Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Story of the 2000s: Music

To wrap up the decade, I’m going to do the standard top ten lists, but I also want to go a bit more in depth into the trends and changes that have happened in all the major art forms over the past ten years. Perhaps more than any ten year period in recent history prior, the 2000s were a time of major shifts in the way we consume and experience virtually every major art form. I’m going to start things off with a discussion of music, both from a consumption point of view and an artistic one.

The biggest obvious shift in music in the past ten years has been the change from a CD sales based model to one based almost entirely around downloading, both legal and illegal. I still remember running Napster for the first time on my 56K connection and being amazed at my ability to access all kinds of different music. Getting DSL in 2001 changed things radically, and from there out, I downloaded a huge variety of different music, crossing Napster, Kazaa, Audiogalaxy, Bit Torrent and others.

I’m not proud of illegal downloading, but it’s something that was just sort of there, and I think most people now see music not as something to be paid for, but something that you have a right to have. Considering the cost of producing an album, I don’t agree it should be that way, but as artists like Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead have acknowledged, that’s the way it is and you can’t really fight it.

But, that’s all on the business side, what about the music itself? I think the biggest story of the 00s is the breakdown of the walls between genres and subcultures, and the embrace of a wider variety of songs and artists across the typical cultural rifts. To me, the 90s were the worst decade for music in the modern era, largely because the popular rock, grunge and alternative, was just so heavy and oppressive, with no sense of fun, while the pop music was generally soulless boy band stuff. Hip hop had some moments, and you can obviously point to great albums, but on the whole, the ‘sound’ of the decade was no good.

Luckily the 00s were a vast improvement, as the ‘death’ of rock in the late 90s/early 00s opened the door for an infusion of dance energy into rock music that led to a much more fun and poppy sound than had been heard in a long time. A band like Phoenix that sounded out of place at the beginning of the decade hit the zeitgeist perfectly this year, as every major rock band seems to incorporate dance and electronic elements that were present in virtually none of the successful bands of the 90s. Notably the only 90s juggernaut still going strong is Nine Inch Nails, who always had a pop sensibility shining through the heaviness.

This occurred in conjunction with the embrace of pop artists by the cultural establishment. Britney Spears’ “Toxic” is a key song in the decade’s narrative, it started out as a guilty pleasure favorite and eventually just became a critically respected favorite. Justin Timberlake is probably the best example of this, a guy who at this point has both artistic respect and popular acclaim, and backed it up with fantastic songs. The stigma of liking pop music generally disappeared, as indie rock bands started to sound more and more like the pop charts.

I’d argue a big piece of this is the increasing prominence of the producer within the pop world. Three people had more of an impact on music in the 00s than anyone else out there, and shaped the sound of the decade, those three people being Timbaland and Chad Hugo and Pharrell as The Neptunes. The auteur producer provided an easy way to justify liking pop songs by ‘lesser’ artists. When you listen to “Cry Me a River,” it’s not about Justin, it’s about Timbaland’s production.

But, eventually it becomes clear that the songs themselves are good, regardless of who’s behind them. And, I love the sound that these guys created. I love the fact that a song as strange and compelling as “My Love” can be a massive hit, and I think in the future, people will look back on Timbaland’s work with Justin in the same way that they view Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson.

So, the fact that it was acceptable culturally to like pop music, either through the lens of irony or simply straight up, made it easier for alternative and indie bands to bring more dance and pop elements into their songs and still maintain artistic credibility.

That’s not to say it was all dance stuff. There was obviously a lot of different music made, but I think this was the primary narrative of the decade, the elevation of dance and pop sensibilities over traditional rock stuff, reflected in the increasing denigration of ‘rockist’ critics and their old canon.

Of course, it’s ironic to speak of a pop sensibility when the very definition of a crossover song was changing. With the decline of the radio as hit making force, what are the songs that everyone knows? There are some songs that crossed borders, but will any songs from the 00s connect us all in the way that something like “Don’t Stop Believing” does today? When I go out place, it often seems like the entire DJ set is a spin through 80s and 90s classics, barely touching on today. And, the death of Michael Jackson only reinforced that notion that no one will ever cross over the way he did.

But, some songs did make it, even if only in certain circles. Throw “D.A.N.C.E” on at a party and people will go nuts, same for “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.” And, Kanye West made a continuous string of songs that crossed borders and united people. It’s not as easy to become ubiquitous, but it’s still possible.

So, ultimately the narrative of the 00s seemed to be the restoration of fun to music. What artist symbolizes the decade as a whole? For the 90s, it was Kurt Cobain, and his infinite troubles and inability to deal with fame. For the 00s, perhaps Daft Punk, a band that’s admired by everyone and avoids the pitfalls of fame by dressing up as robots and playing their concerts in a giant pyramid. Even as politics got worse, music grew more and more celebratory, so that even songs about stolen elections and crumbling societies could sound euphoric when filtered through the powerhouse voice of the Arcade Fire or the dance rhythms of !!!.


Jeremy said...

So its agreed that "Hey ya" = THE song that defined 2000s, right?

Patrick said...

I could get behind that. I think in a few years, we're going to see "Hey Ya" pass into classic and become a wedding/party staple, or at least I hope so.

David Golding said...

'Hey Ya' for the win, as you kids say. (See, you've gone and made me feel like an old man, writing about the 90s like that.)

malpractice said...

I don't think that's really fair to say that music in the 90's was uniformly terrible, there was a hell of a lot of great music in the 90's. I get pissed when people say that about comics in the 90's too.

Patrick said...

I'd say the 90s was actually the best decade for comics on the whole, though the '90s aesthetic' was a bit lacking.

As for the music thing, I can definitely see both your points. On the artier side, stuff like Radiohead's OK Computer or The Bends are all time standout albums and there's good stuff throughout the decade. But, I guess my basic point is that when I hear the 70s, I think of big prog rock songs or lush disco pop, and when I think the 80s, I think of great synth pop, and am excited and like it, when I hear the 90s, I think of dour rock songs and don't really like it.

It's the stereotypical 'sound' of the decade that I don't like. That might come out of my own position as someone whose tastes really grew up in the early part of the 00s, where bands seemed to consciously react against a lot of 90s trends by bringing back a sense of fun, both on the indie rock scene, with exuberant bands like the Arcade Fire and the New Pornographers, or with electronic stuff like Daft Punk and the many bands they inspired.

But, I would agree that the roots of a lot of this stuff were laid in the 90s. U2's blend of dance and electronic elements, particularly in albums like Zooropa and Pop, foreshadows what we'd see a lot of bands doing in the 00s, and both Achtung Baby and Zooropa are fantastic albums up there on any list of my favorite albums all time. said...

For my part everybody ought to glance at this.

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