Ignore The Sunday Times – Today’s Young Artists are doing Great Things

A headline surfaced in my news feed today – an article from The Sunday Times in the UK proclaiming, “Modern pop is rubbish, says Damon.”  The Blur front man says music stars of the ‘selfie generation’ should sing about politics, not just chant platitudes.

The article addressed today’s youth culture, and pictured Taylor Swift as the spokeswoman of their generation.  But The Times and Damon have got it all wrong.

2

Pop is relatively inconsequential – like the loudmouth in the room at a party carrying on to hear himself speak… no one cares and he is forgotten when the moment has passed.

I’ve spoken with a number of musicians from what the article dubs, “the selfie generation” and the term honestly doesn’t apply.  Nor does the term from a previous but similar article which called them “the Belieber generation.”  These kids don’t revere teen pop stars as anything relevant outside of the tiny bubble that is pop music.  They are interested in more socially and culturally significant concepts, like the role of technology in their lives and the globalization of culture.  Or any number of other values of relevance ranging from widely-demographic to simply personal.  Because that’s what the youth culture is – individual, creative people, not a swarm of mindless bodies jumping up and down to whoever Disney tells them to worship.

Certainly – Taylor Swift and Bieber were massively popular.  It’s an inevitability because they were designed to be popular – saccharine-sweet over-simplified melodies repeated ad nauseum, super-saturating every mass-media market  in the world.  But outside of those irritatingly-loud broadcast spheres, in the minds of growing teens forming their own values and opinions about the world around them, those media outlets matter less and less every day.  They blare on at full-volume 24/7, desperately begging consumers to buy their associated merchandise, but kids quickly grow out of that infinitesimal world and move on to something bigger and far more important in their lives.

In 100 years, music history won’t droll on about Bieber or Britney, any more than they would about  Frankie Avalon or Ricky Nelson.  Momentary teen pop sensations are irrelevant in the grand scheme.  Instead, they will teach the incredible impact of Cage and Glass the way they do today about Bach and Beethoven.  Rock’s brief but vibrant life will be summarized by Dylan and The Beatles.  Other than a handful of household names, the whole of teen pop will be forgotten, just as it is when it is recycled, again and again, every three to five years.

I have a lot more faith in “the selfie generation.”  They’re doing great things musically – you just have to listen to them.

EG-8-Static-Image-Sound-Louder

What will be generation Z’s musical, artistic, and cultural movement/identity?

Generation Z includes children born 1995-2009 (though these dates are not universally accepted as of yet.)  With what movement in art, theater, dance, and music do they identify?  What cultural value set inspires its growth and evolution?  I am speaking of the “Belieber” generation.  (For perspective, Justin Bieber was born in 1994 and released his first album in 2010 at age 16.)

Justin BieberExhibit “A”

With my general understanding of the development of Western and world culture, I have a basic awareness the socio-musical climates which inspired the blues, big band, the birth of jazz, its many changes, the punk scene, art music, the renaissance of classical influence in progressive rock, the musical impact of the 7” single, the LP, the shift to FM radio, and the academic New Music movement in New York in the 1960s.

I understand the blurring and vanishing of the difference between so-called “high” and “low” art as the democratization of recording technology facilitated independent production and a cultural move away from the dependence on record labels and producers to record, market, and distribute one’s work in the digital age.

Why pay Universal for a studio when you've got ProTools at home?ProTools.  Bandcamp.  Social Media.
Who needs a record label?

I have fundamental knowledge of music and the arts up until and including the end of the rock era and the paradigm shift in the way listeners discover and consume music at the end of the 20th century from Napster-forward.  FM and television have plummeted in popularity and neither bares any relevance to the generation who experience music through streaming networks and social media.

The last movements I encountered directly were the  Icelandic-influenced popularization of post-rock and its inspirations lifted from neo-classical sound.  I remember the rise of the indie-rock scene as a cultural reaction to the corporatization of music at the end of the rock era and the dominance of top 40 pop.  Programs like American Idol and the interminable NOW! That’s What I Call Music! series worked to re-enforce the prevailing position of Clear Channel / Warner Music’s stranglehold on the emerging youth culture, effectively raising a generation to consume their product.

 NOW! That's What I Call Bullshit!
And so I posed the question to Quora.com – a forum of user-generated question-and-answer content.

Q: What self-identifying art and music will emerge from a generation raised on a billboard chart of manufactured acts with no concrete musical ability (in the classical sense) and in an era where arts and music funding and education are at an all-time low?

I feared that an entire culture was being bred with no concept of the centuries of great works from which they can build upon, reshape and re-purpose to serve the values and needs of their own generation.  What is next?

Symphonics
The first answer I received was not promising.  In jest, a user offered:

“Hipsters.  Banjos.  Pocket camera art.”

…he left out “selfies.”

But the next answer I received completely shattered my preconceived notion that Gen-Z-ers were nothing more than “Belieber” simpletons.  (And shame on me for oversimplifying the demographic.)

The response was offered by Quora user and future rockstar, Will Tuckwell.  Will studied Music at University of Birmingham and offered a great deal of insight into the promise of his generation.  He said:

Speaking as a musician and a member of ‘Generation Z’ (I was born in 1994), I feel optimistic about the future of the arts. I would disagree that American Idol et al have a stranglehold on youth culture. Young people have more of an opportunity than ever before to access great art of the past. (IMSLP and Naxos Music Library cover the vast majority of classical music scores and recordings, for example.) Generation Z can often instantly find a piece of music on the internet, which their parents, at their age, would have had to visit a library to access. The existence of large companies pushing generic music via mass media is not new to this generation – it has existed in one form or another since the popularisation of recorded music in the early 20th century. While their influence is not trivial, it is very easily avoidable most of the time (at least for me.)

Clear Channel

Here are some of the areas of music and art which I will be interested to see develop in the future:

  • Electronic music software. Digital Audio Workstations which are now commonplace have the ability to emulate the methods of Musique Concrete and Electroacoustic composers, as well as the mixing and production techniques which evolved in recording studios. Also, programs are being developed specifically for the needs of experimental computer musicians, such as Max/MSP, Audiomulch and Supercollider. I would be very interested to see what kind of artistic conventions a generation of creative minds can establish with these new tools.

Pure Data (showing a netpd session)Pure Data (showing a netpd session)

  • Creative pop culture references, in particular sampling. Musical quotations are nothing new, although the invention of the digital sampler (not quite from Generation Z I know, but of increased popularity and accessibility in recent years) allows an artist to quote specific ‘moments’ in order to make a cultural point – for example, a composition which samples not just a guitar note, but a particular note or section of melody which Jimi Hendrix played in his Woodstock performance of Star Spangled Banner, comes loaded with countless cultural connotations in less than a second, in a way which no other form of composition could achieve.

“Dab” from John Oswald’s notorious
Plunderphonics EP  (1988)

And the bizarre fad of Youtube Poop –

  • Increased intercultural reference in the arts in general. Our generation has it easier than ever before to instantly look up information, which allows lyricists to make increasingly sophisticated references.

“If you don’t get it, get a computer and Google it
If you find out all the reasons we the shit,
then you the shit”

Even if arts and music education funding are at an all-time low, access to the internet (and therefore culture) is widespread, development of a craft is mostly a self-led activity, and ideas and inspiration are free. I have no doubts that this generation will create vast amounts of great art.

As you can imagine, this response was entirely unexpected and has really given me hope about the future of the arts and music.

I pressed on, looking for other sources of Gen-Z and Gen-Alpha inspiration.  This lead me to an article on 21st century composers (because apparently, THAT IS A THING.)  A Wikipedia entry for 21st century classical offered a list of composers I could arrange by birth date.  At the end of the list I found a name – Alma Deutscher, who was born in 2005.

2005.

Alma Deutscher
I had to look her up.  Youtube thankfully offered a video of her appearance on Ellen from October of last year.  The eight-year-old has composed operas in her sleep, arisen and written the notation for each instrument entirely from memory.

And here is her own Quartet Movement in A Major, composed in 2012.

Suddenly the future is looking a lot brighter.

Creme de la Crunk

Saturday July 26th marked the first time in Billboard music history that a comedy record debuted at number 1 on the Billboard 200 List.  The record was, of course, “Weird Al” Yankovic’s 14th studio album, Mandatory Fun.  This was Al’s final LP in his 14-record contract with RCA, and the success is attributed in part to his brilliant advertising campaign for the record.

Al contacted a number of media portals like Funny or Die and CollegeHumor and offered to deliver virally-popular content in exchange for their funding and producing each of his videos.  Al released one video for 8 days of the album’s 10 day release and acquired more than 46 million views during that short span.

Al commented that, moving forward he would likely focus on singles, as media culture moves so quickly that waiting to build a 12-track album would render your content “yesterday’s news.”

weird-al-yankovic

In honor of “Weird Al’s” success, (and as the delivery of my latest vinyl order has been delayed another two weeks), I thought I’d offer a post on the “lighter side” of music.

So today, we’ll take a look at the best (and the absolute worst) rated records as ranked by aggregate music data sites, Metacritic and rateyourmusic.com.

Metacritic has been tracking aggregate music, film, and video game metascores since January 11 of 2000. Out of curiosity, I populated a list of every album they’ve ever scored and looked up the lowest and highest scores since the site’s inception.

There is a tie for first place –

The Clash – London Calling (25th Anniversary Legacy Ed.)

London Calling 25th Anniversary
and, Weezer – Pinkerton (2010 Deluxe Edition)

Weezer - Pinkerton

Both have a metascore of 100 from 12 sources and a User Score of 8.8 from 148 and 146 sources respectively.

And the lowest-ever score?

The Bloodhoung Gang’s Hefty Fine is 2nd to last with a failing score of 28.

Bloodhound Gang - Hefty Fine

But way down at the bottom is Playing With Fire – an attempt at a rap record by Britney Spears’ ex-husband, Kevin Federline.
It scored a miserable 15.

Hailed by critics as “GENERIC!” … “INSTANTLY FORGETTABLE!” … “TRITE!” … and “INCONSEQUENTIAL!” this is one for the books.

kevin-federline-pimp

Rateyourmusic’s scores are user-generated and span a much-wider timeline.

All-time highest-scoring records include, Velvet Underground & Nico at #3, Dark Side of the Moon at #2, and Radiohead’s OK Computer holding the #1 position with over 27,000 ratings and an average score of 4.24.

But now on to the dark side of RYM’s charts.

Crazy Frog Presents Crazy Hits (2005) comes in at #1 with a score of nearly zero.  The album was saved by one sarcastic user who composed several hundred words praising the album sarcastically and awarding it 5 stars.

Crazy Frog Presents Crazy Hits

And not surprisingly, Crazy Frog charted not once but five times in the bottom 50.

And at number 2 is brokenCYDE – a crunkcore band with four albums in the bottom 10 and another in the bottom 50.

In fact, nine total crunkcore records appear in the bottom 100.

Kevin Federline shows up at #4 on the RYM All-Time Bottom Chart with the same record named by Metacritic.

Kevin_Federline_Playing_with_Fire

Soulja Boy charted four more albums in the bottom 50 with a genre called “snap” – apparently a derivative of crunk music.

soulja-boy

Soulja Boy… staying classy.

Aaron Carter and Justin Bieber each placed four times in the bottom 50 with various forgettables.

Aaron Carter… clearly of the same music university.

I'm detecting a pattern here...

And Professor Bieber.  Selfie of a composer who will live in infamy.

How do you think Bach would feel about the state of the music industry today?

How do you think Bach would feel about the state of the music industry today?

Please do yourself a favor and listen to something arresting, challenging and beautiful today.  Thank you.