Aught Lang Syne: The Decade in Music

I’ve never been a big fan of Kanye West. I generally think he’s overrated,* and I find his antics off-putting. None of his big singles—“Jesus Walks,” “Through the Wire,” “Gold Digger”—ever really resonated with me; I didn’t really think they were bad, but I never went out of my way to listen to them (not that I ever had to). But when I first heard “Stronger,” I remember thinking that West had trapped some kind of “cultural sound” in a bottle (I didn’t think it in those words, exactly; it was probably something more like This song is awesome!). “Stronger” was the kind of “cutting edge” song that sounded both ahead of its time and of the moment.

*Truthfully, this impression is mainly of College Dropout, which I really didn’t like. Most of his work since that is more or less accurately rated.

Rock music stopped being the most interesting genre of pop music at least ten years ago. This isn’t to say that there are no more good rock and roll bands, or that rock music has nowhere left to develop—both of these statements are flatly false—but simply that the dominant sounds of popular culture were not rock and roll this decade. Part of this is rock’s own fault: Watch a movie from that late 1990s and you’ll hear what a lot of “rock” sounded like then—a lot of Third Eye Blind, Sixpence None the Richer, Vertical Horizon, and, of course, Barenaked Ladies. Not exactly riveting stuff.

But even more of it had to do with the flourishing of other genres, most notably rap and hip hop. Almost every artist to get that elusive combination of commercial and critical success this decade was working within those genres: Jay-Z, Kanye, Eminem, 50 Cent, Lil Wayne, Usher, etc. The only rock bands to approach the success of those acts in the 2000s were Coldplay and Green Day…and those bands fucking suck.

So why was this? It’s not like rap and hip hop were new during this decade. Some people would probably even argue that this decade has really seen a bastardization of the “classics” of these genres. So why were the Aughts so clearly defined by them?

The answer to this question is complex. Some of it probably has to do with socioeconomics, some of it with demographic changes, some with cultural shifts, and some with technological changes. But to the extent that the answer is musical, I think it can be largely explained by “Stronger.”

“Stronger,” from its opening sampling of Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” announces itself as a different kind of song. It’s the kind of song that isn’t really bound by genre classifications, instead incorporating the best elements of other artists and genres, and building on what makes them appealing.

Of course, sampling and hip hop have gone hand in hand since the genre began. What’s intriguing about “Stronger” is how West incorporates the Daft Punk song. Instead of just throwing a heavy bass behind the Daft Punk melody and rapping over it, he loops the song, changes the tempo, runs the sample over itself, and adds new layers of synth to the original sound. In short, he turns the song into something completely different. In fact, not only is most of the melody in this song West’s own, but it’s mostly West’s take on electronic music, and not really rap at all.

Electronic music (or electronica, or electrophunk, or electro, or house music, or post-disco, or synthpop, or electropop, or dance punk; there are too many names for these genres and it’s too hard to tell where one ends and the other begins), of course, was the other genre that flourished creatively this decade. Like hip hop, electronic music (which I’m going to use to refer to all of the above and any affiliated subgenres) was on the ascendancy in the 1990s. Pop and rock acts like Madonna, Radiohead, U2, and R.E.M. were all trying to incorporate elements of the genre into their music at the turn of the millennium, with varying degrees of success.

This decade, however, has seen acts like LCD Soundsystem, Girl Talk, The Rapture, The Knife, Death From Above 1979, MGMT, most of the DFA label, and lots of others expand on this sound. These acts represent such a wide range of sounds that it feels odd to even include them in the same genre, but they all evolved from the same milieu. Not coincidentally, these bands were some of the most innovative and groundbreaking of the decade.

This sound also bled into some of the commercial successes of the decade. Artists like Gorillaz and The Killers managed to turn these sounds into radio-friendly anthems. Even acts generally seen as more traditional “rock” ones like The Strokes, Interpol, the Arctic Monkeys, and Franz Ferdinand all seemed to come from this “post-punk revival” genre,* which was able to integrate a new synth sound into traditional rock and roll.

*This genre is like the postmodernism of music: Everyone talks about it like they know what it means, but nobody can define. If “post-punk revival” is like postmodernism, then I guess John Lydon is its Jacques Derrida.

These were certainly some of the best acts of the decade, but it was electronic music’s convergence with hip hop that became the really dominant sound of the Aughts. The marriage of electronic music with rap, hip hop and R&B was much more natural than the marriage of either genre with rock music. Both electronic music and hip hop descend directly from DJing, both tend to emphasize dancing, both rely more on drum machines, breaks and basslines than on guitar or piano. So when these two genres finally found creative pioneers, like OutKast, Kanye, and Danger Mouse, it was only a matter of time before that kind of work became the most interesting and, inevitably, the kind every musician was trying to do.

Most of what’s played on the radio, even and especially the bad stuff, at the end of 2009 owes a large debt to this fusion. Take, for example, a recent Billboard #1: Jason DeRulo’s “Whatcha Say.” Now, this song isn’t especially original or groundbreaking; it is, essentially, a generic R&B song played over Imogen Heap’s original. But it’s quite catchy. It’s not hard to see why it’s popular, and it’s also an improvement over Heap’s original song, “Hide and Seek,” even though Heap’s vocals are the best part of DeRulo’s song. In other words, the synergy between the two works is what makes the styles work.

As is always the case when a genre becomes as pervasive as this one now is, there are people who do it well and people who do it poorly. Plenty of the songs that come out of this tradition seem like bastardizations of the art form. But this is how popular music always works: The pioneers are followed by imitators, some who take the form to new levels, some who know how to craft hits, and some who end up churning out crude knockoffs that make fans of the original wince.

When it’s at its best, though, this blend has created some of the best pop songs of the decade: “Stronger,” “Crazy,” “B.O.B.,” etc. These will likely be the songs that this decade is best remembered for.

Of course, the musical landscape now is more fragmented than it was at the beginning of the decade; fewer people buy blockbuster albums, and the standards for commercial success have been lowered.* Part of this is due to the recording industry’s incompetence, but part of it also has to do with a kind of ‘long tail’ inevitability. With easier access to music and small communities of fans for a specific genre, it’s easier for the market to self-segment. As a result, peoples’ musical tastes are more independent of the mainstream than they used to be.

*In 2000, the biggest album of the year was No Strings Attached, which sold 9,936,104 copies domestically. In 2009, by contrast, the top six albums COMBINED to sell under 7 million copies. In other words, the top album of 2000 outperformed the top six albums of 2009 by over 40%. 

This could potentially mean that trying to identify a “contemporary sound” is irrelevant: Plenty of fans can go through the whole decade without ever listening to this “sound” or hearing about James Murphy and Jason DeRulo. And the fact is that there are plenty of acts that don’t seem affected by this sound: massive acts, like Coldplay and Jet and Kings of Leon, as well as smaller, buzz-friendly acts, like The Hold Steady and the Fiery Furnaces.

But there are two main flaws with this line of logic. First, it’s simply not true that these acts don’t influence one another. Coldplay obviously pays attention to Radiohead, who’ve been using electronic influences since Kid A. Kings of Leon come from the same alternative rock scene that has been dominated by The Strokes, one of the prototypical post-punk bands. Even Kanye West himself has claimed inspiration from Franz Ferdinand, who themselves get inspiration from LCD Soundsystem. Influence bleeds across genres all the time, often in unexpected and unpredictable ways. So even if you decide to listen to music on only one end of the spectrum, you can be pretty confident that what you’re hearing has something to do with what’s going on at the other end.

The second reason is more ambiguous: People generally want music to unite them. It’s true that people use personal taste as a marker for personal value at times, and often wear odd personal preferences as a badge of pride, but in the long run, people want other people to like the music they like. It’s fun to listen to music in a group. It’s cool to find out other people agree with you about what music is good.

And right now, the kind of music that is bringing together fans of disparate genres is the kind of music in “Stronger.” This does not mean that in another decade everyone will listen to rap and rock bands will be gone forever. This does not mean that the genres of electronic music and hip hop don’t still stand as distinct genres in their own right. This does not mean that all other genres are waning or irrelevant. This is only a sign that pop music is evolving, not that it’s dead. And that which doesn’t kill it, of course, can only make it stronger.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. [...] albums that allow them to develop a relationship with a band or artists work. Whereas most of NPI’s musical retrospective thus far has been an attempt to sum up what was popular, innovative and interesting about this decade in [...]

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  2. Posted by James Schneider on December 13, 2009 at 5:18 PM

    This is a weird parallel, but I feel like(in theory atleast) College dropout was the Curb Your Enthusiasm documentary that wasn’t supposed to be part of the show, and that late Registration and Graduation was the show. West had worked on College Dropout for like 5 years, and it wasn’t really a cohesive album, it was more songs he had performed put together. Then, he built on the whole black socioeconomic theme. i feel like for you to criticise West for that album is unfair, as it would be to criticise Curb Your Enthusiasm for the documentary or whatever.

    Reply

  3. [...] before I was even born, so the Aughts couldn’t really see a general creative leap of that sort. Unlike music, in which production costs are lower and output generally faster, film cannot experience the kind [...]

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