re witnessing a time when cultural critique and philosophy, much of which you could find in popular music, is in absentia. And when songs require less depth, mediocrity can be mistaken for more than it is, consequences of a lowered bar. Maybe for some Beyoncé’s Lemonade made enough of a statement to stand as 2016’s popular voice of dissent. Not sure if it did for me.
As someone who has tried, maybe not always successfully, to strive against generational dismissiveness, I don’t want to come off as the finger-wagging, “get off my lawn,” asshole so certain of my own importance and status with the world that I’m willing to lambaste and categorize all young people as overly-sensitive pussies. I won’t deny that thicker skins are in need for many of us. I do think we’ve lost our ability to identify satire from speech with intent to hate or offend, mandated obedience from true patriotism, critique and analysis from insult or unnecessary cruelty. We can barely tell the difference between news and propaganda. With art, we get nuance. With art, we learn to think and view life through a lens that perhaps becomes askew once exposed to something different. And, I’m hoping that music can continue to provide that platform even while public assembly and demonstration both seem to be alive and well.
So, I’m almost 40 and completely irrelevant. But, I’m still listening. If you’d like to continue reading what I have to say, I’m more than happy to keeping going. I'll try harder in 2017.
Letters From A Tapehead
2020 Playlist — tētēma, Oval, Flat Worms, Wreckmeister Harmonies, Ulver, Caleb Landry Jones, L.A. Takedown
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