It Was 50 Years Ago Today When The Beatles Dismantled Music
Alex Bunardzic

I’ll have to check out that Miles stuff, sounds like it’ll be fascinating at the very least and (given that it’s Miles) possibly even listenable! I actually agree with you that rock/pop music is dead as of 2017 — or at least in a life-threatening coma. There may be earth-shattering stuff coming out in the fringes (although any time I’ve checked out said fringes I’ve been disappointed), but I think — and I take it you’d agree — that an artform is dead as soon as its mainstream is dead. Sure, I’ve seen my share of exciting underground rock music, but I’ve also seen exciting performances of music that was written 400 years ago. That’s why the people who think “real” art is always to be found in the fringes are wrong: if an underground phenomenon is doing something that’s genuinely new, exhilarating and good, then so many people latch onto it that it eventually becomes mainstream. That’s how the Beatles got big in the first place.

I also agree that modern art has been dead for decades, along with classical music, jazz, theatre and literature. Film has the advantage of benefiting from occasional technological developments like 3D or the new breed of ultra-portable cameras that have made good one-take feature films possible, but I don’t see the emergence of any radically new ways of telling a story (the odd Memento aside).

Here’s the thing though: even if something is “dead” in a formal sense, that doesn’t mean that it can’t continue to be nourishing and enriching. Many folk arts have survived for centuries or even millennia with only very gradual developments and innovations, but then they don’t consider innovation to be an integral part of art; the point is to draw on tradition in skilful ways. Even in the modern West, which prizes innovation above all, I don’t think many people would argue that there are no more eye-catching paintings or life-changing books. Formal development may be dead, but I think there’s still plenty of breathing room inside the forms we already have.

I’ve read plenty of books from the second half of the twentieth century that I’ve loved, and because each one has a different, yet equally strong authorial voice running through it, all of them are completely unlike one another. Catch-22 doesn’t play with story structure any more than Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, but it’s got an unhinged savagery running through it that makes it utterly itself. Or take Roddy Doyle’s books: they may not innovate formally the way Joyce’s do, but I’m still reasonably confident that no-one in history wrote the way Doyle did before Doyle. And because his authorial voice is so fresh, direct and, yes, original, his stuff is absolutely exhilarating. Godard ripped up the filmmaking rulebook just as thoroughly as Joyce ripped up the writing one, but that doesn’t mean that Dog Day Afternoon, Annie Hall, Raging Bull, Blade Runner and Pulp Fiction aren’t one-of-a-kind masterpieces that could only have been made by the directors who made them.

I guess this boils down to the classic form/content divide. Even when an artform has been so thoroughly deconstructed that there’s nothing left to do with the form, it’s still possible to imbue old frameworks with new, original, challenging content. This is where geniuses come in. If you’ve got an artistic vision that’s strong enough, you can work so well within the limitations that have been handed down to you that it feels like you’ve transcended them. Granted, this gets harder to do as time goes on and more gets produced, but all it takes is for one person to combine familiar elements in slightly unpredictable ways and a creative drought turns into a boom: think of all the great ’90s cinema that followed Pulp Fiction. And that film couldn’t have been made before the ’90s, because society is always changing, and along with it people’s slang, values, attitudes and perspectives. You won’t find a Jules Winnfield in any Godard film. If you produce a cinematic masterpiece today it’ll contain an emotional landscape and worldview that speak directly to the present moment, and you’ll be continuing the ongoing artistic project of reflecting society back to itself.

That’s why I mentioned Bowie, Talking Heads etc. in my last comment. Their content was so startlingly new that it didn’t matter that they typically stayed within the same pop verse/chorus format that made the Beatles’ name. To me James Brown’s funk, Genesis’ prog, Eno’s ambient music, Paul Simon’s marriage of America and Africa, Husker Du’s hardcore punk and Radiohead’s blend of electronica and weird alternative rock sound very, very different from what the Beatles were up to, both sonically and emotionally. Some of these new genres even introduced genuine formal and technical innovations drawn from classical music, jazz and elsewhere (avant-garde dissonance ain’t the only experimental kid in town!). EDM in particular seems to me to operate under an entirely different set of rules to Beatlesque pop/rock; the structures aren’t remotely the same, let alone the sounds. (You could even argue that the music’s purpose and function are different; the Beatles never wrote their music specifically to be danced to, even in the early days.) I personally find most electronica incredibly boring but there are millions and millions of people out there who disagree.

All of that out of the way, I’ll say it again: as of 2017, popular music is dead. And this time I mean dead in the “utterly lifeless” sense of the word. There are still great new books and movies coming out — although in the case of movies you really have to look for them — but radio has devolved into a bad caricature of pop music that I find actively offensive. Why are things in such bad shape? Is it just a matter of numbers? Could there be less note and rhythm combinations that please the ear than shape combinations that please the eye or word combinations that tickle the brain? Based on the music theory I’ve picked up I think that’s less far-fetched than it seems.

All I know is, every time I leave the house I’m subjected to the same recycled chord progressions, backed by the same beats, hammered into the same verse/chorus structures, topped off with vocals by singers who are Autotuned to sound the same as each other, adorned with special effects that all sound alike despite the fact that in the digital age the range of available sounds should theoretically be limitless. Rather than reacting to a world of shrinking options by fighting all the harder for whatever originality they can muster, tastemakers are deliberately and systematically limiting popular music to the narrowest possible range of parameters, for reasons that transparently have nothing to do with music as an artform and everything to do with making a buck off the latest here-today gone-tomorrow piece of tat. With less money available for the arts than ever the studios have gone into panic mode, and in the process they’ve reduced pop music — which used to represent a dynamic, uneasy, combustible synthesis between art and capitalism — to pure capitalism. And that’s depressing.

P. S. Agreed that rap and hip hop have yet to undergo a fundamental deconstruction. (I don’t really listen to either genre but I do follow music news, and when people like Kendrick Lamar break onto the scene they make waves. If a mainstream rapper decided to “do a Stockhausen” on rap there’s no way I wouldn’t hear about it.) Bit odd considering that only ten years separated the birth of rock ’n’ roll and the musique concrete insanity of Zappa’s debut. Hip hop’s been around for forty years; what’s taking so long?