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Pop Culture Critic: Frozen in Time March 15, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Art and Music, Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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Mark Bauerlein at Brainstorms asks:

Isn’t it odd that popular music from the 1960s and 70s echoes on so many radio stations and loudspeakers without sounding antiquated or old-fashioned? The music was recorded up to 50 years ago, and yet it seems contemporary and ordinary….What would have happened if in a bus terminal in 1970 a song from 1925 played on the speakers? ….Sure, there were oldies stations and Big Band music here and there, but they were just that: a decidedly old thing. It doesn’t seem that we think of “Hey Jude” and “LA Woman” and “Gimme Shelter” like that.

Bauerlein’s explanation is:

Perhaps, though, popular music in the Sixties formed a dead end of a particular kind, freezing popular music in genres of rock and its spin-offs.

I guess his point is that music from the 60’s and 70’s doesn’t sound old because we are incapable of imagining new ways for music to sound.

But this strikes me as being wrong in a variety of respects. In the 1960’s, music from 1925 sounded old because it was an entirely different genre of music. In 1965, even pop music from 1960 (Perry Como, Vic Damone, Lawrence Welk) sounded old because it relied on musical idioms from a bygone era.

Today, when we listen to music of the 1960’s and 70’s we are listening to music that employs musical idioms and reflects artistic choices similar to music produced today—it is music of the same (or a related) genre. It doesn’t sound old (or at least some of it doesn’t) because contemporary artists are still finding interesting ways of elaborating and updating the genre. It is not music of a bygone era because the era is still with us.

I suppose Bauerlein could argue that this reinforces his point—pop culture is frozen in time because we still listen only to rock music and its spin offs. But this is frankly just false. Hip-hop is a contemporary pop culture phenomenon. But I don’t think it is just a spin-off of rock. It is a distinct genre, innovative in its own right, related to but differing substantially from rock in its lyrical content, cultural references, melodic structure, use of sampling, etc.

In fact, the intersection of hip-hop, world music, and rock (with cross-currents into jazz) has created a vast treasure-trove of interesting contemporary music continuous with the music of the past. A more plausible hypothesis is that rock of the 60’s and 70’s sounds current because it is constantly being revitalized and re-interpreted by new influences—that kind of fecundity is the mark of a healthy tradition, not one frozen in time.

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