17 January 2016

glenatron: (moody othello)
It has already been a bitter year for iconic heroes of the arts and it has left me thinking a lot about the music I grew up with.

I was never a great Bowie fan- I only own a couple of "best-of" albums - but I grew up listening to bands who grew up on Bowie. His influence was absolutely pervasive. It is also undeniable that he was responsible for some of the greatest pop songs ever recorded - I cannot think of any song that could get close to Life On Mars as a contender for greatest pop song ever. He had a brilliance for tunes, a great voice that showed us that one could sing rock with an English accent and a knack for finding amazing musicians to collaborate with throughout his career. That's without even thinking about his impact on fashion, art, cinema, video games - he was an explosion of ideas that touched every part of our culture, particularly in the early seventies when ( by all accounts ) we really needed it.

The other thing is that he was able to do this because of when he was alive. He was, as his friend sang, a twentieth century boy and his art defined the last third of the century. David Bowie lived at the only time that he could possibly have been David Bowie.

Now that he is gone, we have not only lost his bright light in the world, we are also seeing the passing of that age. The music I grew up with was powerful, but it was on the cusp, becoming a reflection of what had gone before - Zeppelin and Sabbath powered the Grunge scene, The Kinks, the Beatles and Bowie were fossil fuel that Britpop burned. As the nineties ended bands were looking back to New Wave and the early eighties followed by an interminable eighties revival which may be petering out at last- I didn't really listen to eighties music at the time and when I did get into music it felt like that was everything the music I enjoyed was a reaction against, so I never came to like it.

The feeling I get now is that music is recycling. The best modern artists are creating music that is heavy with references to the past, that looks backwards rather than forwards. It is hard to be clear about this because music has been inextricably wound into my life and I have gradually gained context as time has gone by so I can see more than I ever did, but it feels to me as though pop ( in which I include all it's genres and subgenres ) has simply run out of places to go. I couldn't say when that boundary was crossed - probably the last truly new sound to appear was that of electronic dance music and the way that started to cross over into rock around the time of Madchester. Since then - which encompasses the entire part of my life when I have cared about music - there have only been iterative changes. Different tunes, different arrangments. Play a little slower and it's a new subgenre, play it a little faster and it's a new subgenre, but nothing that feels different and new.

Technology has changed us- we can now make any sound that can be imagined, but it turns out that only a few sounds actually appeal to our ears. We're still playing the same scales, the same twelve semitones, the same three or four beat rhythms.

David Bowie worked in the brief period when music was available to everybody, but in order to listen to it someone had to pay for it- whether it was you or the radio station you were listening to. Now music can be propagated endlessly at effectively no cost, something which has been strongly pushed for by the network providers who spend a lot on lobbying against copyright. The idea that it should be given away for free is deeply embedded in the generations who grew up with the internet and that means that it is now exceedingly hard to make a living as a musician and almost impossible to become rich as one. With a diminishing pool of people who can afford to be professional musicians there will be less room for invention and exploration. Bands don't have a shelf-life in the way that they once did - record labels can't afford to finance a career so you get an album, maybe two or three and you're done. The opportunities to grow and change within the music industry are far more limited.

A consequence of this is that the people who pay for music are my generation and older and we get more backward looking music because we are already past our prime and looking for things that comfort us and remind us of when we were young and responsibility-free. Consequently the greatly reduced finances in the music industry go to encourage backward-looking music. If you wanted to make forward-looking music you would need to be appealing to a generation who don't see a need to pay for it and making any kind of living from doing that would be challenging at best. You'd be better off doing lets-plays.

I suppose I don't have a strong point to make here, except that pop music is rapidly becoming ( or has become? ) a legacy genre and that it leaves me wondering whether the all-consuming passion for music that I experienced will be far less available for young people in the future and whether that even matters. I don't see where music has left to go. Of course as a middle-aged white man I'm not supposed to know what the future of music is, perhaps it is already happening in sweaty clubs across the cities of Britain, or Mali or Indonesia. Still it is sad to see that the great beast music, who carried us so far in my lifetime, is emaciated, stumbling and losing its pace. A time will come when there is nothing but the empty plain where those of us who recall it can look back across its bones and listen to the whispers of its legacy. Humans have always needed music and I think we always will, it speaks to us in a very fundamental way. But I think the great flowering of recorded popular music is over. When I was young, jazz was old people's music- it belonged to my granny's generation. As I get older, I realise that pop is going the same way, but I can't see anything on the horizon of the rock and roll that will overwhelm it and take its place.

David Bowie is dead, popular music is slowly wasting away and it feels like that is the passing of the age that I belong to as well.

July 2017

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