Why Isn’t Popular Music Helping Save Us Again?
by Bob Schwartz
It may seem an exaggeration to say that popular music ever saved us. It moved us individually, socially, culturally, it inspired us. But did it ever really change things, change our direction?
It helped. America and most of the world were adrift after World War II. The culture of the 1930s and 1940s ran head on into the reality of a just-ended massive global war, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, etc. Nobody asked popular music to evolve into a new soundtrack. It’s just that the old one seemed out of place, out of time, out of tune, like the piano player at a silent film.
We know what happened next. Music for a new world grew and took over. And when times were most challenging—civil rights and Vietnam for just a couple of examples—music was an anthemic driver. The music didn’t make new people, but new people needed their music. Protest. Psychedelic. Punk. Hip hop. On and on.
Now that we find ourselves in really strange times again, I am listening for a new soundtrack, waiting for it to make its move. Haven’t heard it yet. We do need inspiration, we do need motivation, we do need saving. Ask anyone who lived through some of the dynamic decades what the music meant to change and to them. Where is that music now?
The music is out there, my friend. Rhiannon Giddens should be at the top of your list; Valerie June; Hurray for the Riff Raff; Jason Isbell’s newest album. Nora Jane Struthers’ new album, “Champion.” David Rawlings’ new album. Much of hip hop.
The issue isn’t that the music isn’t out there, it’s that the ways of discovering music are more diffuse than 50 years ago. In addition, in this world that’s driven by the single, not the album, record companies do look for the commercial hits even more than they once did. I’ve talked to plenty of artists, including Arlo Guthrie, this past year, who confirmed that music still has the power to transform and to heal, which is what music really does; it has never saved us.
Thank you, Henry. Astute as always.
I considered including the structural changes in the music industry as a factor. In a sense, as the answer to my own question.
And yet…the activist/insurgent/transgressive genres managed to engineer platforms and structural changes as vehicles to break through, or managed to coopt the status quo, against all odds (see, e.g., hip hop). The opportunities for that are admittedly much smaller than ever. But if so many creatively vapid people and phenomena have managed to leverage the tools, others more creatively significant should be able to too.
I know that isn’t easy or close to possible at this moment. I just started reading John Seabrook’s The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, which is about exactly what you describe. So maybe my question should have been “Why aren’t we hearing?” instead of “Where is it?”
As for salvation, I did say “help to save” rather than “save.” Maybe it is different now in 2018, but based on my experience, a soundtrack of change (transformative and healing) is necessary though not sufficient.