In an effort to keep myself current with the music that is favored by today's
young people, I recently turned on the radio and listened to some tunes by Creed,
the Offspring, Three Doors Down, Sugar Ray, Third Eye Blind, and several other
pop combos. In each case I heard funky, syncopated electric guitar chords propelled
by hard-hitting drums and garnished with a vocal line that sounded as though the
singer had gotten his nose caught in something serrated.
It reminded me of another occasion when I turned on the radio. This was back
when I myself was a young person, circa 1970. I remember it as though it were
yesterday. I turned the knob, and what did I hear? Funky, syncopated electric guitar
chords, with the drums and the squealing vocals and all the rest of it.
In other words, pop music has been stuck in a stylistic time warp for several
Younger people try to tell me that this isn't so, but they can't make it stick.
When they point demonstratively at a group like Nirvana, I counter with the Stooges.
If they invoke Green Day, I invoke the Who and the Kinks. When they throw Pearl
Jam into the pot, I raise with the Doors and Jefferson Airplane.
Kurt Cobain? Jim Morrison. Marilyn Manson? Alice Cooper.
To get a sense of just how unprecedented and, indeed, strange this
development, or lack of development, is, imagine that in 1968 the Glenn Miller
Orchestra was still the top of the pops and the Dorsey Brothers were just getting
their second wind.
Impossible to envisage? No more impossible, maybe, than imagining 20 or
30 years ago that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones would still be international
fixations, and unbelievably lucrative ones, in the year 2001.
The current R&B scene is nothing more than '60s Motown and '80s disco by
other means. Electronica is a concerted effort to break out of the warp by using
electronic sounds (okay so far) to construct funky, syncopated tunes (sorry, no cigar).
It's a bit embarrassing to see some of latter-day pop culture's attempts to
break the stylistic impasse. Someone even tried the gambit of bringing back swing
music (hello, there, Glenn Miller and the Dorseys), which had some people fooled
for a year or so, until it became obvious (1) that what the Cherry Poppin' Daddies
and the Brian Setzer Orchestra and their ilk were producing was not really "swing" music but a kind of pre-Chuck Berry, Louie Prima-inflected jive, close enough to rock
'n' roll that it makes no difference, and (2) that no one's heart was really in it, anyway.
And the clothes were too expensive.
Wait, now _ there's rap music and its attendant style, hip-hop. Turn the radio
up. Wow, it's jagged, mechanical chord "samples" over guttural expostulations and
obsessive percussion. I have two words for you: James Brown.
Maybe taking the longer view will get us somewhere, though it rarely does.
Back before the turn of the previous century a lot of poor people of African
descent working in the fields and mines were singing something called "the blues" that was characterized by two elements: syncopation, and a flatted note (known as
the "blue note") where, in other music, an unflatted note would usually occur.
Cue the 20th century, and cue the new era's "ragtime" instrumental
accompaniment - a more involved form of tunesmithery based on blues.
Now up through the beginning of Prohibition you have "jazz," vocal and
instrumental songs that are heavily syncopated and make a really big deal out of that
one flatted note. This segues into "swing" in the '30s and through the Second World
After the war our musical journey comes to a fork in the road. One road is "bebop," a frenetic and nervous-sounding music that's harmonically sophisticated in
the extreme. The other road is rock 'n' roll, in which everything has gotten simplified
until there's almost nothing left: funky, syncopated electric guitar chords together with
strange vocals that are almost like something an anthropologist might hear out in the
What has us all trapped in a time warp is the fact that we just can't stop loving
that syncopated beat and that flatted note, and it can't get any simpler unless we
give up on music altogether.
This stasis does have the advantage of saving me the trouble of collecting all
my old favorites on this thing they have now called "CDs." Instead, I can just turn on
the radio and listen to today's version of the same thing.