Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What's New?

I suspect most people have a branch of their family tree they consider “poor relations” and my immediate family is no different. We have an Aunt and Uncle that, due to unfortunate circumstances, are basically uneducated and largely uncultured. Good people, just not entirely socially acceptable. I confess there was a time when I dreaded their visits to our home, especially entering my teenage years, that awkward age when peer pressure is colossal and avoiding embarrassment paramount (and few things are more embarrassing than your family). My fear of guilt by association was so strong I recall being mortified with shame when I returned from school one afternoon to find my Uncle mowing the yard shirtless with the tattoos from his Navy years on display, wearing baggy pants that left a generous portion of his boxer shorts exposed for the entire neighborhood to see. My Aunt sat on the porch wearing bleach-blonde hair with noticeably dark roots and a tank top with her bra straps showing. In hindsight (thanks to Hip Hop and Madonna) I now see that my relatives were actually fashion trend setters extraordinary far ahead of their time.

I mention this story because this afternoon I had a similar experience of self-discovery; while visiting my sister I came across a photograph of myself at the age mentioned above. I was stunned to see the outfit I was wearing (straight-legged jeans, neon shirt, oversized Ray Bans, and Chuck-T sneakers) is almost identical to the clothes featured in the current issue of Vogue on my sister’s coffee table. My look had recycled. If I had kept those clothes (and could still fit into them) I would be quite the fashionista today. The magazine pictorial touted many new fashion trends for this season that I had seen before, from high-waisted skirts and shorts, to giant purses and oversized hoop earrings. My jaw dropped when they mentioned the comeback—of all things—“Hammer pants,” something I vow to never wear again no matter how popular they become!

This led me to ponder an age old question: What’s new?

I love working on the college circuit because I receive the bonus of being exposed to the latest fads and trends that originate on campus before filtering into the mainstream. However, when spending time at a school I am always surprised to hear students listening to music that sounds similar (often identical) to the music I listened to when I was in college, or in some cases, the music my parents were listening to when they were that age. For example, the musical stylings of Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Joss Stone, and Sharon Jones are almost interchangeable with the sounds of Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, and Etta James.

This train of thought came to a sad revelation: for the past two decades college students have not had a new style of music they can call their own. They lack an original musical battle cry to identify with and rally around, losing a time-tested weapon to irritate the authority figures in their lives. I feel sorry for their loss.

I am disheartened that for the first time in a century or more the river of original musical genres has run dry. Sure, there are still new bands and new ways to record and produce them, just not totally new music for them to play (or us to listen to).

Although I’m no expert on music history, I can offer a simplistic review of the styles that had an impact on past generations. At the turn of the twentieth century young people were tapping their toes to Ragtime, followed by the truly American art forms of Jazz and Country & Western. In the 30s a new generation embraced Swing. By the 40s Rhythm and Blues took hold. The 50s introduced a style of music that resulted in a cultural revolution: Rock and Roll. In the 60s Soul music emerged and Rock expanded into Surf, Acid Rock, Psychedelic Pop, and Heavy Metal. That expansion continued in the first half of the 70s with Glam Rock, Country Rock, Jazz/Rock Fusion, and then by mid-decade another musical style spearheaded cultural change: Disco. In the 80s Punk, Rap and Hip Hop blossomed, creating cultures of their own.

But by the 90s, originality began to wane and music became derivative. House and Dance are the evolution of Disco. Grunge is a combination of Indie Rock, Heavy Metal, and Punk (which is actually old Garage Rock). Techno and Trance have their origins in earlier works by musicians like Kraftwerk and Philip Glass. Even Emo was definable before this millennium in the works of Fugasi and Rites of Spring. Not to say that there was nothing new in music in the 90s; while no radically new musical styles developed, a new form of musical entertainment did become commonplace: Tribute Bands.

Music didn’t just quit moving in new directions…it did a u-turn.

Not only have people stopped creating new styles of music they have also stopped inventing new musical instruments, at least not instruments that have any impact on popular music (granted, the “vuvuzela” is a new instrument, but despite being popular, it is hardly musical). The last instrument to have any noticeable effect on the music we listen to was the synthesizer, and it was originally invented—are you ready for a shock—in 1876, by Elisha Gray, the man best known for developing the telephone prototype. In 1964, Robert Moog made the synthesizer commercially available for the select few that could afford one; in the 70s miniaturized components made it portable, and by the 80s it was finally produced at modest prices for the public. Today your laptop (or even phone) can be a synthesizer.

This brings me to the correlation of the decline in music originality with the boom of household computers. I am not the only one to notice this connection; Jaron Lenier (the man that coined the phrase “virtual reality”) was quoted in the New York Times: “It’s as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump.”

My theory: the computer killed new music, or at the very least, replaced the motivation for creating it. In the past when a creative 16-year-old felt alienated or dissatisfied with the status quo he would reach for a guitar or spit a rhyme. Now they change culture by creating an original website or writing new code, and the benefits are similar: fortune, and for some, fame and the blessings celebrity status bestows. (If a nerdy looking kid like Mark Zuckerberg receives benefits from groupies that formally only Rock Stars knew, then who the hell wants to spend time with guitar lessons?) The internet was first misunderstood, even feared by the status quo, but eventually embraced. The same holds true for Rock and Roll. And the pioneers of both eventually got a very satisfying and financially rewarding last laugh. I grew up wanting to be the next John Lennon or Jimi Hendrix; now kids want to be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, and that is a tragedy to music.

It is my sincere wish that my theory is incorrect, and new music is not dead, but merely in hibernation. I hope someone reading this column sees it as a call to action and creates something original to blast from my headphones, because I miss seeing older folks roll their eyes and ask “Can you believe what kids today call music?” instead of “That tune sounds familiar.”

“The Laff Guru” has taken his message of LAUGHTER=NIRVANA to all 50 states and 23 countries. His awards include: “Comic of the Year,” “Campus Performer of the Year,” and a “Cable Ace Award.” His credits include over fifty TV appearances, including: Showtime and The Late Show. He is represented by GP Entertainment. To find out more about his award-winning comedy act please visit: laffguru.com

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