This afternoon, I heard a brand new song I really like: the Contender by the Glorious Sons. It had that post-grunge, retro 90s sound that I’ve really been pining for lately. Don’t get me wrong; I like a lot of new music. Some of the stuff that’s out there today is brilliant and far more creative than anything produced by Kurt Cobain or Billy Corgan, but something weird happens after you turn thirty. You start asking questions like “Have I heard my last grunge song? Will there never again be a song in the style of music that I grew up with?” That’s not so bad – because the new stuff is great – but it does make you nostalgic. As I ran a few errands, I found myself pondering a question. “If I like so much new music, then why do I feel out of touch?” And then it hit me.
Rock music is all about identity politics.
To give you some context, let me explain what it was like growing up with music in the 90s. The grunge era lasted from 1991 to about 1996. The popularity of bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins was largely a reaction to the recession of the early 90s and the disillusionment of Generation X. But then something happened. The economy picked up again, and music shifted.
The bubble-gum pop era lasted from 1995 to 2002 and was largely defined by artists like the Back Street Boys, the Spice Girls, N’Sync and Britney Spears. If I had to describe late 90s bubble-gum pop with one word, it would be “vapid.” To me, artists like these represented shallow materialism, empty platitudes and – worst of all – an unquestioning acceptance of the status quo.
To give you an example of what I mean: the Offspring sang about gang violence, codependent relationships and the twisted values of American culture. (“Come Out and Play,” “Self Esteem” and “Americana” if you’re interested). N’Sync, however, sang about falling in love, falling out of love and then desperately trying to get back together with your ex. (“This I Promise You,” “Bye Bye Bye” and “I Want You Back”) And in each case, the lyrics are specifically designed to stroke a fourteen-year-old girl’s ego. Even when Justin Timberlake croons about how much he wants a girl out of his life, the subtext is really a testament to how much power said girl has over him.
A rejection of pop music was a rejection of the things that it stood for: empty materialism, hook-up culture and willful blindness to the inequities of western society. Rock music was passé in the late 90s; following it with any kind of enthusiasm meant that you were slightly out of step with the mainstream. Those of us who gravitated toward punk music, metal or even classic rock did so for precisely that reason. If you were the kind of person who really got into the Rage Against the Machine, NOFX, Pearl Jam or the Matthew Good Band, then chances are you believed that there was something wrong with society. So being out of step with the mainstream meant you were probably doing something right.
Rock music, when it was at its best, was about being subversive.
The slow down in rock music during the late 90s gave me plenty of motivation to go back in time and explore my father’s music. I have four albums by the Rolling Stones, three albums by the Who. I spent large chunks of my high school listening to Led Zepplein, the Police, U2 and Peter Gabriel. Why? Because that in and of itself was a subversive act. I was out of step with my generation. I looked to the past for inspiration.
Those of us who followed rock music called 1995 to 2005 the post-grunge era. Many of the new acts coming out in those years tried to emulate the success of Nirvana and the Pumpkins. As a result, music got louder, more distorted and even more aggressive. Anger became a formula that that the music industry learned to market with precision. Which is why listeners eventually turned against it.
The latter half of the last decade saw another major shift in music. Bands like the Arkells, the Arcade Fire, the Killers, Metric the Gaslight Anthem and the Airbourne Toxic Event rose to prominence with a fresh new sound. Rock music became much more emotionally rounded. This, to me, was a major step forward.
For a very long time, the only emotion a rock band could express was anger. Anger had become a staple of the genre, and – as always happens when business starts manipulating art – it became blasé. Empty and lacking in meaning. But rock music has a long history of what I can only call one-upmanship. The late 60s saw a departure from the simple feel-good tunes that had dominated rock music since the days of Elvis Presley. Gone were the days when the Beatles professed that money can’t buy them love. Instead they sang about priests who wrote the words to sermons no one would hear. (Eleanor Rigby). The Stones got more serious with songs like “Gimmie Shelter,” and the Who went from simple love songs like “the Substitute” to the two-disk existential crisis that is Quadrophenia.
The early 70s were packed full of super serious bands like Pink Floyd and Genesis. Bands with huge, lengthy concept albums. This went on for six or seven years until the music scene hit a breaking point. The Ramones came along in 1976, claiming that rock had become too serious and forgotten how to have fun. This began the punk genre. And how did that play out?
The 80s became a time of bands with outlandish outfits and insane hair singing about having fun and kissing girls. Then the recession hit. Kurt Cobain took the stage, and rock was serious again. Only this time, it was angry. Angry and in your face. Any time a new trend starts in music, artists will take that tend to its logical extreme until it snaps.
So when the trend of loud, angry rock music died, bands became much more rounded. But now that we’ve realized it’s okay for grown men to sing about other emotions (like sadness and joy), the one-upmanship has started again. Now it’s a race to see who can pour his heart out the fastest as songs become mellower and moodier. And we’re already seeing signs that this trend is starting to break.
Some people are up in arms about the fact that Mumford and Sons has decided to go electric. (Anyone else having Bob Dylan flashbacks?). But all that really means is that when a trend gets too set into the culture, bands try something different.
So how does this affect my relationship music?
Well, for starters, I have to work a lot harder to find stuff I like. You see I like my music to be emotionally rounded. I got really sick of the excessive anger in rock music, but that doesn’t mean I wanted it to go away completely. Anger is a valid emotion. Now, I’m getting a little sick of the excessive sadness. I want some sad songs, some happy songs, some angry songs and even some goofy songs. I want the whole range of human emotion.
However, the reason I feel out of touch is a little more complex. Remember what I said about rock music being subversive? All these mellow song stylings by indie bands have started to find their way onto the muzak stations they play in department stores in banks. My mother is now listening to Vance Joy, Lorde and Florence and the Machine. That’s a little unsettling.
For fifteen years, I could be sure of one thing: no matter where I was working, I would never hear my music on the radio. That was annoying, but it also served to set me apart from the rest. I was different. I wasn’t one of “them.” Scoff if you like, but identity politics play a HUGE role in our musical tastes. So now that the music I follow is popping up on the muzak stations…I have to admit a part of me is tempted to retreat back into the 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s. To be out of step with the mainstream.