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Remember When the Music Didn't Suck

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Two summers ago, I visited the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. Rihanna's dress was on display, which is sort of like putting Joe Namath's jersey on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame. It doesn't really belong.

Older generations think the music from their era is better than the latest crap on the radio. But what older people don't understand is that this new music is not for them; it's for teenagers... whom, as everyone knows, don't listen to the radio.

As a social experiment, I spent eight minutes listening to a Top 40 radio station. I would've listened longer, but then I arrived at my destination. I only live eight minutes from the mall. I needed a new shower curtain. Anyway, as near as I can tell, today's music consists mainly of guys rapping to the beat of hit songs from the 1980s. Back in the 1980s, there was nothing more annoying than when the DJ starting talking over the song; but now that makes it a top ten single.

Today's hit songs contain too much "featuring" and "auto-tuning" and "sampling." Sampling is good when you're at a frozen yogurt shop. But musically, it sounds phony and derivative.

In many ways, things have changed. Just 30 years ago, the music industry was a collection of greedy, cocaine-addicted a**holes who exploited young talent, squeezing the depth out of songs in order to produce instantly forgettable pop tunes that sounded more like catchy commercial jingles than anything you could really feel in your soul. But today, the people running the industry are addicted to prescription medication.

But in fairness, it's harder for music to be good now. For one thing, all the original melodies have already been taken. It's like the NBA slam dunk competition. There are only so many ways you can slam a basketball into the net. It's getting boring. I mean, am I the only one who noticed that Adele's Rolling In Deep is basically Gnarls Barkley's Crazy, which itself is sort of a rip-off of one of my favorite songs, Across 110th Street, sung by the late, great Bobby Womack? Honestly, I kind of like Miley Cyrus' Wrecking Ball and Katy Perry's Firework. But they're the same song. Just because you change the word firework to cannonball doesn't make it a different song. If O.J. Simpson changes his first name to Phil, that doesn't mean he's a new guy. "Phil Simpson? No, never been in any legal trouble."

Another problem with music now, which saddens me, is the death of the fully realized album. iTunes should be tried for murder. (Though not in California.) I miss the days of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, a collection of similarly-themed songs designed to be listened to in order, creating a cohesive narrative. Musicians don't create actual "albums" anymore. Rather, every year or so, they release a dozen more songs, and then listeners pick out a couple to download onto their phone. This is because our attention spans have become too short to emotionally invest in a forty-five-minute musical story. Heck, we barely have the attentive focus to read a simple senten... hey, how about if they dunk three basketballs at once?! That'd be different.

There is simply too much music now, and there are too many ways to hear it: television, the Internet, weird guys on the subway singing along to their headphones, etc. Just like the dozens of Progressive car insurance commercials starring that wacky Flo, sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. It's not that there isn't great music coming out now, or that there aren't fantastic, contemporary musical artists, it's just that it's getting harder to sift through the mounds of shit in order to find it. If you just push Gangnam Style out of the way, you'll discover some amazing sounds, like The Decemberists and Saigon and Lucinda Williams and Eef Barzelay and Tegan and Sarah and Sharon Jones and so many others.

And older, more recognizable artists are still recording great music, too, even if it's not as popular as their classic stuff. I would argue that Paul Simon's recent albums, while the songs might not be as familiar as his 1970s standards, are among the best work of his career. And Art Garfunkel's new projects are, well, he seems like a nice person.

And, yeah, while Led Zeppelin and John Lennon and Stevie Nicks and Journey and Prince and Nirvana are deservedly acclaimed, not everything from back in the day was so great. The worst part of high school for any teenage boy is when you have to pretend that you like Pink Floyd. Ughh. People mock Kanye West for being pretentious. But at least his music is fun. And it's a lot more enjoyable than suffering through the painful, pretentious, pseudo-intellectual art rock that is Pink Floyd. Geez, I'd rather drive into The Wall than have to listen to it again. Oh, and changing in the locker room is pretty bad, too.

One thing about music that hasn't change is festivals. Music festivals are just as horrific now as they were forty years ago. There's a saying that "if you can remember Woodstock, then you weren't there." I'd add my own maxim: "Woodstock was way too crowded." And I prefer real bathrooms. When you say Lalapalooza, what I'm hearing is "Port-A-Potties." My advice? If you're thinking about buying a ticket to a music festival, buy the CD and get a hotel room, instead.

How come it's illegal to leave a child in a hot car, but parents are allowed to bring babies to hot, noisy, disturbingly unsanitary music festivals? Where the hell is protective services? The news media says that the ebola virus is coming from Africa. But I'm pretty sure it came from Coachella.

It has been said that American Idol has played a big part in ruining music. Personally, I don't have a problem with American Idol, though I wish the judges would stop referring to the contestants as "artists." Bob Dylan is an artist. Some sixteen-year-old kid whose mom drove him to the audition so that he can sing a two-minute version of Poker Face for J-Lo and Keith Urban is not an artist. If you sing, you're a singer. If you play the guitar, you're a guitar player. But an artist is someone who transcends basic musical skills to create something meaningful and magical... and then usually dies of an overdose.

I do have a pet peeve about American Idol, though. There are young musicians working hard on their craft, and making the effort to get their music heard: playing at clubs and cafes, recording demos, etc. I support those real musicians who are using American Idol as a platform. Best of luck. What I can't stand, though, are the selfie-generation losers who put no work into forging a musical career, but once a year they try out for American Idol hoping to become instant stars. And that's not even my pet peeve. No, what really annoys me is afterwards, when they are rejected by the judges, and they cry and they say, "This was my dream." Honey, overnight success without putting in the effort or possessing the talent is not a "dream"; it's the Kardashians. And we already have enough of those. So stop whining.

It has also been said that The Voice has played a part in ruining music. I don't know if that's true. However, I do know that The Voice has played a big part in ruining television.

Here's an interesting thought. For the most part, age isn't really a factor in keeping up with pop culture trends anymore. We are living in a new world, where middle-aged women watch Catfish on MTV. Forty-year-old men play the latest video games. And senior citizens are downloading, and starring in, The Expendables movies. Everyone is hip and cool now. Heck, "being dead" is the new "90."

Except for music. Once you hit 35, eh, it's a pain trying to stay connected with new music. After reaching your third or fourth decade on earth, you simply have better things to do than keeping track of Lil' Wayne's tour schedule.

On the other hand, nobody really stays connected with the music scene anymore. There is no "music scene" anymore. Rather, people are connected to their music, the stuff they buy. We're not musically divided by age; we're divided by musical genre.

Here is the Top Ten singles list from the week of September 19, 1987 (the first random date I happened to click on), according to a music website I just looked up.
1. Didn't We Almost Have It All, Whitney Houston
2. Here I Go Again, Whitesnake
3. I Heard A Rumour, Bananarama
4. I Just Can't Stop Loving You, Michael Jackson
5. Carrie, Europe
6. Lost In Emotion, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam
7. U Got The Look, Prince
8. Touch Of Grey, Grateful Dead
9. One Heartbeat, Smokey Robinson
10. Can't We Try, Dan Hill & Vonda Shepard

Back in September of 1987, everybody, of pretty much every age, knew these songs. People still know them. Trust me; look up Can't We Try on YouTube. You know it. For a rock band's name, Europe is a bit ostentatious. I remember Carrie, but, I mean, the continent of Europe covers a lot of ground. One music group can't really represent all those countries. My advice? Name your band Portugal. That way nobody is expecting much. Hey, whatever happened to Lisa Lisa?

Here's the most recent Top Ten list from that same website.
1. Magic!, Rude
2. Stay With Me, Sam Smith
3. Am I Wrong, Nico & Vinz
4. Maps, Maroon 5
5. Love Runs Out, One Republic
6. Problem, Ariana Grande, featuring Iggy Azalea
7. Really Don't Care, Demi Lovato, featuring Cher Lloyd
8. Summer, Calvin Harris
9. Latch, Disclosure, featuring Sam Smith
10. Come Get it Bae, Pharrell Williams

Few of these 10 songs transcend their chart listing. And I bet a typical college student can't really name most of them. What the hell is Rude? I looked it up. It's a reggae song, apparently. Sixty-four-million hits on YouTube? Out of curiosity, I also looked up Bob Marley's reggae classic, Redemption Song, which only has half as many hits. We're all going to music hell. You realize that, right?

But in fact, the Billboard Top Ten is meaningless now, anyway. There is no longer a unifying music chart that unites society, pop-culturally-speaking. Now, there are 74 different Billboard charts: Adult/Pop, Rock, R&B, Dance, Dorito, Ninja, etc.

In 1893, famous French sociologist Emile Durkheim- who, coincidentally, later changed his name to Right Said Fred and had a smash hit in 1991 with I'm Too Sexy- wrote about a dangerous social condition that he referred to as anomie. Anomie is a breakdown of social institutions, or the foundations which guide society and provide a "collective conscience" for individuals. In other words, even though we're all different, we're socialized to understand bigger concepts, like Family and Education and Culture. These concepts are necessary in maintaining a nation's orderly flow. A collective conscience means, in the bigger picture, we all think more or less the same, which is good because life would be too confusing if we all spoke a different language and we don't want kids bringing guns to school. Our collective conscience combats the social chaos that leads to violence, political anarchy, and cronuts.

Today, America is experiencing a musical anomie. The reason our country has become so divided -- and so arguably chaotic -- is not because people have different opinions about abortion; instead, it's because we no longer have musical boundaries to guide any sense of unity. Back in the 1980s, you may not have liked Thriller, but at least you knew Thriller. Today, the same can't be said for Disclosure's Latch, featuring Sam Smith with guest appearances by Ludacris and Kesha and Kesha's guest appearance featuring Disclosure. (For research purposes, I just listened to Latch on Youtube. Eh, it's not great. But it's not the worst thing I've ever heard, either... which, in case you're curious, is We Built This City by Starship, Father Figure by George Michael, and the episode of Rachel Ray where she interviews supermodel Cindy Crawford.)

If Emile Durkheim was alive today, I suspect he'd be concerned about the way technology and the economy have weakened social connections. And today's confused musical stratification- no joke!- plays a factor in this deterioration, which is why so many individuals subconsciously feel so emotionally "lost." On the other hand, if Emile Durkheim was alive today, I bet he'd love Beyonce. Everybody does.