I Am Better Than You – This Quiet Musical Cul De Sac

Ah, music. Some of us are lucky enough to be exposed to good music at an early age. Others find their way to good music like water finding its own level. Some are doomed to experience music as nothing more than a vehicle for a personality, from now until the end of their meagre lives.

Then there are the others. Those who, like water, seem to drift towards good music, but get distracted along the way. Those who begin drifting towards Depeche Mode, but for some reason get stuck in a puddle, listening to The Horrors. Those who slide towards Iron Maiden and instead flow headlong into the cave of Wolfmother, never to return.

This is a symptom of ignorance. There are those who claim The Horrors album Primary Colors is a work of technical genius. How amazing, they say, that it sounds like such a period piece. It could have been made in the 80s! … I find it hard to understand this argument. The album took a year to record and produce and in the end it sounds like something made 30 years ago, using technology of which Depeche Mode could only dream. This is an achievement? I saw them live at the Big Day Out and was severely underwhelmed. Skinny white boys playing halfheartedly. Luckily their clothes and hair were very nice, so the show wasn’t a total loss.

I won’t keep talking about The Horrors, they have enough people giving them far too much attention already. I’m talking about the strange fact that popular music itself seems to have been diverted from its rush towards greater and greater musical depths and has been caught in a self-referential cul de sac.

The Medieval period of music lasted for 900 years, from 500 to 1400. In the early part of this period there wasn’t even a rhythmic notation system, we had to wait until the 1200s for that. Following the Medieval period we have the 200 year long Renaissance period, 1400-1600. Then we have Baroque, 1600-1760, 160 years. Classical, 1730-1820, 90 years and the Romantic period, also 90 years. And then there was modern music.

Radios and phonographs spread music across the world. There is an explosion of new musical genres. Jazz rises to the fore in the early part of the 20th century and leads on into blues and roots, themselves informed by the black gospel tradition. Boogie woogie is a white pastime. Rock is birthed from blues and ska is birthed from rock, heard tinnily on Caribbean receivers – this leads into the righteous reggae tradition. Rock music becomes the dominant paradigm from the 50s onwards, running alongside folk music during the 60s and early 70s. Suddenly technology brings us synths and disco arises like a giant flaming drag queen in the night. Heavy metal, progressive rock, disco, punk – the 70s is alive with variety, a burgeoning ecosystem of music. New wave takes over from punk and the 80s is replete with early electronic music, some of it awful, some of it genius, all of it brand spanking new.

Look at the difference between ’76 and ’91. 25 years is the difference between The Sex Pistols and Nirvana. Then take ’91 to ’06. What’s the difference? Not very much.

The development of music technology has allowed further refinements of existing genres, but that seems to be all the collective genius of humanity is able to achieve. Look at the accelerating development of music from 500 to 1990. The development is almost exponential – 900 years, 200 years, 160 years, 90 years, the 20th century’s brilliant burst, then… nothing.

Yes, electronic music is relatively new. But not much has been done with it besides the collating and re-arranging of recent melodies, rhythms and themes. We seem to be stuck in nostalgia, unable to move forward, to move away from the spectacle that lies behind us. Is that the reason? Is it simply that the 20th century was the golden age of music, the likes of which will never come again? If not, then why?

Producing an exact replica of the Mona Lisa using modern materials is a technically challenging task, but it requires little or no creativity. I don’t know how to spur our musicians on to greater heights, but I certainly know that imitating the past is always a mistake. That is why most of the music I hear these days is met by my cynicism. I’ve heard it before.

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