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August 28, 2007

Talking tribalism in the hood

Joe Nickell

Howdy folks, long time since I chimed in here. It's been a crazy month in and out of Montana for me. The first week of the month found me heading off to a family reunion in Kentucky, where I indulged in old ham and fried catfish, caught some bluegill, and generally lazed around by a lake. I returned to discover my adopted state on fire. Friends were evacuated from their homes, Missoula was smothered in a dense pillow of smoke, my four-month old baby was grumpy from breathing the lousy air, and half my co-workers were on vacation, leaving me with double my normal workload. Crazy times.

Fortunately, some things didn't fall apart in my absence, notably Flyover, which has seemed on fire in its own way, what with spirited discussions of generational issues and interesting analysis of intellectual hoity-toityness and so on. I feel almost intimidated to wade back in.

So I thought I'd share a personal experience that I thought some here might appreciate. A couple of weeks ago, at a neighborhood barbecue, I had one of those surprising conversations that only happen once in awhile -- where out of the blue, in an unexpected place, you bond with someone over an insight.

It began with my neighbor complaining about what he perceived as a dearth of great political music today. Gone are the days, he argued, when bands like U2 and the Beatles and Neil Young (his personal favorite) unleashed battle cries for the politically motivated and musically engaged youth, cries that rallied masses of people out of complacency and into political action.

I pointed out that such music is still being made, by well-known bands ranging from Michael Franti & Spearhead to John Mellencamp to Eminem.

"But it just doesn't seem like that music is really making a difference," he complained. "It's not what everybody is listening to."

"But," I pointed out, "it's only really been during the 20th century that 'everybody' could listen to one particular song and use it as a form of cultural currency. That was as much a result of the concentration of media power and the entertainment industry as it was about the importance of that music. What you're seeing is just a return to the natural state of culture, where not everybody listens to the same thing because tastes are increasingly localized and dispersed. The only difference is that, today, 'local' means something different."

Our conversation veered farther afield, but I will stop there because I'm curious: Am I the only person who believes that we'll never see another mass cultural phenomenon like the Beatles or the Stones? In a world where music by my band is theoretically as easy to access as music by 50 Cent or the greatest recording ever of Mahler's Second Symphony, and where the influence and presumed authority of a handful of critics at the New York Times and Rolling Stone is being undermined by tens of thousands of bloggers, isn't it now a given that tribalism and taste dispersion is the new cultural paradigm?

And if so, how should that affect what we do as journalists and critics?

Posted by Joe Nickell at August 28, 2007 9:31 PM


I think you're probably correct -- a mass phenomenon like the Beatles to a large degree is based on the available distribution system. If the distribution system -- i.e., an old-fashioned FM radio -- doesn't allow for a lot of consumer choice, only a few groups will be able to dominate.

On the other hand, popularity doesn't just have to do with the distribution system. The content of what's distributed matters, too. Music and ideas can catch fire on the grass roots even before elites recognize what's happening or before marketers can exploit them.

So I can see certain things on the Internet attaining global or national appeal and influence -- though perhaps not quite to the extent as the old days. Perhaps what will happen in the future will be more "organic" and less "marketed" -- a little like how favorite stories and myths were passed around by word of mouth eons ago.

Posted by: gary panetta at August 29, 2007 11:45 AM

I'm not sure the mass-dissemination of music begins with radio and records. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, sheet music publishers created hits by Stephen Foster, for example, that permeated the culture like a 1950s or 1960s pop hit. Whether in parlors or saloons, vaudevilles or minstrel shows, the hits were in the air.

As for political songs failing to gain traction nowadays, it's likely because, as someone once almost sang, the times, more than the technology, have been a-changing. Songs become popular because they articulate something an audience already wants or feels. From the folk boom of the 1950s until the 1980s campus protests against universities investing in apartheid South Africa, songs about issues had a chance to resonate because the public was viscerally afraid of being blown to nuclear smithereens, or of being drafted to fight in Vietnam (even future presidents of the United States had to fear standing naked in an induction line, and, as we know, went to considerable lengths to avoid that fate), or of being implicated by their government or their alma mater in a racist outrage.

It wasn't that the music was necessarily better (although quite a lot of it has proven strong enough to endure outside its immediate context). Or that the generation was better (let's not go there again). It's that the youth cohort that pop music sought in those days was lasered into the issues because they were viscerally felt.

Technology has led to a media diffusion, but the times have led to a diffusion of concerns. If the draft comes back next month, some intrepid and inspired popster is going to have a massive hit with a song that captures the moment.

Ditto if, god forbid, terrorist attacks become a daily occurrence on U.S. soil. Then we'll get the second coming of Sgt. Barry Sadler's "Ballad of the Green Beret."

As for no more Beatles/Stones/Springsteen/U2 levels of stardom . . . That's a hard call, but I think would-be megastars have a harder time causing the masses to become emotionally invested in what they do.

There was something about the ritual of going to the record store and holding that record in your hands that contributed to the bond . . . and then when you heard the music and the artist delivered -- yet again -- the impact went beyond having an enjoyable musical experience.

You were invested as a collector and a patron of an artist's work, because you'd invested the time in procuring it, and secured a space for it in your home. I'm not sure the downloading experience yields that kind of satisfaction or bond. Also, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and with the endless touring and ceaseless exposure on television that set in during the 1980s, how could a fan miss 'em if they wouldn't go away?

Moreover, endless touring meant that acts were taken out of their songwriting/recording groove to play gigs and maximize profits. So while the Beatles and Stones and Van Morrison got to make a half-dozen or more great albums while they were in the prime of their youth, acts emerging in the late 80s onward made perhaps two or three, and spent god knows how many nights cranking out the hits on stage when they should have been jamming and brainstorming in a studio or rehearsal room or restocking their inspiration with fresh real-world experiences.

The game became rigged against enduring pop greatness and pop stardom for economic reasons, and as you point out, the loss of a central marketplace doesn't help. I think pop's absorption into commercials became the death knell. One may traffic with whores, but can one truly love them?

Posted by: Mike Boehm at August 29, 2007 1:24 PM

Good thoughts.

Mr. Mike, you're absolutely right about the sheet music industry of the 19th century. But -- correct me if I'm wrong -- that industry never really went global, and even in America wasn't literally in every living room and every car (or buggy!) in the way that the Beatles were thanks to television and radio. You have a good point but I guess what I'm trying to point out (or at least posit) is that there was no era before the 20th century when mass entertainment was so ... well, massive ... and I don't see that coming back now.

Gary, I agree with you and actually it's what gives me some hope in this new era. With the power of the mass marketing machinery of corporate entertainment giants now largely usurped by the Internet, true quality -- deep quality -- has at least a fairer chance of bubbling to the top.

But at the same time, we have a much bigger cauldron, if you will, than once was the case. So while I have hope that quality will once again begin to prevail over corporate schlock entertainment, I suspect the rewards will be dispersed among the many more manifestations of quality that are now available to us.

Posted by: Joe Nickell at August 29, 2007 2:56 PM

The era that gave prominence to political music began in the sixties, which was the awakening of youth culture. There was a war, a draft, that helped fuel it. If there were a draft now, you can bet that alone would galvanize many artists and youth again. But no one has any sense of sacrifice with the current war; that will be deferred to the future deficit and whatever economic burdens result. And, because there is no draft, there is little to care about: everyone who doesn't enlist is "a fortunate one." Were there a draft, there would be burning barricades, rest assured. There would be music, all right.

Posted by: Steve Veatch at August 29, 2007 11:16 PM

Joe wanted to know what journalists and critics should do now that the center apparently cannot hold for the traditional pop-music construct of record companies and radio/video channel programmers acting as gatekeepers.

I think today's catch-all newspaper biz solution, "localism," is a good place to start: if it emanates from your circulation area, or is causing a buzz in your local clubs, you'd best check it out and let your readers know about it, even if that means you don't have time or space to offer them your take on the new Springsteen or Radiohead release -- analysis that they can get anywhere.

If you find something really good in your backyard (and you will), you'll be breaking news instead of adding another "me too" to the chorus. Then you'll be the tastemaker/gatekeeper, at least in your circumscribed domain.

Of course, when Springsteen/Radiohead, et.al. tour into your circulation area, then covering the big names becomes part of your localism gambit. This approach could actually make the newspaper pop journalist's workaday life and coverage decisions somewhat more sane and focused than they traditionally have been, although keeping up on farther-flung trends will remain a must.

Context, you know.

If every city has a publication with a savvy reporter-critic keeping an eye on the music scene, there may be some happy echoing of the golden era of regional record labels and independent local disc jockeys. What a newspaper staffer in Cincinnati writes about the next James Brown (who began on Cincy-based King Records) could shape music history to come; that is, if some newsperson in James II's Georgia hometown hasn't gotten there first (and, bigger if, this assumes there can ever be another JB).

The day may come when aggregated newspaper pop coverage from around the country, geared to the music junkies who want to be up on the latest things, will be a nice revenue source for publishers. Reserve your bonuses now, pop writers.

I doubt this rosy scenario can be extended to the vastly expensive niche arts of theater, dance, classical music, architecture and visual arts, where world-class talent may not be dwelling in every city at a given moment, and even if it were, it would have to raise tons of money to get its work off the ground and into the public eye.

Cheap production and dissemination costs and high-quality playback technology will allow pop music and video/film to be viable cottage industries in a way the your-presence-is-required arts cannot. Maybe localism, in those genres, will mean closely following from afar the careers of locals (raised or college-educated) who go to the metropolis and make good.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at August 30, 2007 12:15 AM

Re: the Beatles being more omnipresent than Stephen Foster in his day: Yeah, if the kids tried playing "I Dream of Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair" two or three times an hour on the parlor piano, the way Top 40 radio did in the Beatles' era, they'd have gotten sent to clean the privy.

My point was that the mechanisms were there before electronic media to create a substantial music marketplace and a common currency of songs that just about everybody knew. And, since adolescence and the generation gap hadn't yet been invented, maybe a greater percentage of the American public had heard "I Dream of Jeannie" than would later hear "Hey Jude."

But barring the uncovering of Nielson/SoundScan data on sheet music sales from the 1800s, I'm just guessing.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at August 30, 2007 12:30 AM