Splitting Hairs

going deeper

American Turnings and Music (3 of 4): Protest

This is the third part of this blog series on music and American social turnings as described in The Fourth Turning. Here, we’ll look at how each new music genre seems to embody a protest against limitations inherent in the previous genre — or at least, in what the previous genre has evolved to by the time of the next turning.

We start with 1950. By 1950, the once dominant swing music genre was moribund. Swing employed the big band model of performance, and while fun, that model had proved too bulky and not nearly nimble enough. Light-footed rock and roll arose from the African American R&B community (try this link). Via the radio broadcasts of Alan Freed, it spoke to American youth, thus dealing a mortal blow to swing.

But by 1967, rock and roll had been thoroughly “corporatized”, and thus become stale and forumalaic. Over the previous couple of decades, the once fertile field of old African American rhythm and blues tracks had been thoroughly picked clean by the endless hordes of rock bands. By the mid-sixties, insipid early-era-Beatle copycats (try this link) were the order of the day.

But in 1967, Psychedelic rock exploded into public consciousness (try this link). Where 50s rock had reached the limits of its raw material, Psychedelic rock introduced Indian melodies, thus opening rock to the music of whole wide world. Where 50s rock had become uniform, formulaic and banal, the fashion of psychedelia was wild, and its subject-matter spanned mysticism and surrealism.

But as the decades passed, Psychedelic rock itself became ponderous, overly theatrical, and, like its predecessor, rather tired and predictable. For example, compare this 1967 clip featuring a young and fresh Jimmy Page humbly but powerfully strumming out some sweet chords (try this link) … with this late 1970s clip of an older now decadent Jimmy Page skillfully strumming out a masturbatory, self-indulgent passage (try this link) (don’t get me wrong; I like Stairway to Heaven).

If that didn’t reasonate with you, how about this one: Here’s a useful, mystical message presented in that ponderous, bloated, overly-theatrical way that defined the late 1970s and early 1980s (try this link) (and yes, I admit, I did have this album when I was in high school).

Anyway, this bloated circus of an obese Psychedelic rock provided an easy target, and the response from the street was raw and decidedly unpretentious. First, from the gutters of England came Punk (try this link). Next, from the ghettos of America came Hip Hop (try this link). And a bit later, from that corner of America where the sun don’t shine (saving May-September), came Grunge (try this link).

Of course, there were even more responses. However, as I mentioned in the last posting, I believe that the survivor and ultimate victor among all of the challengers to Psychedelic rock was Hip Hop. And just as the passage of time had not been kind to Psychedelic rock, Rock and roll, nor Swing, neither was it to Hip Hop. By the late 1990s, “gangsta” rap was here to stay, and the arrival of “bling” served as a call to the new generation of youth: “Please, for the love of God, come up with the next genre, and put this crap out of its misery” (try this link).

Now, in the new millenium, I believe that the next generation has answered this call. I further believe that their answer is: Mashup. The paradigm of Mashup is, I believe, the Grey Album of Danger Mouse. That album comprises a merger of vocals from Hip Hip artist Jay-Z’s Black Album, with samples extracted from the Beatles’ White Album. In effect, Danger Mouse merged Psychedelic rock with Hip Hop.

Judging from a quick perusal of the web, the mashup movement is well engaged.

Stepping back from the past 55 years, we see a pattern:

  • Step 1: The dominant genre of American music has become stale and formulaic.
  • Step 2: From the street, a new, raw, and compelling genre of music emerges and captivates American youth.
  • Step 3: Music corporations embrace the new genre, and make a few leading artists fabulously wealthy, while the corporations reap massive profits.
  • Step 4: The new genre becomes dominant, but as time passes, the genre is slowing turning predictable and bloated.
  • Step 5: Return to Step 1 and repeat.

Nice, pat model eh? Kind of an infinite loop, no?

Well, not exactly. The last time around this loop has proved a bit sticky. This time, with Mashups, the corporations have become stuck on Step 2.

Thus we have come to People vs. Corporations. To be continued …

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This entry was posted on December 9, 2006 by in people vs. corporations.



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