Nostalgiatron vs. the Creature from Turntable
Gargh! I tried, I really did, to read this piece at Salon by Toure lamenting the end of monoculture while keeping my annoyance at "good old days" thinking to a minimum. After all, one could easily write the "in many ways, things are much better, but a small, nostalgic part of me still misses monoculture". I wanted to read a piece like that, but this piece is just wasn't that one. My warning signals flared early in, reading this paragraph:
The epic, collective roar — you know, the kind that followed "Thriller," "Nevermind," "Purple Rain," "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back," and other albums so gigantic you don't even need to name the artist — just doesn't happen today. Those Moments made you part of a large tribe linked by sounds that spoke to who you are or who you wanted to be. Today there's no Moments, just moments. They're smaller, less intense, shorter in duration and shared by fewer people. The Balkanization of pop culture, the overthrow of the monopoly on distribution, and the fracturing of the collective attention into a million pieces has made it impossible for us to coalesce around one album en masse. We no longer live in a monoculture. We can't even agree to hate the same thing anymore, as we did with disco in the 1970s.
1) "We" didn't agree to hate disco. I would have forgiven this statement in an otherwise historically astute article, but when someone is being nostalgic, I'm usually all the more on guard for minimizing of some of the uglier episodes of the past. Toure links the Disco Demolition, which actually wasn't a cute little incident of the collective "we" agreeing to anything, but in retrospect reads more like a bunch of drunk straight and mostly white guys throwing a fit over music that flooded the top 40 airwaves with the voices of women of color and the culture heavily influenced by gay men. Plus, the belief that disco was stomped permanently into the ground is simply false; it was already in the process of morphing for reasons beyond just outside pressure: technological changes were synthesizing the sound, hip-hop and punk were breathing a different kind of energy into the New York music scene that birthed disco, and a lot of DJs were getting interested in different kinds of music. Dance music is often more in thrall to rapidly changing trends than different kinds of music for reasons too complex to address here.
2) He's got his thumb on the scale with those four albums. From what I can find online, "Thriller" sold 27 million copies, "Purple Rain" 13 million copies, "Nevermind" 10 million copies. "It Takes A Nation" is a classic record by any measure, but the best estimated I could find was sales of over a million, but short of 2 million. Including it probably wouldn't have bothered me, if he hadn't already been cherry-picking the big records for stuff that's indisputably awesome. All four of those are nearly-flawless records that are truly beloved by people who know music. But "It Takes A Nation" wasn't nearly as ubiquituous as some other albums Toure could have mentioned if he was describing albums that touched everyone, whether they liked it or not: "Rumours" by Fleetwood Mac, "The Bodyguard" soundtrack, "Pieces of You" by Jewel, "Ten" by Pearl Jam. Now, I'm a fan of a lot of "Rumours", but clearly, the skipping of records like this—all of which sold more than "Nevermind", and way more than "It Takes a Nation of Millions"—indicates an agenda instead of an honest assessment of monoculture.
Now for my cards: I think that while there are some benefits to having huge albums that everyone loves all at once, I generally think that the end of monoculture is a good thing. As Marc has frequently noted to me, and I agree, it's better for a lot of smaller artists to make a reasonable living than a handful of big ones to get really rich while everyone else's shit just gathers dust. But there's more than musicians on my mind. I don't think monoculture is good for audiences. An honest assessment of monoculture shows that the majority of major sellers are not peculiar geniuses with a vision like Prince, Michael Jackson, Kurt Cobain, or Chuck D. (Notice that they're all men, which is something I'll return to soon.) A lot of the time it's just pablum that sells heavily because it happened to come out at the right time or was aggressively marketed and just inoffensive enough to enough people that they mindlessly bought it because they don't care much about music but they hear that one song on the radio all the time. What we have now is a situation where there are fewer big league artists, but on the flip side, people in the underground are getting more of an airing than they would have in the past, thanks to the internet. And I think Toure has a sour attitude about it that isn't fitting the occasion:
Now there's the potential to be exposed to more music. But where there used to be a finite number of gatekeepers, now there's way too many: anyone with a blog. This is great for the individual listener who's willing to sift through the chatter to find new bands.
For those of us who have sift-willingness, this era is one where the workload has gone down dramatically. You think reading music blogs and digging through recommendation services is a lot work? Try finding out about underground music through word of mouth. I was lucky; I lived in Austin in my college years and on, so I lived in a zone where zines fell into my hands and I could walk into clubs with a "surprise me" attitude towards bands and I had cool friends who would clue me into new stuff. And even then, I still had way less access than I do now to cool new stuff. A lot of the time, you pretty much had to be in a scene to know the best music in it, and often by the time an underground band had gained a national audience, they had fallen apart because the need to make a decent living prevented them from holding a band together. Because the work load of sifting through new music has gone down dramatically, you're seeing a lot more budding music fans than you would have in the old days. Granted, the number of casual music fans who buy one record every year or two might be declining, so what? They often don't even notice that they don't listen to new music anymore, because they're happy with the stuff they already have.
And here's the thing: in the more fractured, microtargeted environment, people who often loved music but felt a bit adrift from what music culture they were exposed to now have an opportunity to find a real community and a deeper connection to the music. For instance, are you a feminist who wants feminist-minded music but you don't like stuff that's overly cute or folk music? In our era of microaudiences, you're in luck! If you liked Le Tigre, you had a few internet clicks until you were listening to Peaches and The Gossip. What's easy to forget is that monoculture is very alienating for people who don't relate to it. Some of us reacted by moving to cool cities and engaging in what is now called "hipster" culture, but for people who didn't have that opportunity, they were shit out of luck. If you didn't have a record store in your town that let you listen to records or an underground rock station, you were truly shit out of luck. I realize for kids these days it might be hard to understand, but literally, I remember the entire process of getting Le Tigre's first album. It only happened because I had, for lack of a better word, immense hipster privilege. I was driving along in my car, listening to 91.7, which only happened because I lived in a city that could sustain a public radio station that played underground rock and because I had the knowledge that it was there and that a show that played the best of that stuff was on air. They mentioned that Kathleen Hanna had a new band, and again, I was a Bikini Kill fan only because I had learned about Riot Grrrl through zines and other underground-ish publications, so I was poised to listen. That afternoon, I went to a local, independent record store that let me listen to the whole thing—seriously, even in those days, when there were more record stores, that resource was not available in most places. I bought it and grabbed some fliers for local shows on my way out. All stuff the majority of people have no access to, including people who would really benefit from it. Now all those people who have the interest but not the same access I would have had then can just download a similar album, or buy it through the mail after previewing it on the label's website.
One thing Toure also neglects to mention is that monoculture created massive hostility in underground music circles. Because monoculture was so alienating to people who sought out subcultures, they in turn would become almost addicted to their subculture and hyper-rejecting of anything that wasn't it. I've noticed in recent years that this attitude is fading. I go to music clubs that are very much "indie rock" and they'll be playing all sorts of shit that would have never passed muster in the 90s, including Michael Jackson and Fleetwood Mac, and people's reaction is to be pretty happy about it. Now that Big Music isn't perceived as an obstacle to Music I Like, the distinction between underground and over-ground is dissolving. For instance, I can be in a room in Turntable where people are mostly playing a bunch of teeny bands of the sort Toure complains about, and if I choose to drop something off Kanye West's new record, instead of sneers, I get happy little animated nods. Nowadays, people are more comfortable with the idea that good is good, and that drawing lines in the sand and rejecting entire genres out of hand because they're mainstream is silly. The mainstream oppresses the underground less, so the underground is happy to embrace the mainstream.
Plus, what the hell is with this particular passage?
He's right — stars don't just naturally ascend. There's no meritocracy in music. Audiences don't find great bands because their songs are undeniable. The infrastructure of the music business — the managers, the marketers, the radio programmers, the DJs, the A&Rs, the chief execs — all those people are necessary to help put talented artists on a platform large enough that they'll be seen by a mass audience. But the music biz is slowly crumbling. It has lost its way and its mojo. When businesses have their back to the wall, they're less likely to take chances on kids proposing some sort of revolution — even though that may be exactly what they need to do.
I'm skeptical of the idea that we need a corporate machine pushing a single artist to have a "revolution". One reason music fans soured on the corporate stranglehold on music is that they tried to undermine any revolution their artists actually tried to start. Instead of looking to one band to save us all, how about we start looking at music as a great art form which we can manipulate to save ourselves?
By the way, am I the only person who kind of thinks Das Racist is overrated?