Despite being a late 90s kid, much of my family’s collection of music consisted of vinyls and cassettes. Its range? Limitless. One minute, my dad would be listening to Jimmy Cliff or singing along to Al Green, the next my mum was blasting out Chaka Khan, Sade and an array of 80s classics from our old hi-fi system whilst she made dinner. Looking back on my earlier years, I remember distinctly that all of my parents’ favourites were highly regarded for their live performance skills. Talk to many music fans from older generations and you might get the impression that this talent is a phenomenon of bygone days. New pop stars are heavily criticised for their poor vocal delivery, vapid lyrics and generally unrefined behaviour.
Alongside your parents (and that one kid that only ever wore KISS t-shirts in the noughties), blogs and reddit threads continue to bemoan the vapid lyrics, repetitive beats and general shallowness of “modern music”. In 2016, the BBC even published an article that went as far to say that the success of sites like Youtube was killing the live music scene. Following closely behind was GQ, who published a damning review of the current Top 40 chart back in 2017. Categorizing the charts as dull, boring and seemingly predictable, the piece is a scathing dissection of modern music: “The majority of recent hits are singing from the same hymn sheet. Even Maroon 5 sound like tropical house now”. This is supposedly because of the functionality of streaming services such as Spotify in the process of selecting the best new music released each week. It’s the same spiel every generation since the invention of adolescence has had to contend with, but with the menace of social media and advanced tech thrown into the mix. And in 2019, it’s finally time to leave this myth behind.
So before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a reality check.
It is bizarre to claim that there has ever been some sort of ‘pinnacle’ in music. Within every era of artistic expression, there will be work produced of ground-breaking quality, usually counterbalanced by art that is self-referential, unadorned, superficial and sometimes just a bit shit. Millenial music is no exception to this rule. At least, not entirely.
Nowadays, artists can create and release their work without the need for a multi-million record deal – from their own bedrooms if they have the right equipment. Songwriters have transfigured into producers, developing an individuality built around achieving sonic excellence in all aspects of their own music – a drastic departure from the average performance-driven act traditionally signed to a major label. Being multi-disciplinary has become the norm, and a focus on visual elements of performance has become ever more noticeable in the last few decades.
But “ah!” I hear you cry. “The real problem isn’t the music, it’s the culture!” Myth number 2: Millenials are killing live music venues. With social media and streaming services dominating the way we discover and consume music, “what happens to the dingy pubs and sweat-soaked clubs that used to be the lifeblood of the music industry?” wailed the BBC in 2016. No matter that just this year, 27% of all venues in London “reported experiencing problems with property development around their premise” – the closing down of small venues is as much to do with housing policy as it is to do with the internet.
While they’ve definitely changed the way we consume music, YouTube and sites like it also offer opportunities to live venues and the artists they host to gain exposure and (the magic words) build up a brand. The lack of support for these venues has more to do with the arts being perceived as surplus to requirements in the grand scheme of things by politicians (as well as the fact that it’s not uncommon to break a tenner for a pint of lager in the nation’s capital). A study cited by the Guardian this year recommended that local authorities “recognise small and medium music venues as key sites of artist and audience development and as cultural and community assets.” We need support for a cultural shift that actively cultivates community spaces at a local level, not to demonise the newest available tech as single-handedly destroying live music.
This is where the ideas expressed by GQ can seem a bit, well, outdated. Much has changed since the times of The Smiths and Mel and Kim. A newer landscape is in the process of development, and we are living in the most artistically representative time of our existence. Artistic mediums such as music are beginning to reflect a broader sense of what society is, rather than what it is perceived to be. Doors have been opened for musicians of all different backgrounds, who identify themselves musically with sounds that are heavily rooted in their cultural heritage. This leads us to one of the biggest examples of this in the last few years – Rihanna’s ‘Work’.
Cue The A.V. Club’s Cobin Reiff, who remarks “the sheer repetition of the hook creates a built-in expiration date for when this song transitions from catchy to mildly annoying”. A bold comment to make, but a somewhat disingenuous reflection of what is in fact a popular song. It is not unheard of for pop music to sustain a repetitive nature. There is more of an argument to suggest that the cyclical nature of contemporary song writing is a key component for why it is so enjoyable to such as vast amount of people. For example, Oasis’ “classic” ‘Wonderwall’ uses the same four chords throughout. Yet some chose to take exception when Rihanna displays the same sentiment within her music. We don’t need to look to far to find out why.
Many outlets took the time out to scrutinize the song’s lyrical content. Leading the way were Mish Mash who, unwavering in their criticism, used language such as “literal gibberish” in their review. It’s shocking that music pundits who have access to pretty much all the processed information in the world through the internet, and have a duty to be informed about what they’re writing about, would have been able to find out that she was using patois. A more recent example is the deposing of the country/trap hit “Old Town Road” from the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart after it was dubbed not country enough. All too often, it is white critics dissecting black artists’ output and finding it wanting according to vague a criterion that seems to just mask a racist bias. It’s worth thinking about who decides what counts as “good music”.
Thankfully, this bias doesn’t hold across the board, and if anyone wanted proof that live music is still a force to be reckoned with, NPR’s Tiny Desk is it. Its unique, quirky sensibilities provide artists with the platform to put their best foot forward, all within the confines of a small room home to the desk of presenter Bob Boilen. Although on first glance it appears as if it would be better suited to acoustic artists, Tiny Desk has attracted a vast range of musicians, from people whose names appear regularly in the charts (e.g. Adele) to and up and coming experimental artists (Cautious Clay and Haley Heynderickx are one’s to look out for). As you might be able to tell, genre isn’t a defining feature of it, which chimes with trends that we’re listening to more music than ever before (which, naturally, is less tied to subcultures than in the pre-digital age). The one unifying principle of Tiny Desk is the kind of talent your parents might claim as the preserve of a prior generation.
I fully accept that smaller live music venues are experiencing tougher times, but the reasons for this are often structural – distracting from this by trying to pass the blame onto “the internet” will never provide a long term solution. As for the argument that new music sucks? Change the record would you. There’s plenty to choose from.
Words by: Thomas Fleury
Thomas is a recent graduate from South London. His work spans anything from music, to film, to theatre. It has also been said that he has an unhealthy obsession with 90’s alternative R&B. He can be found on Instagram at @fleury.t