Music Reviews

posted: July 1, 2011

The Music Never Stopped

The Music Never Stopped

Bob Dylan hasn’t played conventional versions of his classic songs in more than two decades. Prince regularly takes license with his material onstage, weaving bold new colors, thrilling time signatures, and engaging breaks into pop standards. Elvis Costello rejects convention, constantly reworking older compositions by seeking out fresh details and unscripted devices that add to the ongoing sonic conversations and extend cultural dialogues. Even perennial grump Van Morrison switches up arrangements when performing, revealing undercurrents and melodies that previously simmered beneath the surface.

These iconic artists—and thousands of their peers—refuse to remain content rehashing the past. So why should fans and listeners? Most don’t. True music lovers crave cutting-edge sounds, anticipate hearing new records, look forward to concerts by up-and-coming musicians, and often don’t have enough time to soak it all up. But many members of the audiophile press continue to suffer from the stubborn, narrow-minded belief that all the great rock and pop music was made between 1950-1975. That creativity went dormant, that meaningful advances dried up, that nothing including the coming of the savior Himself will ever top rock’s golden age—a period that happens to coincide with the maturation of the Baby Boomer generation, the very same group from which the audiophile press’ gray beards stem. Given that such flawed thinking, buzz-killing sentiment, and unsubstantiated logic coincides with the most productive music epoch in history, is it any wonder why the mainstream turned a deaf ear to the hobby years ago?

The most recent example of curmudgeonly “there’s little/nothing new that’s good to hear” nonsense comes courtesy of an essay posted by a leading audio magazine and penned by a veteran equipment reviewer. The latter maintains that the advent of digital technology stifled music’s evolution and discusses why there’s supposedly no longer any real invention, great composers, or cohesive movements. This audaciously laughable piece also equates blockbuster album sales with relevancy; sums up the entire history of the 1990s and 2000s in one disparaging sentence that deems both decades “mostly unremarkable”; and laments that most people—including concertgoers—only listen to music as background fare. If I didn’t know better, I’d think the sniveling editorial the product of the wonderful satirical news outfit known as The Onion.

Opinions aside, the saddest part about the screed—and others like it—is that it acts as a cowardly veil to conceal bigger unspoken issues. Namely, the fact that many audiophiles stopped paying close attention to new music decades ago and instead chose to cocoon themselves in a safety net of a relatively select few well-known records; that by repeatedly insisting that the past (and time of their youth) reigns supreme and painting everything that followed with the same broad strokes, audiophile spokespersons convince themselves they’re not old and out of touch; that by conveniently ignoring context and embracing circular justification, these “experts” skirt the actuality that they’re overwhelmed by the sheer volume of vibrant music that exploded over the past 30+ years; and that by refusing to acknowledge what’s happening in the music world and wearing rose-colored glasses that romanticize nostalgia, they can pontificate about how much the present fails to live up to expectation.

But the realities are different. Never has such a diverse range of music been so widely and cheaply accessible. Never has music played such a huge role in people’s lives, an obvious truth evident by the ubiquitous presence of portable players, myriad digital delivery services, and need for nearly every cellular phone model to incorporate music playback features. Go to any mid-size town or big city, and concerts abound. Sold-out destination festivals such as Bonarroo and Coachella attract tens of thousands of patrons each summer. More albums are released in one month now than there were during entire calendar years during the 60s and 70s. Indeed, curiosity in and demand for new sounds remain on the upswing even if the structural mechanisms and evaluation tools changed. As far back as the turn of the century, major record labels quit using sales as a barometer of success and measurement of whether audiences cared about a particular album. Besides, does music’s fragmented nature mean it isn’t relevant or innovative? No. It actually signifies the opposite.

Of course, millions of listeners from every generation already know the aforementioned to be true. So why would anyone heed what a majority of the audiophile press spouts when its rhetoric is littered with gloomy pronouncements, stale reasoning, and behind-the-times arguments—the outpouring the equivalent of an 8-track player in a 2012 model-year car, the embarrassing judgments akin to the banal desert island and demonstration-disc lists that, aside from few token albums, disregard everything made after the year 1975 and resist contemporary updates. Has music really gotten that bad? Of course not. Rather, what happened is that most audiophile critics got content and lazy, motivated by a selfish desire to stage an exclusive, age-restrictive Boy’s Club that grows more pathetic with each passing year.

For evidence of this high society, look to the dearth of 20-, 30-, and even 40-something journalists in the industry. Take a gander at the age and common repetition of the recordings cited in gear reviews. Note the self-congratulatory language that boasts about their possession of rare LP pressings, as if ownership somehow equates to critical prowess. Rather than blame music and general populace for the supposed let down, whiny audiophile scribes should point the finger where it belongs—at themselves, at their own shortcomings, and ultimately, at their transparent lack of expertise on matters they pretend to know. To paraphrase the Doors, the music isn’t over. Rather, to paraphrase the Grateful Dead, the music never stopped—the audiophile press’ interest in it did.

In addition to my role at TONE, I have the genuine privilege of covering dozens of concerts and several festivals every year for the Chicago Tribune, for which I have been a regular contributor since 2002. I’m exposed to hundreds of new albums each year, and constantly wish I had an eighth day of the week to investigate more. Informed rock criticism is a fun and rewarding pursuit, yet it’s also demanding and time-consuming. It’s one reason why I’d never pass myself off as a classical music authority or turntable pro. Too frequently, however, equipment reviewers are guilty of reversing this very situation and weigh in on topics to which they bring minimal qualification and insight.

If you’re comfortable limiting your horizons to familiar albums and established favorites, that’s fine. Just don’t stereotype new music with unsubstantiated assessments when you don’t pay it a passing thought or bother to listen. But if you read this magazine, we’re guessing your tastes and interests go beyond what’s relentlessly championed as the proverbial End All Be All. By example and—just as importantly—by omission, our competitors have let us (and you) know where they stand when it comes to new music, open-mindedness, and concerts. By extension, TONE lets you know where we stand via our belief that oceans of music await further discovery, that there are no cigars awarded for insider jargon and/or demeaning attitudes, and that the music you’ll be listening to for years to come is meant to be celebrated, shared, and examined.

–Bob Gendron