Historiography is essentially intellectual masturbation. All right, maybe that’s a little bit harsh, but it’s a statement many modern historiographers would more or less agree with. Because, when it comes down to it, any historical account is basically one party’s subjective attempt to systematize all the haphazard sociocultural tidbits that go along with a certain place and time. In a sense, historiography is kind of like staring at a random cluster of clouds and deciding that it looks somewhat like a bunny rabbit. Fun? Clearly. Comprehensive? Not in the least.
Nonetheless, I shall boldly attempt to historicize the past four decades of pop music in one fell swoop: the ’60s was the revolutionary glory days of pop going experimental, the ’70s was the ’60s not wanting to end, the ’80s was everyone burning out and the ’90s was everyone embracing their burnout status while dispassionately smoking a cigarette.
So what about the ’00s? One could compellingly argue it was the apocalypse. But one could just as easily make a case that the aughts have been the most exciting decade in music since … well, ever. Really. It just all depends on how much you dig the Internet.
The musical innovations of the past decade were far more about changing the way we listen to music rather than drastically changing the music we listen to. While studio wizardry certainly became increasingly ear-boggling as the decade progressed, no true ground was broken in the realm of instrumentation. I mean, come on — 30 years ago, we were already bored enough to invent the keytar.
But, as the Internet gradually replaced MTV as the primary lifeline of our country’s youth, music as an art form became vastly democratized. Do-it-yourself programs like Garage Band made it so anyone could use his or her laptop as a makeshift recording studio. Promotional sites like MySpace gave even the greenest musicians an outlet to share their tunes on a worldwide scale. And the advent of peer-to-peer file-sharing gave listeners practically unlimited access to this bloating sonic databank.
As pop culture exploded to the point where “popular” has virtually become a defunct term, sites like Pandora and Grooveshark were designed to help avid audiophiles sift through this musical slipstream by allowing them to create personalized radio stations.
And, of course, there was the rise of the portable MP3 player. Gone were the savory days of chewing through music one CD at a time. Suddenly, people had the ability to reach into their pocket and listen to the entire history of music — on shuffle.
But what has this populist trend and massive influx of raw songage meant for the music itself? Well, if you look at the current Top 10 singles on iTunes, it’s easy to assume the quality of popular music has pretty much gone down the crapper. I mean, seriously — what better evidence is there for capitalistic hell on Earth than the fact that some artist named Ke$ha actually has two songs in the Top 10?
Our country’s musical branch of pop culture — as defined by radio airplay, iTunes sales and the miserable CD selection at Best Buy — has become increasingly disconnected from the realm of music lovers. Unlike the days when artistic pioneers like The Beatles maintained monopolies over everyone’s hearts, critics and commoners alike, the aughts have essentially marked an almost authoritarian division between popular music and good music.
Of course, there’s been the occasional crossover smash like “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley or “Feel Good Inc.” by Gorillaz — songs equally accepted by hipsters and kid sisters. But the norm has been an uninspired sludge of Auto-Tune, doof-doof club bangers and American Idol-processed ballads. And the reason is that most people old enough to listen to music critically have simply started stealing it.
College-aged listeners, the age-old benefactors of “hip” music, have essentially been cut out of the musical strain of consumerist pop culture. By illegally downloading the majority of our music, us big kids have basically forfeited our monetary votes, allowing for the infestation of America’s radio waves by Disney Channel kiddie-pop and the dreaded adult alternative genre. Meanwhile, parents continue buying their 5-year-old daughters iTunes gift cards and screwing the rest of us.
But does this mean that ’00s pop music sucked? Not in the least. The good stuff simply went underground. The aughts could be the first decade in which the truly seminal “breakout” bands — Animal Collective, TV on the Radio, Grizzly Bear, etc. — were unknown to about 90 percent of America.
So who will end up on the cover of “Aughts Music: A History Book,” Miley Cyrus or Andrew Bird? In all honesty, it really doesn’t matter. The writing of history is little more than someone’s self-held popularity contest anyway, and the exponential acceleration of entries into the world’s music library has all but relegated the term “popular” to an individual basis. So let’s just all kick back with our own personalized On-The-Go playlists and bask in the fact that, whatever we’re listening to, we’re probably enjoying it.