The Death Of Popular Music And Youth Culture

When everything becomes the same, it all ceases to have any importance. Looking into youth culture’s sad slide into insignificance.

While carrying out vital YouTube research for a forthcoming video rant, I was pulled in by a post by ‘Wings of Pegasus’ that was titled “If YOU can’t connect with most modern day music, THIS is probably why” – a fine bit of smart click-baiting of the sort that we at The Reprobate need to try more of. As it turns out, the actual video was a breakdown of Cher’s notoriously awful Believe, the track that effectively launched the autotune era, and as such is actually quite interesting – I’ve posted it below this piece for those who want to check it out.

But beyond the technical breakdown of the song, the most interesting point in the video – a point I suddenly found myself thinking about just before it was made, which perhaps speaks to how the video was taking us in a certain direction rather than my predictive skills – is that while differences between tribes and generations used to be about style, it is now about sound – production techniques if you like. It might not seem like a massive difference at first, but it is – it’s huge and it’s something that only exists because of autotune and pitch correction technology.

A difference of taste in musical style has always meant that yes, pop fans didn’t like punk or metal because the music itself was not to their taste – it was too loud, too abrasive. Rock fans found pop too fluffy. Punks hated metal and metallers hated punk because of minor musical differences that no one else could even see, and major fashion differences. And significantly, older generations didn’t like the music that their kids listened to because it was stylistically different from the music that they enjoyed – and because these new musical sounds also came with strange new looks that their kids would adopt.

None of this, however, was because of an actual shift in how music was created. Yes, there have been production trends – the awful ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ of the Fairlight era in the 1980s has certainly not aged well. If you look at some of that stuff – Yes’ Owner of a Lonely Heart stands out to me as a prime example, simply because you can make a direct comparison to that band’s earlier music that, for all its faults, doesn’t sound as abrasively dated in production style – the lurch towards sounding ‘modern ‘ now makes the 1980s track feel very clumsy and desperate.

But that’s still a style – a musical choice as much as down-tuned guitars, orchestral backing tracks or stripped-back instrumentation – rather than an all-pervasive sound that comes not because it is a trend but because it is just how things are done now. It saves money and makes the artists sound interchangeable and often ‘better’ – or more palatable to the widest audience – than many of them are. It means music becomes even less about music than it ever was; less about fashion too because even the most extravagant pop star now just seems to be wearing a stage outfit, a costume rather than clothes that their fans will copy. It’s now just muzak, performed by easily controlled pretty people who also care more for money than music and feel like corporate drones designed to be as inoffensive as possible. Everything is effectively fed through the same effects programme so of course it all sounds alike, and so rock fans of a certain age – let’s say anyone over thirty – will often find modern ‘commercial’ rock just as off-putting as pop because everything is being put through the same filter today – it’s not a genre issue, it’s a generation issue – but not one that we’ve ever really seen before.

Because everything really does sound the same now – the production polish strips music of any individuality and variation. That might sound like the traditional complaint of an old man, but it seems the kids agree with me – because music no longer seems all that important to younger people.

When I was a teenager, everything was very tribal. At some point, a form of music – or perhaps all the things that went along with that music – spoke to you on a level deeper than any words could express, and that became your identity. Not for everyone, of course – there have always been the kids who just listen to whatever is popular and inane and inoffensive, but even they were part of a scene in their own way.  But for many teenagers, the music you listened to dictated the clothes you wore, your hairstyle, and even your general outlook on life. It was all-consuming. Music drove fashion and fashion also drove music in a constant mating ritual – Goths, New Romantics, Punks, Metallers, Crusties, Hip-Hop kids, Ravers and God knows how many other trends with various shelf lives dominated youth culture – you’d seen all these tribes on the streets, making each group immediately recognisable. Now everyone looks the same – you walk the streets and there is no distinction beyond the odd band t-shirt, and even that is no accurate signifier since Ramones and Motorhead T-shirts began fast-fashion wear in H&M and Primark, worn by people who have no idea that these names and logos even belong to bands. The most offensive aspect of youth culture now seems to be its absolute blandness.

Now, I’m generalising. Yes, there are acts that step outside the mainstream. Yes, there are still the kids – and let’s say this is anyone from mid-teens to late-twenties – who will identify heavily with music and the look and style of that music – but isn’t it all rather retro now? Are there really youth movements that are driven by new music and new fashion in the way they used to be? Is there any chance of the sort of musical and cultural upheaval that we had with punk or the rave scene, or will everything be quickly and seamlessly absorbed into the bland, controlled mainstream of identikit production?

Any differences that we do have now seem driven more by identity politics – the new tribalism, perhaps. Certain looks have been adopted by different socio-political groups, the Wokes and the Anti-Wokes alike, the Mods and Rockers of the modern world. Neither side seems especially interested in music though – if they do like music, it is again based more on politics than sound, perhaps because that is where the real variation now exists. Music is liked or loathed because of what it says rather than what it is. Or else it becomes absorbed as a mere part – not a major part – of an identity rather than the central element. So gangs will be into Drill not because of the music per se but because that is what young guys in that culture are supposed to listen to. It’s not a culture that is driven by music, but rather one that simply uses it as a means to an end (in their case, dissing and threatening each other).

In a way, it’s not a terrible thing. There were lots of problems related to musical tribalism and it definitely seems better that people can listen to whatever they like, regardless of what label is given to it, and dress how they choose. Maybe there’s less chance that people will be beaten to death for looking like goths now – though I rather suspect that anyone who does adopt ‘a look’ will probably stand out even more now to feral little shits looking for someone to victimise. But it does rather suggest that music simply no longer seems all that important to younger generations. Part of that is probably because there are so many competing distractions for their attention now – gaming, social media and so on. It’s also because music has been progressively devalued through file sharing and the decline of physical media – downloaded files just don’t have the same desirability and collectability that often drives an obsession to begin with. These days, you’re barely even aware of what most acts you might listen to even look like and so why would you copy them? We also live in a world of ever-increasing blandness where stepping outside the mainstream has become rarer and rare. Everything now is increasingly homogenised in terms of how we look, what we wear. Why should we think that the same won’t be true about what we listen to?

But I wonder if it is also because music has increasingly been stripped of the things that made it unique and a source of passion – when everything is the same, polished within an inch of its life regardless of genre and with the exact same production techniques, even moment of individuality and humanity removed in favour of flawless, mechanical perfection, it just becomes product. People might still consume that product, in much the same way that they buy soda pop and crisps and watch movies that are nothing but three hours of empty CGI eye candy, but it is not going to inspire the same devotion and lifestyle immersion that it used to. Popular music, in the way we all used to love it, is dead.


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