Popular music likes its listeners to believe that it’s doing something revolutionary. Whether hard rock or synth pop, hip-hop or country crooning, the songs we hear on the radio or records, booming from big speakers or piped directly into our brains via the tiniest of ear buds is always presented as something special – the new new.
But it isn’t. Not really.
That hasn’t always been the case, of course. The truth is everyone reading this column lives at the tail end of a pretty special era, musically speaking. Over the past 150 years or so, everything we understand about popular music was created. Think about it.
The songs that were popular in the years following the Civil War bear little resemblance to the music we hear today. And while changing tastes certainly affected the way we, as a society, write, perform and consume music, it was technology, more often than not, that precipitated the change.
Consider this. In 1862, people rarely heard music. If they did, it was usually because they, their friends or their family performed it. Quality was gauged using a far more generous scale. Nobody ever said “Sure, I like my mother’s music, but I really prefer her early stuff.”
But then Edison and electricity came along. Records and radio and then later movies and television made it possible for hundreds and then thousands and then, well, everyone to hear a single performance. It allowed audiences to either embrace or discard musical styles and experiments. Music became a democracy, with each fan receiving a voting share.
As a result, Bix Beiderbeck and his early experimentation with a new music called jazz was cleared to continue, while martial marches fell out of fashion.
The Carter Family’s early blueprints for contemporary country music were approved while polkas today appeal to a small and specific audience.
What’s interesting is that the musical forms popular today barely existed before the technologies that made them popular. Sure, blues, R&B and hip-hop have roots in gospel and call-and-response field hollers, but you have to look pretty close to make the connection between His Eye On the Sparrow and OFWGKTA.
Likewise, Appalachian fiddle music might be the acknowledged foundation of country, but it seems unlikely that our own Lady Antebellum will be releasing an album of hill country death ballads anytime soon.
And though there have been occasional moments of sudden sea change, moments when everything we thought we knew about music is upturned – the Beatles, Rocket 88, Rapper’s Delight – for the most part change is slow and comes from recognizable places. We might not make the effort to trace the Black Keys all the way back to Howlin’ Wolf, but the path from one to the other is plain.
And the evolution will continue.
In fact, music becomes easier to access every day, making critics of more people than ever. We might even get the occasional revolution. But it’s hard to believe that our ability to hear music will get much more efficient than it is now.
We can literally pull tunes out of the clouds. That doesn’t mean music won’t continue to evolve. It just means it will happen so fast it will be tough to trace and hard to recognize. But it will happen.