It’s not the music that gets released on CD that makes me sad and despairing for the future of entertainment. It’s the support that it gets, and the level of enjoyment it appears capable of producing.
Daddy drinks because you listen to Adele.
Okay, fine — taste is what it is, as I’ve argued previously. You like what you like, and that’s just how it goes — you don’t have control over what resonates with you. And my tastes aren’t any better than yours*, just as yours aren’t any better than anyone else’s (excepting, of course, those people that buy Justin Beiber’s albums).
This isn’t a cranky-old-man rant. Music trends happen in cycles. Some form of some genre defines the “popular” format for six or eight or ten years, and then something new comes along to redefine music for the next half-generation. There were the Beatles and the Stones, and then the easy-listening of James Taylor and the Carpenters, then disco, then new-wave, then hair metal, then grunge, and then whatever it is that’s defining radio today (here’s your old man rant, for those looking for such: I can’t freaking keep up anymore).
There are those that will argue that it’s the media and the labels that create and sustain these trends, and I’ll hesitantly accede to a bit of the latter. But the real force behind popular music is the masses, the record- and ticket-buying public. So whether it’s Britney Spears or Adele or Backstreet Boys or Bon Jovi that is fighting for number one with a bullet — and in this context, I love that double entendre — it’s because that’s what people want to hear on their radios, what they’re plunking down their almighty dollar for at Sam Goody’s and the iTunes store.
When bands like Nirvana come along, it’s always exciting for me. Here’s something new, different, and (most importantly) challenging, not simple and digestible without a little consideration. It shows me that there are still people out there who want to think, listeners who want to be stimulated and to explore and to discover. With every new album that comes out, rising to the top of the charts by following the same old formula, my heart sinks and gives in to the fear of a complacent culture; for every band that breaks through doing it’s own thing that happens to be outside the box (whether I personally like it or not), that fears recedes.
Over the past two years, I’ve seen moments here and there that make me think that maybe we live in exciting and promising times. I’ve seen sell-out crowds at Wilco shows, over and over, filled with people of all walks. I’ve seen the Avett Brothers do the same, repeatedly. The power of Radiohead — to sell both albums and tickets to shows filled with heady, experimental unpredictability — is astonishing, year after year.
And then last week, I went to see Coheed & Cambria at WorkPlay. If you’re unfamiliar with the band, they’re hard rock, progressive — as Scott Register puts it, Rush-light. I think that’s giving the band short shrift, but fair enough, for a quick description. They don’t play big dumb arena rock, though — no Guns ‘N’ Roses or Van Halen here (not that I have anything at all against big dumb arena rock). It’s intense, conceptual stuff — the lyrics of their last five albums tell the story of the Amory Wars, and serve as the soundtrack to a series of comics books written by singer/songwriter/guitarist Claudio Sanchez.
I expected to be sharing a room with 20 or 30 people, hardcore fans who knew every word and were more familiar with the insides of comic book shops than music venues. What I got was a sold-out soundstage filled with a primarily younger audience, who knew all the songs and sang along to all the words and cheered with more energy than I’ve seen at any show since the Avett Brothers’ gig at Samford’s Wright Center. It was, in a word, amazing. And seeing so many kids (it was an all-ages show) appreciating music that isn’t the commonplace was incredibly promising for the future of all things left-of-center.
But don’t worry, you fans of pop. They covered Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.” So there’ s that.
These bands aren’t likely to ever be chart-toppers like Madonna or Coldplay or Adele. Or maybe they will — most people would have said the same of Nirvana, Radiohead, and Metallica, but there they all sit, kings of the mountain, household names that even non-musical people would know and recognize. But I’m glad they’re out there, to provide something different, something challenging, something ultimately more satisfying and fulfilling. An alternative, in the best sense of the word.
If anyone needs me, I’ll be over here obsessing about the new Storm Corrosion disc, dreaming of a day when they could draw a similar crowd at WorkPlay.
* Totally not true. My tastes reign supreme above all others. But, as Mom always taught me, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down…