I distinctly remember my first visual encounter with music.
I was six years old. My dad had purchased a copy of The Blues Brothers, which was on the sale rack at Blockbuster. When we eventually sat down to watch it, I couldn’t have contemplated that what I was about to witness was not designed to be consumed by someone my age.
And it appears as if my dad forgot too. As I witnessed Jake and Elwood cursing profusely at an elderly nun, I turned to look at my dad. He stared back as if he was about to explain himself. He didn’t. So we just carried on watching.
And I’m glad we did. Despite being a child born in the late 1990s, much of my family’s collection of music consisted of vinyl and cassettes from previous generations. Its range? Limitless. One minute, my dad would be listening to Jimmy Cliff or singing along to Al Green, the next my mum was blasting out Chaka Khan, Sade and an array of 80s classics from our old hi-fi system whilst she made us dinner. Looking back on my earlier years, I remember markedly that all of my parents’ favourites were highly regarded for their live performance skills.
Talk to many music fans from older generations and you might get the impression that this talent is a phenomenon of bygone days. New pop stars are heavily criticised for their poor vocal delivery, vapid lyrics and general unrefined behaviour. In 2016, the BBC even published an article that went as far to say that the success of sites like YouTube could potentially be the cause behind the decline of the live music scene in the UK.
Following closely behind was GQ, who published a damning review of today’s current Top 40 chart back in 2017. Categorizing the charts as dull, boring and seemingly predictable, the piece is a scathing dissection of modern music; “The majority of recent hits are singing from the same hymn sheet. Even Maroon 5 sound like tropical house now”. A factor that’s suggested origin lies with the functionality of streaming services such as Spotify in the process of selecting the best new music released each week.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a reality check.
For a start, it is bizarre to claim that there has ever been some sort of ‘pinnacle’ in music. Within every era of artistic expression, there will be work produced of ground-breaking quality, usually counterbalanced by art that is self-referential, unadorned, superficial and sometimes just a bit shit. Millennial music is no exception to this rule. At least, not entirely.
Nowadays, artists can create and release their work without the need for a multi-million record deal, from their bedrooms if they have the right equipment. Songwriters have transfigured into producers, developing an individuality built around achieving sonic excellence in all aspects of their own music – a drastic departure from the average performance-driven act traditionally signed to a major label. Being multi-disciplinary has become the norm and focus on visual elements of performance has developed into an ever more noticeable element of artistry in the last few decades.
But “ah!” I hear you cry. “The real problem isn’t the music, it’s the culture!”
Myth number 2: Millennials are killing live music venues.
With social media and streaming services dominating the way we discover and consume music, “what happens to the dingy pubs and sweat-soaked clubs that used to be the lifeblood of the music industry?” wailed the BBC in 2016. No matter that just this year, 27% of all venues in London “reported experiencing problems with property development around their premise” – the closing down of small venues is as much to do with housing policy as it is to do with the internet. While they’ve definitely changed the way we consume music, YouTube and sites like it also offer opportunities to live venues and the artists they host to gain exposure and (the magic words) build up a brand. The lack of support for these venues has more to do with the arts being perceived as surplus to requirements in the grand scheme of things by politicians (as well as the fact that it’s not uncommon to break a tenner for a pint of lager in the nation’s capital). Running costs for smaller organisations are becoming an impossible task to uphold, and although I jest about the price of a pint, venues are being forced to up their prices in an effort to counter the increasing tax cuts from their revenue (almost 52p of the average pint goes to the treasury).
A study cited by the Guardian last year recommended that local authorities “recognise small and medium music venues as key sites of artist and audience development and as cultural and community assets.” We need support for a cultural shift that actively cultivates community spaces at a local level, rather than demonise the newest available tech as single-handedly destroying live music.
I believe this is where the ideas expressed by GQ can seem a bit, well, outdated. Much has changed since the times of The Smiths and Mel and Kim. And not just in music, the world. A newer landscape is in the process of development, we are living in the most democratic time of our existence. Artistic mediums such as music are beginning to reflect a broader sense of what society is, rather than what it is perceived to be. Doors have been opened for musicians of all different backgrounds, who identify themselves musically with sounds that are heavily rooted in their cultural heritage. Which leads us to possibly one of the biggest examples of this in the last few years, Rihanna’s ‘Work’.
Cue The A.V. Club’s Cobin Reiff, who remarks “the sheer repetition of the hook creates a built-in expiration date for when this song transitions from catchy to mildly annoying”. A bold comment to make, but a somewhat disingenuous reflection of what is in fact a popular song. It is not unheard of for pop music to sustain a repetitive nature. There is more of an argument to suggest that the cyclical nature of contemporary song writing is a key component for why it is so enjoyable to such as vast amount of people.
Take Oasis’s ‘Wonderwall’. The song uses the same four chords throughout, but does it make it any worse for doing so? Of course not. Yet some choose to take exception when Rihanna displays the same sentiment within her music. Strange, don’t you think? And it doesn’t stop there. Many outlets took the time out to scrutinize the song’s lyrical content. Leading the way were Mish Mash who, unwavering in their criticism, used language such as “literal gibberish” in their review.
Now, I am a firm believer of not wanting to contribute to the fake news culture surrounding most of the informative areas of modern society. I have confidence in informing, rather than disparaging. With that being said, I would like to offer some helpful advice. To those who may not fully comprehend the origins of someone’s art, please at least attempt to seek it out. In the case of Rihanna, those who have access to pretty much all the processed information in the world through the internet would have been able to reach the conclusion that she was using patois originating from the Caribbean. It is crucial that before you set out expressing your opinions with so much conviction you, at the very most, make sure that you have all the facts.
Getting back on track, if anyone wanted any more proof that live music is still a force to be reckoned with, NPR’s Tiny Desk is it. Its unique, quirky sensibilities provide artists with the platform to put their best foot forward, all within the confines of a small room home to the desk of presenter Bob Boilen. Although on first glance it appears as if it would be better suited to acoustic artists, Tiny Desk has attracted a vast range of musicians, from people whose names appear regularly in the charts (e.g. Adele) to and up and coming experimental artists (Cautious Clay and Haley Heynderickx are ones to look out for). As you might be able to tell, genre isn’t a defining feature of it, which chimes with trends that we’re listening to more music than ever before (which, naturally, is less tied to subcultures than in the pre-digital age). The one unifying principle of Tiny Desk is the kind of talent your parents might claim as the preserving of a prior generation.
Alas, there is still light at the end of the tunnel. I fully accept that smaller live music venues are experiencing tougher times, and I am fully sympathetic. However, the problem will always come back to funding for the arts, and distracting from this but trying to pass the blame on to the internet and streaming will never provide a long term solution. On the other hand, sometimes it’s about moving with the times. After being forced to close its doors due to a string of drug related deaths, the popular nightclub Fabric were forced to revaluate their situation. Their reopening was followed by the implementation of tougher regulations; a new ID system, newer surveillance technology and a lifetime ban for those caught dealing or in possession of drugs. It’s impact, entering at No.2 in DJ Magazine’s top 100 clubs.
As for the argument that new music sucks? Change the record, would you.
if you enjoyed this, consider following us on Facebook for more content. It’s really quite a good idea.