The Music Ramble is the monthly music blog of Erik Ritland. The St. Paul, Minnesota journalist and musician is the founder of Rambling On. Learn more about us on Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, or our website.
It's not cool to say that music today, both popular and underground, isn't as good as it used to be in the past.
But is it true?
Are musicians today creating anything as cool, creative, or interesting as what was being released in the '60s or '70s? Or even the '80s or '90s? Nirvana was the last band to have a universal impact commercially and creatively. Who today is reaching those heights? What was the last year for music that was anything better than okay? Anybody satisfied with the current creative state in music has either lowered their standards or doesn't understand the breadth of musical creativity from as recently as 25 years ago. There are some great bands and albums but nothing earth shattering, and certainly no scene with a strong universality or staying power.
Today, subpar talent is heralded as groundbreaking, as somehow keeping music legitimate. In 2014 Taylor Swift released an easy pop album that any group of professional songwriters and producers could have come together and created. It was barely different, and hardly better, than anything released by Avril Lavigne (I don't understand why more people don't see this connection). Yet it was seen a masterpiece that somehow legitimized pop music. It feels like people today know that the music they listen to is not as good as it has been, so they have to force adulation onto hacks like Swift.
The same thing happened this year. I'm glad that Adele is as popular as she is, because for all her faults at least she isn't creating terrible music or being a terrible role model like Lady Gaga or Miley Cyrus. But there's practically nothing to her music. It's big, it's poppy, it's repetitive. And, mostly, it's whiney. Yet, like Swift, she's seen as some big deal that is legitimizing popular music. It might be the best we can do today, but what does that say about the contemporary music scene? It's about as dead as it was before the Beatles came onto the scene in '63 and changed everything.
The quality of music being made outside of the pop scene isn't any better. Indeed, for the most part it's even worse. Check out the highest rated albums on Pitchfork, or that are in the heaviest rotation on hip stations like The Current in Minnesota. I'm glad that he could use music as therapy to come to grips with his relationship with his parents, but Sufjan Steven's 2015 album Carrie and Lowell is boring and gutless, something like if Elliott Smith was even more depressed and completely lost his gift of melody. At least Adele has some sense of urgency. Tame Impala's Currents is an okay rock album, but when okay is seen as the best album of the year, as it was by many publications, then there's something wrong. Nobody will be listening to Tame Impala in ten years.
The same can be said of other overrated, substance-less indie acts like Father John Misty, Courtney Barnett, and Chvches (to randomly name three from a myriad). These types of bands will only ever be popular to a small niche audience for a short amount of time because they aren’t doing anything new or interesting. Yet somehow a decent amount of people who listen to this stuff think they're better than those who listen to pop music, or who mostly listen to music from the past. Absurd.
Americana, a genre closer to my heart, is as mediocre as its poster child Jason Isbell. His latest album Something More Than Free isn’t necessarily bad, it just isn’t great, making comparisons to Bob Dylan or even John Prine completely laughable. Todd Snider, one of my favorite relatively contemporary songwriters (he got his start with ‘90s alternative rock parody “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues”), gushes about him in his book I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like as though he’s a genius that is keeping Americana (and even songwriting!) legitimate. This is either wishful thinking or a sad reflection on the current state of the best we can do.
I understand that I am speaking in sweeping generalities. There’s also a possibility that I’m being unnecessarily negative. The average listener to new music doesn't have any sort of agenda behind what they listen to or don’t think that they’re legitimizing anything. They just like what they like and it goes no further than that. But that such mediocre music is being heralded as exceptionally creative, or even groundbreaking, is disheartening.
In the 1960s, the Beatles, the Band, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Miles Davis, James Brown, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Willie Nelson, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, and dozens more across many genres all had prime years during the same era. As recently as the 80s and 90s artists like NWA, Public Enemy, and KRS-One were actually legitimizing a completely new creative undertaking and its reverberations are still being felt (Kedrick Lamar, while good, is again a low standard for greatness, and is the only real shining popular rap star today). At the same time hip hop was taking off bands like Metallica, Iron Maiden, and Judas Priest were taking hard rock and heavy metal into places it had never been. Guns N’ Roses created a completely new sound that dominated the world, and Nirvana did the same thing a few years later, paving the way for the fertile, schizophrenically creative ‘90s rock scene.
Perhaps as importantly, bands like NWA, Metallica, and especially Nirvana were inspiring people to pick up instruments and create their own music. They also spawned radically different sounding offshoots, with the underground rap and metal scenes becoming especially creative and influential. Sure, a lot of bands left in Nirvana’s wake were subpar – largely because many influenced by them listened to nothing but contemporary rock music and thus lacked the diverse genres that inspired Kurt Cobain’s genius – but their impact still endures.
Who is influenced as profoundly by new music? In 15 years no teenager today is going to say “man, my whole life changed when that Tame Impala record came out” or “I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard Father John Misty.” I pity the person who is so impressed with Sufjan Steven’s songwriting that it inspires them to pick up a guitar – not to mention whatever people have to listen to them. Going back to popular music, I cringe at the idea that we’re raising a generation of women who idolize substance-less whiners like Adele and Taylor Swift (or, worse, depraved sex objects like Miley Cyrus or Lady Gaga). Sadly, two often maligned genres I haven’t even covered here – bro country and electronic music (together at last, there’s an idea for an A and R guy with too much time on their hands) – are not any worse than their less made fun of counterparts. Fuck, at least bro country is fun. Maybe Jason Isbell could learn something from it.
Expanding horizons is the fundamental solution to this problem. Nobody who cares about music creatively should just be listening to one sort of music, or music from one era, predominantly. That’s what creates dead ends. We’re so compartmentalized today that we don’t leave ourselves open to new and exciting sounds from outside of our preconceived (and almighty) tastes. Groundbreaking bands and musicians from the 50s, 60s, and 70s all the way through the 90s were influenced by blues, country, folk, pop, jazz, standards, Broadway, and anything else they could digest. This gave them solid roots and a wide spectrum to create something both universal and uniquely their own. Today, we all listen to the same sorts of bands and sounds and have no context for where they came from. Instead of being afraid of the past, acting as if it is something to always be progressing away from (and what is it exactly that we are progressing towards?), we need to embrace the past, understand it, and use it as a tool to move forward and create music that is actually special.
The popularity of music ultimately comes down to the standards of those consuming it. As long as we accept the mediocrity of what is being created and released today things will never get any better. Musicians and fans need to create a new musical community that inspires and sustains true creativity, as opposed to our current system that recycles the same garbage over and over, creating a virtual trash heap of Maroon 5s and Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeroes. Without a tangible scene to latch onto in our increasingly compartmentalized world it will be difficult to break this matrix. We need the sort of genius that can break barriers and boundaries, that can be creative but also widely accessible. In short, we need another Beatles.
Let's just say I’m not holding my breath.
Erik Ritland is a writer and musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. His blog and podcast Rambling Onfeatures commentary on music, sports, culture, and more. He was also Lead Staff Writer for Minnesota culture blog Curious North. Support Erik's music via his Patreon account, reach him via email, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.