Friday, November 23, 2007

Recently The New York Times published an interesting and provocative op-ed piece by David Brooks about the fragmentation of American music called “The Segmented Society.” Riffing off of Sasha Fere-Jones lengthy and much blogged about article in the New Yorker, the crux of the article was that American music has become so splintered that there is no real mainstream that provides a common cultural frame of reference, like the music of the 1970's. I assume he means the early 1970's, before punk and disco. You can make a case for this in all genres of music, but I'm not so sure it's entirely a bad thing. Everyone has different tastes, for example in the blues, the mainstream has shifted to a blues rock hybrid that really doesn't appeal to me. I favor something that could be tagged “old school” or “traditional” blues, but even then there is quite a bit of room for micro-genres.... “contemporary acoustic Delta singer songwriter instrumentalist” anyone? OK, perhaps that's going a little too far, but recognizing the sub-genres gives more opportunity for cross-pollination and the development of interesting hybrids.

I found one of Brooks' points a little dubious, however. He blames the rise of the “mass educated class” for the fragmenting of mainstream music. He claims that people feel more “individualistic and special” when they “cultivate obscure musical taste.” I'm really not so sure about this one, especially when everybody at work is talking about American Idol and I'm in the office in my little bubble listening to Henry Threadgill, I don't feel particularly special, but I don't feel particularly left out either. That may be more due to my curmudgeonly nature than anything else. Working at a public library, I can assure you that there is a healthy appetite for the mainstream in all forms of culture. The idea of the Long Tail really comes into play here. The CDs we have from the pop heros of the moment are always in circulation and it's hard to get people to take a chance on “outsider” entertainment, whether it's Matthew Shipp or China Meiville.

Brooks' interviews Steven Van Zandt for the piece, and while I admire his attempts to save and promote traditional American garage rock, his comments in the article fall into an all to predictable screed about “those damn kids.” Indie rockers, he says have lost touch with their roots, the fertile ground of American music, blues and R&B. Musicians of Van Zandt's era certainly had deep roots in the blues as do modern bands such as The Black Keys and The White Stripes. But for modern indie rock, I think that it isn't that they are rootless, but that their roots are in different soil. Raised on MTV and rock radio, musicians today don't have the exposure to blues and traditional R&B, so naturally this element of their music will be less prevalent than in bands of the past. At the end of the article, Van Zandt proposes a high school curriculum teaching American history through music. While I would support this, I just hope it does not lead to the stale classicism that plagues institutions like Jazz at Lincoln Center.


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