Opinions and Rants #6: Reflections on Contempory Music (and Why It Sucks)

For a long time now I have been trying to answer the question as to why contemporary music sucks so bad. Bear with me a few minutes and hear me out on this one.

Fact: contemporary music is just plain awful.
Unless you agree with this statement, then this whole post is worthless to you. To you, there's no problem; you love what's on the radio and songs like "My Humps" are just great. Who needs bands like The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin when you have Chris Brown (who just won Artist of the Year at the AMA) and Kanye West, right?

For a time, magazines like Rolling Stone held out hope that a band would arrive that could rejuvenate rock music (remember the Strokes?), yet none have really left an indelible mark. Album sales continue to be in the toilet, and the only musicians selling out arenas are way past their prime (Van Halen, Aerosmith, Journey, etc.) and rely on former glory rather than current chart success.

If you prefer R&B and Hip-Hop, then this is heaven. If you like rock music, you might as well turn the dial to a classic rock station and listen to "More than a Feeling" for the billionth time. It's almost as if grunge was the death moan of rock music - the sound of rock music literally croaking. As post-grunge bands like Nickleback played in the ashes, urban music filled the void.

Not that R&B and Hip-Hop have no merit - quite the contrary. For instance, Outkast is an extremely talented and worthy offspring of Parliament Funkadelic. However, I'm grieved over the apparent end of rock. And, I'm sorry, but The Shins and Coldplay are not going to save it.

Which brings me to the question at hand - what the hell happened?

Well, there's a multitude of minor reasons such as (1) The file sharing revolution and (2) the rise of the Big Four record companies, EMI, Sony, Warner and Universal, which merchandise and market, but could give a shit about creativity.

But these explanations don't satisfy. They're more excuses than real answers. What the hell did the Sex Pistols care about big corporate record companies? The still made their mark in spite of an industry stacked against them. And as far as blaming the file sharing revolution - a band like the Beatles would have taken it to their advantage and made mp3's their bitch. Nothing as pitiful as digital downloads would have stopped the Fab Four from taking the world by storm.

So, the problem still goes unanswered - why does it suck? I have strained my feeble brain over the issue and have come up with a sort of tentative explanation. I'm not currently convinced I'm right, but it might just be true.

Rock music has simply run its course. There's only so much innovation and creativity possible with two guitars, a bass, and drums. It's pretty much tapped out.

When rock music was young, there was a lot of sounds to explore. Naturally, great music abounded. Floyd, Zeppelin, Sabbath, The Beatles took all the gold from the mine... and all we're left with is the shaft.

Perhaps, someday a bright young musical talent will come around and find a brand new gold mine just waiting to be explored... and, hopefully, prove me hopelessly wrong.


  1. True...very true...depressing as hell--but true.

  2. Hey Gilligan. I totally agree with what you said. It is depressing though to see the death of rock. I don't see some great savior out there to turn things around. We always hear about that next great rock band that will save rock music. It never happens. Most of them disappear after one album. The biggest rock acts seem to be those selling out arenas today, but they are past their prime as far as having hit records. You can turn on MTV or the radio and there's very little real rock music there anymore. It's a shame though.

  3. I'm not sure I buy the "two guitars, a bass, and drums" argument. Not that I don't think there's a basic truth to your argument.

    The problem is that we - and, yes, I'll count myself in this group - continue to expect someone to make something both innovative and essentially familiar. The fact that people managed to use this basic format to create something both new and essentially familiar for something close to 50 years may be significantly more remarkable than the fact that it seems to, at best, take longer and longer between people who can find ways to put a new spin or fold the idea over on itself in a way that interests us.

    As long as using that set of instruments to create something entirely innovative isn't what we hope for, then we're likely out of luck or, at least, in for a very long wait.

  4. I agree with Neil here. Btw the idea of nothing new and interesting happening? I dunno I ve probably been saying that for decades, but in hindsight I was wrong most times I said that, and occasionally something comes along to surprise. I few years ago I mthought british indie music was ina funk and the best offerings included stuff like Dodgy (pretty dull).

    Anyhow it was about this time when I was walking through a market and heard a record stall blasting a Girls Vs Boys albumn and I thought wow!

    There is, am sure oplenty of great stuff happening in music, but question is hwo much will get airplay or is it all happening in the dusty more cobweb strewn corners of myspace/

    I remember there was a time when britain was dominated by more banality in the shape of the stock aitkin and waterman camp etc but bubbling away under the surface was some pretty innovative stuff that never saw airplay on radio- bands such as sonic youth or the pixies for a start.

  5. Reverend Fred- Depressing for some, but I suspect most people are content to bask in the mediocrity and banality of contemporary music.

    Keith- Yes, I know it's kind of cliche to say, but I remember when MTV played videos. I got my hopes up with MTV2, but they play perhaps even less music, and then really got my hopes up with VHI classic which is playing "Cribs" right now for God's sake.

    Neil- You make a good point that the solution may be in not always expecting innovation; quality music doesn't necessarily need to come in brand new wrappers. It's okay to revisit old styles and conventions.

    However, how can you make or expect people to feel this way? George Martin produced an impressive documentary trying to determine what makes a song "good". What he discovered was that a fresh/unexpectedness was part of the lure. He also talked to Billy Joel who seconded the notion that we are simply running out of fresh sounding melodies.

    Nigel- I agree that there's a good bit of good stuff out there. They may not be brand spanking new but I like Kasabian, the Kaiser Cheifs, the Shins, and the White Stripes/The Raconteurs. But they're simply blips on the radar -a distant undercurrent that may wind up on the cover of a magazine or two, but never rocking the house at Shea Stadium or inspiring a music revolution.

    Let's be honest here: the Shins are talented (and so is Wilco), but they always will be outsold by Loverboy - and that about says it all.

  6. Let's be honest here: the Shins are talented (and so is Wilco), but they always will be outsold by Loverboy - and that about says it all.

    Well, yeah, but I'd say the times that that hasn't been true have largely been blips on the radar as well. I think at its core, that's the biggest problem.

    As to the melody thing... I'm not entirely sure I buy that, although I understand that it could have some truth within this one musical idiom that we've taken on as what we want to hear more of.

  7. Well, yeah, but I'd say the times that that hasn't been true have largely been blips on the radar as well. I think at its core, that's the biggest problem.

    I'm not sure I'm getting your point. I agree with you if you're saying that radio stations and the Godless Killing Machines (aka record companies) are to blame for continuing to support old acts like Loverboy (via classic radio airplay, concert promotion, etc.) while bands new acts like the Shins get the shaft.

    As far as the melody thing goes, I'm not sure I buy it either. But when George Martin and Billy Joel say it's true, it has some credibility.

  8. Now, you see I'm feeling all positive because I went to see Nick Cave last night and it was fabulous - wonderful artist playing with wonderous musicians to an ecstatic crowd...

    Of course he's not new on the scene by a long shot (though neither is he past his sell-by date by a long shot either) but he is unlikely to have chart success any time soon (Where the Wild Roses Grow is likely to be the closest he'll ever get and that had the advantage of Kylie being on the record). He will make records, that will draw critical acclaim, that will sell a reasonable amount and he will draw crowds to his gigs - no not stadiums but they don't suit the type of music imho.

    But how much chart success did some of the great bands have? Pink Floyd were an album band more than a singles band through most of their career and Led Zeppelin never actually released a single in the UK...

    When the greats were about there was still an awful lot of crud floating around out there. Let us get a little bit more contemporary, for something I find amusing, and look at the awful, cruddy, sentimental “(Everything I do) I do it for you” by Brian Adams – what was it, some 16 weeks at number 1 in the UK and not a damn person bought it… you ask anyone and they deny it…

    I’ve discovered a lot of good new bands over the last couple of years but they are underground (and yet strangely more accessible than ever before, due to the internet). Good music is out there, new music is out there, problem is the majority of people listen to music that sucks but they always have done.

    My two-penneth worth, in the post-gig land of optimism.

  9. I think rock has expanded and grown over the years. Rock became hard rock and split off into heavy metal and other genres. All are creative but it's the listener and music buying public that has to explore it. Music isn't instantly gratifying all the time. You have to put some effort into listening to what the artists have created as I think some of the best albums take multiple listens and some of my favorites of all time include some that I didn't like at first listen. The problem lies with the average listener today. Everything has to be quick, now and instantly gratifying. As a lover of music I have never stayed stuck to one genre but have explored many and will continue to. I rarely buy anything that has made a presence on any chart and I consider it a warning to stay away from an album if it wins something like a grammy. A clear indication of popularity over quality. There are many great bands around today making amazing music. Dream Theater's Metropolis 2, Opeth's Ghost Reveries and Morningrise all the way through to Rufus Wainwright's Poses and Nick Kelly's Running Dog. All amazing albums that only lovers of music go out and seek rather than waiting for a radio station to introduce it to them.

  10. Taliesin- Excellent point in that what's popular gets shelved and forgotten (i.e. Bryan Adams) and the undercurrent of good (albeit underground) music is what ends up with the spoils of victory.

    I'll go with it, but only part of the way. Your example of Floyd, for instance: sure,they had to stretch to even find something for a single on Dark Side of the Moon - but the LP went on to become one of the biggest selling albums EVER. Hardly an underground act.

    This ties in with the following anonymous comment - I'll give you that sometimes the best music is more complex and is thus often an acquired taste. However, I am referring in this post to the total and complete absence of a rock presence on contemporary radio and the charts. Loverboy and Night Ranger may have sucked (although, not to me), but it was still rock music.

    Rock music, to compete with the Chris Browns and Ushers of the world will, I'm afraid, have to be a little less like Opeth's Ghost Reveries (sorry, anonymous, never heard of 'em) and a lot more like Boston and Journey.

    In other words, I love experimental bands like Hawkwind and King Crimson... but I still think we need a little Foghat in our lives. Rock on!

  11. Gilligan, sorry need to explain that I wasn't suggesting that Floyd and Zeppelin were underground and, yes, they had massive album sales but these were sales without real single support... it was single chart success I referred to...

  12. Yea Rock seems pretty much in a coma for now. Even old rock values seem to have falling away. I am aghast to read that Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones are actually considering touring with some singer from Creed, whoever the hell they are or were, since Robert Plant has no interest in touring at this time. I cannot imagine these guys hurting for extra money. I would not be interested at all in this project it was called Led Zeppelin. If they toured under a different name, even Led Creed, it might be okay.

    CDs now sell in such high numbers that the old glory of going gold or platinum has lost any meaning. The first platinum album (I believe) was Cream's Wheels of Fire, and this was back when people bought vinyl and albums like this had little real airplay, and not everyone had a record player even.

    So what is the big deal now when someone goes platinum... again. And how many award shows do we need. This is simply record companies saying "thanks for making a zillion dollars" rater than anyone's talent being recognized for being creative or individual. Rather the opposite, you are rewarded for being a carbon copy now.

    Yea, it is a state state of affairs man.


  13. Taliesin- Sorry I misunderstood your point. I guess this is a subject best discussed at the pub rather than on a blog. Maybe sometime, over a pint.

    Bill- Are you kidding me? The lead singer of Creed? Man, I know rock is dead, but does Page have to rub salt on the wounds? What's next - a Beatles reunion with the guy from Nickelback? I give up.

  14. Gilligan :) I think all subjects are best discussed at the pub over at pint ;)

  15. I think you're on to something. R&B and Hip-Hop (or the corporate version of Hip Hop that has replaced the sincere original stuff I grew up with) have done to Rock what Rock has done to Jazz?

  16. Great post. I completely agree. Same thing happened to country music in the 1970s and, arguably, to jazz around the same time.

    I wonder what the kids are going to be listening to after R&B and hip hop are eventually played out?

  17. I agree with this post in the sense that I haven't gotten really excited about any new rock bands since the 1990's. There are plenty of Artists I like today, but none that have that magical pull the older rock bands from the 1960's -1990's had.