“Music today just isn’t what it used to be.”
In every decade where I’ve been musically sentient (the 80s, the 90s, the 2000s, and whatever we’re calling this decade), I’ve heard this almost exact quote. I’ve never believed it.
In the 80s, I was thoroughly convinced that all music prior to my discovery of pop music (before 1982) was hopelessly dated and not at all listenable.
In the 90s, I became an adult and began to make peace with the idea that someone could have recorded a good record in the 70s. I entertained the notion that my wise elders were speaking some truth, but the singular existence of Janet Jackson proved conclusively that there was no way music could have been any better in years prior.
In the 2000s I stopped deferring to everyone else in the world and began to develop an ego and an opinionated streak. I also started to see history repeat itself.
And in recent years, this trend has accelerated (from my point of view). It’s entirely commonplace today to see (due to the internet age) and hear comments about how much music has deteriorated since the 80s and 90s!
Are we on an endless downward spiral of music suckiness? I find that highly unlikely. I believe that many if not most humans are afflicted with the “good ole days syndrome.”
The idea behind this syndrome is that we all attach ourselves to some period in time, transform it into an idyllic pocket of history, then defend it against all comers. Quite often the period selected is the period of our youth, when the world seemed much simpler and brighter. Sometimes we feel an attachment to a period prior to our remembering; it’s also easier to execute the idyllic cleanse for a past period because it’s been distilled into some easy-to-consume highlights that we can experience in summary.
In almost no instances do we idealize the present, because we are more aware of all the day-to-day imperfections, whether that means an annoying itch or a song on the radio that isn’t that good.
I think 1986 was a terrific year in pop music. Janet Jackson’s “Control” album, the Human League comeback (also helmed by Jam & Lewis), the stateside debut of the Pet Shop Boys, and so on and so forth.
But 1986’s biggest hits also included “Party All the Time” by Eddie Murphy (#7 biggest hit of the year, no less), dance music lightweight records like “Baby Love” by Regina and “Two of Hearts” by Stacey Q, and a stampede of sappy love songs that could be (and probably were) packaged into one positively saccharine K-Tel collection: “That’s What Friends Are For,” “Say You, Say Me,” “Burning Heart,” “On My Own,” “Friends and Lovers,” and so on. I don’t have anything against any of those records, but they were ripe for bashing by any dour middle-aged music fan of the time who could perhaps call them boring and soul-less, far inferior to the visceral rock of the 50s or the Motown soul of the 60s.
Related to the good ole days syndrome is the It’s-Not-Offensive-Because-It’s-Over-20-Years-Old syndrome. (Sorry, I couldn’t find a short, snappy name for that one.) If we reach further into the 1986 vaults and see who was stirring controversy, we find Motley Crue going mainstream and terrifying parents everywhere with their Satanic imagery; and Salt -N- Pepa sporting black lycra catsuits and encouraging our youth to “push it real good.”
Fast forward to 2009, where we find Carrie Underwood, darling of all media, covering Motley Crue as the send-off for “American Idol,” and in 2013, Target is using “Push It” to advertise back-to-school merchandise for elementary school students.
The moral of the story is this: perspective is a wonderful thing. In the longview, today’s music perhaps isn’t as awful as it is unselectively remembered. And yesterday’s music isn’t nearly as inoffensive as it is dulled from years of “pushing it” into our brains.
And if all that fails to convince you that the music landscape isn’t as dire as you thought it was, there’s one more installment to this introductory series.
Part 3 will touch on the specific recording artists that are carrying the torch for really high-calibre songwriting, singing, and musicianship in 2013.