If music isnt what it used to be no one gave us the memo

If music isn’t what it used to be, no one gave us the memo

Despite being a late 90s kid, much of my family’s music collection consisted of vinyls and cassettes with a range that was limitless. One minute, my dad would be listening to the smooth reggae of Jimmy Cliff or crooning along to the soulful Al Green, the next my mum was blasting out the powerful vocals of Chaka Khan, the velvety tones of Sade and an array of other 80s classics from our old hi-fi system whilst preparing dinner in the kitchen.

Looking back, I distinctly remember that all of my parents’ favorite artists were renowned for their impressive live performance skills. Talking to many music fans from older generations, you might get the impression that this kind of raw musical talent is a phenomenon lost to a bygone era. Today’s pop stars are often heavily criticized for lackluster vocals, uninspired lyrics and generally unrefined on-stage presence.

Nowadays, alongside parents around the world (and that one kid in school that only ever wore faded KISS t-shirts), blogs and reddit threads frequently lament the shallow lyrics, redundant beats and overall superficiality they perceive in modern music. In 2016, the BBC even published an article proclaiming that the popularity of YouTube and streaming was single-handedly killing the live music scene.

Not long after, GQ released a scathing review of the current Top 40 chart, characterizing it as dull, boring and predictable. They argued this homogenization was due to music streaming algorithms determining the week’s most popular new releases: “The majority of recent hits are singing from the same hymn sheet. Even Maroon 5 sound like tropical house now”.

It’s a familiar refrain – the same condescending spiel every new generation of music has had to contend with since the invention of adolescent angst, only now with the added menace of social media and advanced technology thrown into the mix. And frankly, in 2019, it’s time we put this tired myth to rest once and for all.

But first, let’s step back and take a reality check. The idea that music has experienced some sort of creative “pinnacle” in the past is bizarre and unsupported. In every era and genre, groundbreaking work has always been counterbalanced by music that is derivative, unadorned, superficial and sometimes simply not very good. Today’s hits are no exception to this timeless rule.

However, a major shift has undoubtedly occurred in how music is created and consumed. Artists can now compose, produce and release entire albums without the backing of a major label, often from their own home studios. Visuals and sonic production have taken center stage. Singer-songwriters have evolved into multi-faceted artist-producers, crafting a brand and sound without the need for a traditional record deal or live performances to build a following.

Streaming and social media have inarguably transformed music discovery and consumption. So what about the “real problem” – the fear that millennials and technology are destroying live music? The BBC fretted in 2016, “With social media and streaming services dominating, what happens to the dingy pubs and sweat-soaked clubs that used to be the lifeblood of the music industry?”

However, a closer look reveals the truth is more nuanced. In fact, 27% of music venues in London reported problems with property development impacting their business in 2019. The shuttering of small clubs has as much to do with housing policy and gentrification as smartphones. While the internet has undeniably changed the game, YouTube and other video platforms also provide crucial opportunities for up-and-coming acts and indie venues to gain exposure and build a brand without relying solely on ticket sales.

The lack of institutional support for smaller music venues is a complex issue that won’t be solved by pointing fingers at millennials and their devices. As the Guardian reported, a recent study recommended that local governments “recognize small and medium music venues as key sites of artist and audience development and as cultural and community assets.” Actively investing in and cultivating grassroots creative spaces is crucial, rather than dismissing an entire generation and scapegoating new technologies.

This is where the outdated moralizing and simplistic arguments fall short. The monolithic music landscape of the past, where subcultures were strictly defined by genre, is evolving into something far more fluid and accessible. We are living in the most artistically diverse era in history, where music is beginning to reflect the full spectrum of identities and experiences rather than a narrow status quo. Exciting new voices from a vast range of cultural backgrounds are finding audiences, without shedding the musical heritage that shaped them.

One need look no further than the global hit “Work” by Rihanna for a prime example. Some critics were quick to dismiss the song’s repetition and non-traditional structure, like The A.V. Club’s Cobin Reiff who remarked that “the sheer repetition of the hook creates a built-in expiration date for when this song transitions from catchy to mildly annoying.”

However, pop has always embraced repetition, from the cycling four chords of Oasis’ “Wonderwall” to the endless na-na-nas of Journey’s “Hey Jude.” So why did “Work” provoke such backlash? Mish Mash didn’t mince words in their review, snidely referring to the lyrics as “literal gibberish.” Apparently these tastemakers failed to grasp that Rihanna was singing in Patois, the Jamaican Creole language and a key part of her identity as a Barbadian artist.

More recently, the removal of Lil Nas X’s country-trap smash “Old Town Road” from the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart for supposedly not being “country enough” sparked outcry and accusations of discrimination from the black artist’s fans. Again and again, it is white critics interrogating the artistic output of people of color and finding it lacking by a nebulous criteria that seems to boil down to simply sounding too “black.” It’s crucial to question who gets to define what “good music” is.

Luckily, this backward bias is far from universal. Anyone seeking evidence that live music is alive and well need look no further than NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series. The intimate, quirky performances showcase a stunningly diverse array of talent, from chart-toppers like Adele to avant-garde newcomers like Cautious Clay and Haley Heynderickx. Refreshingly, Tiny Desk invites musicians of all genres and backgrounds to simply play their hearts out in a small, unassuming office.

The Tiny Desk ethos aligns perfectly with the ways young people are engaging with music – fluidly and voraciously, less confined by reductive labels than past generations. The universal thread uniting the series is the caliber of raw talent on display, definitively proving that today’s artists can go toe-to-toe with the musical icons venerated by nostalgic elders.

There’s no denying that many small music venues are struggling, but the reasons are complex and systemic. Vilifying the internet ignores the real socioeconomic factors at play and fails to offer a constructive long-term solution. As for the pervasive grumbling that new music is trash? It’s beyond played out. This generation has an unprecedented wealth of fantastic art to discover and celebrate. The kids are alright.

As told to Ruthless Magazine