Decades, Centuries, and Millennia(ls)

25 03 2016

Much moaning has been moaned about Millennials and the deterioration of counterculture. I’m guilty of it too, linking to this article on Facebook which spoke to my near total antipathy to/alienation from current popular music.The author’s point about the 1996 Telecommunications Act is compelling, and the characterization of current popular music rings true. But it’s not fair to bash Millennials. I think there are several things going on here.

1. We are taught to understand counterculture movements by decade: the beats of the 50s, hipsters of the 60s, disco dancers of the 70s, punks of the 80s, 90s grunge, and then the great wasteland of the 20-oughts and teens. Obviously I’ve left out many additional subcultures, but I’m not bothering with an exhaustive list because the whole taxonomy by decade is problematic. Decades provide a convenient framework for looking back with nostalgia, but counterculture identities don’t start and stop when the years tick over from 9 to zero. And, so what if nothing as iconic as punks or hippies has emerged in the last 15 years? Why should it?
This article describes the rapid economic growth of the last 60+ years as an aberration, and suggests looking at trends over several centuries for a better understanding of economics. The recent period of abnormally fast growth roughly coincides with the past few decades of rapidly evolving countercultures. Could it be that unprecedented economic expansion gave us the luxury of youth cultures that could reinvent themselves every few years? What if the natural pace of cultural change is much slower?

One could argue that technology and the Internet have profoundly affected our culture, and accelerated change over the last 15-20 years. Why then has counterculture not kept up? Well, why should it? What did we expect, a bunch of Googleglass wearing Neuromancer throwbacks? Maybe music, fashion, and design got more stable to balance out the highly disruptive advances of technology. That’s not a failure of counterculture, that’s a survival strategy.

2. The iconic movements of recent decades– hippies, punks, metalheads, etc.– are music and fashion based. Sure, there are philosophical elements associated with each. But if you’re a punk, you dress a certain way and listen to certain music. The same goes for hippies, goths, and grunge. When I was a teen in the 80s, you could tell a person’s clique by looking at them. Everyone said cliques were stupid, yet everywhere you looked, people were cultivating a look that aligned with a particular group and implied a particular aisle in the music store (lots of others cultivated blending into the background, or defaulted to dorky nerd, or occasionally stood out in a completely unique way. It’s not really relevant to this post, I just have to give those modes a shout out). Millennials, it seems to me, just don’t organize their identities around fashion and music to the same extent. Why is that? Maybe technology and social media just take up more bandwidth. Maybe it has to do with all eras since the invention of photography being equally accessible for the first time in history. Who knows, but it’s certainly not a failing to decline to wear a countercultural uniform.

3. Perhaps you’re bothered by the lack of rebellion among Millennials. Please see the Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter, and the Bernie Sanders campaign. So what if there’s no musical style or wardrobe to go with them?* Again, maybe music and fashion just aren’t the identity keystones they once were. It seems like a sad loss to older generations, but it’s just a change. Things always change.

4. As for me personally finding no connection with trending music, that’s nothing new. I’ve been a music crank my whole life. I used to blame it all on the shallow commercialism of the music, but I figured out recently that it has a lot to do with my tin ear to vocal performances. There are legitimate criticisms to be made of popular music and the music industry, but it’s important to recognize that the music industry was torpedoed by the Internet. Albums, concerts, videos, merchandise– none of it is what it once was. Sure, we can pine for the days when weird musical auteurs could fill stadiums. It’s tempting to see the big acts of today as homogenous and risk averse. But weird and risky music is alive and well. Probably dong better than ever. Those acts can now reach a fan base without having the colossal luck of being discovered by a producer they happen to appeal to, or touring with a popular megaband who happens to like them, or being the Chosen Ones of major radio stations for whatever reason. Creative, challenging stuff is not going to get dropped in our laps anymore. But if you’re bothered by the (relatively small) effort it takes to find innovative, compelling music, consider that for every Rush or Talking Heads or David Bowie of the past, there had to be countless acts of giant creativity that died on the vine. I won’t say it’s easy for independent musicians today, but artists of all kinds can now at least find enough of an audience to feel that what they’re doing is worthwhile. And that is no small thing.

I may have veered off topic at the end there. I guess my point is, instead of complaining about the state of music today, start by typing your favorite band from years gone by into Amazon or iTunes or Pandora, and see what current bands pop up under “you may also like.” And then buy their stuff.

*Except maybe hip-hop. My great apologies to everyone, I am an ignorant old white guy and I’m only barely aware of the meaning and impact of hip-hop. I know there are hip-hop artists with powerful messages, but I feel like they are overshadowed by hugely popular acts with nothing much to say. Is hip-hop the counterculture identity of the 21st century? Only those far cooler than me can answer that.

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