It”s been almost two months since Sept. 11 when”s the music going to get good? Everything I”ve been taught in my wonderful classes here at the University has led me to believe that good art comes from tragedy and struggle. When those claims are made, it is generally with something like the Holocaust or the Stalinist regime in mind. But ours is a country that has existed in relative peace for so long, and has now suffered the first attack on her soil in 60 years. That abrupt and devastating attack should be enough to jump-start American music.
In taking a look at this week”s Billboard 200 chart, I see crap. With all apologies to fans of Incubus, Ja Rule, Nickelback, Dave Matthews Band, Linkin Park and Alicia Keys, the music that America is listening these days is trite and irrelevant.
Take a look back at the chart from just 10 years ago. Bands as diverse as Nirvana, Rush, Public Enemy and R.E.M. were not only making music, but being listened to by most Americans who bought albums. And while the above-mentioned groups are very different musically, they share the common attributes of being musically interesting, pioneering and socially relevant.
Music evolves and devolves in cycles, similar to and often according to economic models. Ten years ago the United States was suffering under the economic depression of Bush the elder. The job market was stagnant, or shrinking, inflation was bad, American troops were fighting in sand fatigues in the Middle East. Sound familiar? But during this social and political crisis American music was thriving. The “alternative” scene emerged from the Pacific northwest, as bands were labeled, often appropriately, as the sound of a disillusioned and cynical “Gen-X.”
While those labels tend to be unfair and overbroad, there was certainly something going on in music that was reacting to the mistakes of its parents” generation. “What kind of world are you leaving us?” became a sort of mantra, as the country suffered from not only the poor economy, but threats to the environment that people were only starting to become fully aware of. The Smashing Pumpkins sang “despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage.” A bit melodramatic, perhaps, but a fair example of where Alternative music was coming from.
Well, what happened? The economy was revived in the “90s, and all the twenty-somethings who were bitching about not being able to find a job and live out the American dream rode the internet tech-boom to C.E.O. jobs and early retirement.
But the result was a nation that didn”t concern itself with any issues of substance. Pop music become unbearably self-promoting, and we were left with Brittany Spears doing a commercial for Pepsi, or Pepsi doing a commercial for Brittany Spears.
A nation with money in its collective pocket doesn”t care about social issues. A nation that doesn”t send its sons to war doesn”t care about politics or policy. And that nation leaves musicians with something to say outside the realm of popularity, and opens the door to N-Sync.
But none of those conditions that we”ve become accustomed to necessarily exist anymore. There aren”t jobs, again. There isn”t free commercial spending, again. America”s sons and daughters are wearing fatigues in the Middle East, again. And there is a Bush in the White House, again.
So when will the music come around?
This isn”t Vietnam, to be sure. And I don”t expect Ja Rule to pick up a guitar and start strumming “Blowing in the Wind.” But I do expect some degree of shift in what people are willing and able to listen to. There is good music being written and recorded but no one wants to listen to it yet.
There is important and relevant music out there and if history is any indication, America, as a whole, will hear it soon enough.
David Horn can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.