Humans have long found the image of Nero fiddling while Rome burns to be a potent symbol: never mind that nothing remotely resembling a fiddle existed until the 11th century, or that historical records indicate that Nero, hearing news of the great fire, immediately hightailed it from his Antium villa to assist in relief work in the capitol. All that matters is the mixture of a true despot and his love of music — for we all know deep down that music may bring joy to our individual hearts but, as a cultural force, it is at best a tragic distraction from the serious work of bettering our human civilization. As we continue to freefall into a future which, most optimistically, can be described as uncertain, popular music does its best to take our anxieties and atomize them into emo-laden bromides. We march blindly into the gaping, belching, buzzing maw of The Future, music tricking us into thinking that things are always as they have been and will ever be; producers and songwriters employed by the Musical-Industrial Complex exploit our romantic nostalgia for a past we never lived. Music is an aural ooze let loose on the populace, a toxin emitted from audio orifices in our pockets, on our desks, at our malls, and in our heads. Music is, increasingly, the enemy within.
The New Normal of post-Internet music culture is just as based on celebrity-as-currency as before; in fact, in an online world where aggregated clicks and data farming have replaced editorial and curatorial tastemaking, celebrity is far more central to music and culture than ever.
Although many throughout the ages have found in music and its surrounding culture a vehicle within which to evince societal change, or even to promote spiritual betterment and philosophical salvation, in the late 20th century the altruism of music as a culture began to be drastically overstated. We are all aware that the baby boomer rock and roll assault did not, in the end, solve society’s problems; but it’s also important to understand that if rock and roll was indeed a war (against war, against The Man, against normalcy), then it was one entered into without a coherent exit strategy. Adherents to the gospel of rock and roll secularization will disagree, pointing to the shock-and-awe victories of the movement: the mass gatherings of rock concerts, the bursting blockbuster of packaging electrically-captured songs into tangible recorded memorabilia, the invention of the rock star as ur-celebrity. The star power at the heart of rock’s insurgent movement was key to the entire enterprise; the energy of the fanatical follower was and continues to be a precious commodity in the industry of music, and even as technology shifts the format of the container, the ability to refine and do commerce with the sheer collective fervor for music culture is what keeps the lights on within the Musical-Industrial Complex.
There was a glimmer of hope, at one point, that the sheer disruption at the heart of the rise of the internet would shake up the industry and collapse the crooked crony-ism and hyper-capitalism-via-planned-obsolescence that made popular music such a heartless and soul-sucking part of modern living. But alas, any sentient human living in 2015 can plainly see that, from the biggest superstar down to the lowliest underground enthusiast, the New Normal of post-internet music culture is just as based on celebrity-as-currency as before; in fact, in an online world where aggregated clicks and data farming have replaced editorial and curatorial tastemaking, celebrity is far more central to music and culture than ever. Musicians and fans alike may struggle to find ways to use rebellion or to strike blows against the system, but ultimately resistance is futile: any and all attention paid to musical artists for whatever reason does nothing but feed the massive sucking chasm that is the celebrity industry.
The rotting core of celebrity is demagoguery: the willingness of the public to accept the flattery of the celebrity that is given in exchange for wealth and attention in turn handed to the famous person in the spotlight. It doesn’t really matter what the content is of the musical celebrity’s product, as long as it can be used as an empty vessel to be filled with the idolatrous visions of the masses. Demagoguery is, in essence, the only acceptable form of modern public discourse: a person is chosen to represent an arena of competence, and we are granted, via the internet, an interface with this person as one of a limitless throng of “fans”. The celebrity’s fatuousness toward the fan is key to the exchange and can take many acceptable forms, whether it is the emotive one-to-many connection of the pop star, the cottage-industry-as-socialist-collective maneuver of the underground musical artist, or, in the extreme case, the incitement to mania of the celebrity politician.
The use of defiance has changed drastically since rock and roll’s inception: whereas once a rebellious stance was only to be used in defiance of a true despotic authority, now merely the guise of rebellion is necessary, revealing what a hollow charade the whole enterprise was to begin with. Dee Snider, frontman, songwriter, and chief huckster for seminal glamrock warriors Twisted Sister, was interviewed in 2015 and asked how he felt about “We’re Not Gonna Take It”, a paean to disobedience penned by his band in the 1980s, being used as walk-on music by a fascist-leaning presidential candidate. Unlike many older rock and rollers who have bristled at their music being used for blatantly political aims (lest it dilute their brand), Snider realized not only that it made commercial sense for him to accept the bump that was his song’s brush with neo-fascism, but that he would be dishonest, or at least hypocritical, if he denied the similarities between the political urges of the candidate in question and his own mindset when penning the tune. “Thinking back to when I wrote the song, it’s about rebellion, speaking your mind and fighting the system,” Snider says. “If anybody’s doing that, [this specific presidential candidate] sure is.”
Music is, ultimately, a weapon of the weak, in the truest sense; it gains its populist heft from its underdog pose. But modern pop and rock, with their strict individualist outlook, will always be written and sung from the perspective of a solitary individual facing off against the cruelties of the world. In rock and roll’s early days, this perspective was dismissed as irresponsible and churlish; but those who ignored the bubbling cauldron would soon face the sheer power of unbridled individualism, even if it was composed of countless individuals all trying to deny every perspective but their own. Rock and roll, and modern popular music, has proven itself ultimately to be more than adolescent rebellion: it is individualist consumerism often buoyed by nihilistic fear. And like a Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck radio rant, it is best heard in a fast car on a dark deserted highway. All alone, the pop music consumer may concoct any number of pugilistic responses to an unfair society, safe from judgment and free from feeling the need to square those heated schemes with reality. The rock and roll fist in the air, or the modern day synth-heavy anthem-to-personal-perseverance equivalent, all crib from the same revolutionary playbooks, only this time they are in service to celebrity and, ultimately, the industry.
Music, at its basest form, is intentional emotional manipulation; it helps the transference process if the listener finds the musician’s perspective to be appealing at the outset, and money, fame and power tend to achieve that goal.
The fact that the money continually flows upward has always meant, for the musician intent on celebrity, that projecting an aura of wealth will always make the most appealing presentation. Music, at its basest form, is intentional emotional manipulation; it helps the transference process if the listener finds the musician’s perspective to be appealing at the outset, and money, fame and power tend to achieve that goal. In this way, popular music is a temporary form of self-actualization: if a fan is enough in love with the celebrity of the music-maker, he or she can inhabit a temporary fantasy realm, a shared dream-space between audience member and performer.
Musical performance, then, lends itself to those fascinated with self-actualization; more importantly, the process by which most pop musicians become famous enough to be known by the general public tends to involve a whirlwind ascent to fame that can seem like a self-actualization fantasy coming true after a lifetime of struggle (and people telling the artist that he or she should ditch their dreams of music stardom for something more realistic). This trajectory to fame is one that every fan of music is intimately familiar with: we all participate in the success of the famous, perhaps not even noticing the cyclical nature of a never-ending conveyor belt of ingenues ready for their close-up. The cumulative effect of generations of modern popular music is a congealment of the mythology, a constellation of superstars forever shining down their musical bounty on us. We don’t entirely know how they all got there, or what happens to them when we can’t see their shine anymore, but as long as the mythological cast of characters is there for us when we need them, we don’t get too caught up in the specifics.
The real world is complex and teeming; the allure of an arena like popular music is that it simplifies and shrinks the world down to elements that we can study and/or worship. When a sane human being happens upon the bacchanalian frenzy being directed at the latest recorded missives by Drake or Adele, he or she may think “This is but the work of a singular human being, with very little relevancy to my life or that of those around me. More importantly, it is a work of myopic profanity, concerned with a set of individual emotions so specific to the performer that I can barely keep up with the biographical details”. But to analyze a popular song in this manner is to not only miss the appeal, but to fail to comprehend the purpose of modern pop music altogether: that in listening to deeply personal music, we the listener are elevated to the point where we might, in a fantasy world, be privy to an inside view of a life of unfettered self-actualized dreams. Even if the song is a depressing ode to how much you give to unappreciative friends (see: “Energy”, by Drake), or how fleeting youth is now that you are old (see: Adele’s “When We Were Young”), or how much it sucks to be dumped by your famous girlfriend (see: Justin Bieber’s “Where Are Ü Now”), it’s all still fodder for the fantasy of the fan or even casual listener. Whether the song is upbeat or sad, it still gives the listener access to a world of privilege, if only the privilege to express individual feelings and personal anecdotes to a wide audience.
In 2015, so many popular music trends seemed to be motivated by fear, or at least a general distaste for seeing reality represented in our music.
That which we now know of as popular music evolved from the secularization of a culture meant to not just evoke the holy but instill the fear of god in the listener; the artist wasn’t present but merely a conduit through which sacred sounds were passed from an alleged deity to a multitude of minds. The shock of the advent of electricity and the follow-on discovery of sound reproduction cannot be overstated: up until a little more than a century ago, if you were a participant in the human experience and you heard a voice without an easily apparent human-mouth-as-source, the only logical conclusion was that said voice was emanating from within the confines of your own knotted brain. The history of recorded sound, then, is one of evolving as a species to be at peace with a constant stream of auditory hallucinations; but the fear at the heart of being in the presence of a spectre has never evaporated.
In 2015, so many popular music trends seemed to be motivated by fear, or at least a general distaste for seeing reality represented in our music. If songs weren’t overtly romantic creative anachronisms of bygone party anthems (see: Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk”), then they were often intensely atmospheric ruminations existing within the confinement of the artist’s cordoned-off emotional space. The three most successful artists of the year (Adele, Drake, and Taylor Swift) all made music that could have just as easily have been recorded on another planet from another decade and beamed back to us during this year of notable global unrest and unease.
The pressure on modern popular artists to create a hit is enormous; the pressure is made even greater by the fact that no one really knows what a hit is, or what people like, or why they like what they like, or what the point of music is in the first place. Listeners are fickle nowadays, if only because we are no longer living in an era where our access to content is scarce and music stars possess some rare ineffable talent. People nowadays expect rapid progress in consumer goods, whereas so much music represents the unrealistic aspirations of those who keep cranking it out; spend a few minutes twisting the dial on the radio and you can practically hear the guys in the big buildings throwing songs at the walls to see what sticks. The music business of today is like a toddler handing us a never ending stream of finger paintings and expecting us to pin them to the fridge; as a result, the listening public has by-and-large opted out of the process. Fine, go ahead, music business, move your revenue streams to product placement and media advertising and all sorts of other passive ways to make money from music without individual fans handing their money directly into the coffers of Big Music; people clearly have other things to worry about in this day and age than standing in line to pick up a new album by their favorite performer.
The response from the artists of today is striking: in trying to figure out how to do what they want to do in such a dismissive environment, pop performers are following their navel. The inward gravitational pull is intense and righteous; after all, there is really only one story that any of us have any right to tell, and that is our own. In a sense, it is all that we have, that one last inch of real estate that we don’t need to cede, that won’t be razed or gentrified. And the funny thing is that the more inward an artist goes, the more success is possible if fans are willing to follow the narrative all the way in.
The cataclysmic response to Adele in 2015 is indicative of this: there is nothing in her new album that says anything about this moment or her place, but her music has a peculiar ability to stop time and freeze the listener for the duration of her musical drama. Adele’s music has always been a kind of auditory slime, coating its audience in a thick mucus that prohibits movement; once ensnared, the listener is transported to a world of pure seriousness, where a stark melismatic voice greedily occupies all attention. “Hello”, the domineering smash of the year, is perhaps the most Adele-like song the singer has ever concocted: admonishing the listener “from the other side”, the song’s ghostly pallor and gothic (in the Victorian sense) solemnity managed to enforce an early winter chill to even the cheeriest of environments during 2015’s unseasonably warm post-Thanksgiving.
A similar glop enveloped listeners when Drake’s “Hotline Bling” became a sensation at the tail end of the summer. A moody and disaffected number, shiftless and meandering, it features a loping beat and an r&b sample that sounds like a child playing an organ in a barely-remembered dream, with Drake’s deflated delivery defeating its own zing before the conclusion of every line. The song is a phenomenon, peculiar and yet effective, the sound of someone not very coherently telling you a story through a haze of confused feelings. To listen to it to the end is to follow a breadcrumb trail right up into the center of another human being’s brain only to wonder why you made the effort. Like so much popular music of today, it is borne out of the frustration with trying to stand out amidst a competitive herd of wannabes while still delivering the kind of musical product that human beings find of use in their everyday lives. Like Adele, and like so much else that one is presented with in our modern day, it is less useful as a soundtrack to social interactions than as a personality to privately investigate and an alternate reality to temporarily step into.
Whereas once it was possible for a person to grow up and know true boredom, children of today and tomorrow will value silence as a far more precious commodity than a catchy song or the branding of some band to pretend to identify with.
On a spectrum of the evolution of music, culture, and life in our modern world, we are perhaps now at a divergence point where music will continue in one direction, and celebrity may head in another, increasingly independent of musical personalities. If this seems unthinkable, perhaps consider that the musical superstar is a relatively recent innovation in human history, and that not all celebrities must possess musical skills in order to captivate the imaginations of the public. As it stands, most music stars of today find ways to make their money in other areas, be they fashion or film or other investment arenas. Today’s entertainers must be endlessly charming and multifaceted to fight off the imitators and competitors, and focusing just on music is a decided weakness in a world that elevates innovators and Renaissance men and women above all others.
The ongoing saga of Pussy Riot showed that, on the one hand, the concept of the rock band still had some usefulness as a tool of agitprop and a symbol of civil unrest. On the other hand, the masked group also demonstrated that any power inherent in rock could be used with all of the actual music removed from the concept; without the songs and the sounds, one is left with a small gang willing to make a spectacle to force attention toward an ideal or cause. The music, in rock and roll’s case, was crucial in enticing the listener into an exciting and special world. With the irrelevancy of the music, the shock tactics of the rock and roll group are laid bare for all to see: desperate for attention and validation, the rock group cannot exist on a mass scale. The dwindling fire of rock and roll only reveals how small a movement it was in the first place, propped up and vastly oversold by a media that didn’t know the difference between a growing community and a multigenerational fad.
Besides, it may take a veritable army, behinds the scenes, to produce the music, build the stages, and create the spectacle that is our enormously bloated musical entertainment industry; yet it is a business that doesn’t need more than a handful of superstars at any given time in order to keep the business afloat. The vast majority of spins and streams are due to just a small number of key players, with an entire planet of professional and semi-professional musicians trying to get a piece of the remaining scraps. Perhaps the techno-optimists of the music world, the ones obsessed with streaming and digital platforms, understood this more than the rest of the business did at first: that in the end, thanks to the diminishing returns of sound recording, music is just a commodity. And like any commodity, consumers may value freshness but they also value consistency, desiring utility and dependability above the mercurial demands of the artistic temperament. If everyone could play a guitar or piano and sing to each other, we wouldn’t need to rely on a professional cabal ensconced within a vast secret musical empire to do our entertaining for us.
Besides, we live increasingly in a time of encroaching entertainment, with content seeping into all sorts of previously content-free zones of our lives, thanks to not just our phones but ubiquitous screen and speaker technology invading all sorts of spaces (especially with the rapid disappearance of any semblance of non-private locations and edifices). Whereas once it was possible for a person to grow up and know true boredom, children of today and tomorrow will value silence as a far more precious commodity than a catchy song or the branding of some band to pretend to identify with. Raised on nothing but incessant chatter and ever-present noise, the rebellion of the near future will be a retreat away from the seductive poison of music. Human civilization has always had success with the small rebellions anyway, the shifting slope from the prevailing tyranny working its way to a tipping point gradually only to eventually topple the insurmountable giant. Perhaps 2016 will be the year that the sane response to music’s madness begins in earnest: delete your playlists, throw out your band t-shirts, unfollow all of those music-and-entertainment conglomerate feeds, throw off the yoke of the Musical-Industrial Complex’s despotic rule, and do your part to spread the gospel of silence.