…to my considerable surprise, part of my commentary with my (non-)ballot was quoted at length. Very kind of them, especially since, as noted, I chose not to submit any ballot at all — you can find my full comment here.
It was neat to see similar sentiments expressed, though, and without trying to say there’s been a specifically universal alteration, Charles Aaron’s quote just before mine got right to the point:
Considering 2008’s daily fuckery (the election, the economy, the Internet’s continued destruction of journalism as a viable career option), I’ve never felt less inclined to make some head-up-ass editorial case that pop music plays a pivotal role in the development of modern society.
Blunt but apt and accurate. I don’t think music’s importance as something cultural — as something commonly human, at base — has changed in the grand scheme of things, but I do think the massive sea change in how it’s listened to, created, shared, talked about and more has taken the wind out of the idea that Aaron identifies. On a day when Idolator’s been having well-deserved fun with expressions of inherited ideas from the 1960s about music and relevance — check out this post and this one, and I’ve a couple of things to say in the comments section of the latter — the inherited idea that Aaron notes, comforting as it is, deserves some harsh scrutiny too. This is obliquely addressed in the first Idolator post I linked, not about music critics trying to advance grand unified theories of pop music, culture and society but about MTV’s attempt to advance their own, so to quote Mike Barthel from that:
If the kids watching MTV now have an interest in politics, they’re certainly not getting any information about it from the channel. Until now, to do so would be unhip, an awful incursion of seriousness into a glittery world. Obama’s glamour did an end-run by showing up all that as tacky, embracing understatement and dignity. And now, MTV’s trying to rub up against that in hopes of catching the energy Obama summons, and pop music lacks.
But, MTV being MTV, the channel failed even in this. Obama’s call for collective action was not really a request for more volunteerism. It was, rather, an effort to restore government to its true position: the solution to our collective needs. This doesn’t require conscious effort on the part of citizens so much as a realization that the government is not an entity that steals your money and forces you to do things you don’t want to do, but instead a tool we use to pool our resources and produce results we could not have come up with on our own. What’s required for this is to have everyone—or almost everyone—on board. Pop music, you may recall, was like this in 1993; in 2009, someone admits on national television that he hasn’t even heard of one of the biggest-selling rock bands in the country. With decreased participation comes decreased benefits, and even as MTV tried to recapture an era it had long since abandoned, so did the country move on to an era that didn’t need its efforts anymore.
Still, I have to note something anecdotal in turn about this: I distinctly remember a commentary on a local LA news station from one of the behind-the-set producers back in 1994 when Kurt Cobain passed on — this was about a week or so after it happened — and while I don’t recall much about what was said, the point the commenter made was that he didn’t know anything about Nirvana until Cobain died, hadn’t even had heard of the name of either band or singer. So pop music was not necessarily ‘like that’ even at that time, though I’m sure I snorted a bit and wondered how he couldn’t’ve known — but that was my own bias coming into play.
There’s way more I could say about these subjects all being intertwined right now, but just a little something to chew over for now. Anyway, it was, again, surprising and admittedly flattering to be singled out like that in the Pazz and Jop section given that my piece was ultimately questioning the rationale of the ballot in the first place, as least from my point of view, and I do thank Rob Harvilla and crew for it.
EDIT — Mike is actually on fire today at Idolator with all this, thanks to a new story he just added talking about the well-worn ‘where are all the protest songs of this decade?’ hobbyhorse, using Carrie Brownstein’s NPR piece today as a starting point. Both well worth reading in full, and Mike’s stellar conclusion is almost a manifesto:
The dominant view of the ’60s always forgets all the bubblegum and parent-pop that was even more popular than the politically engaged stuff, and overstates the reach and importance of the artists we’ve come to value. It seems more likely that music wasn’t more politically engaged in the ’60s; rather, it was more culturally prominent, more of a megaphone for the values of the majority, and thus more representative of public opinion. When music is smaller, why should politics pay attention to it?
The funny thing about all this, of course, is that the election of Barack Obama represents a rejection of “the ’60s,” or at least its dominance over our political and cultural dialogue. By picking Obama over Hillary Clinton during the primaries, Democratic voters seemed to indicate a desire to move away from arguments about culture war and identity politics. Music, on the other hand, still seems stuck in the boomer mire; even the supposedly transformative album of 2009 can be legitimately described as “psychedelic.” There seems a disconnect here.
(And as someone who is now quite thoroughly sick of all the talk around said album, I can’t applaud that final touch enough.)