Great pop & rock music is NOT dead


I thoroughly enjoyed Brad’s righteous, even rockin’, post earlier this week in response to the “Rock is dead!” crowd. Mankind, it seems, has an innate attraction to the apocalyptic, including in the realm of rock. It brought to mind a piece I wrote in November 2008 on the Insight Scoop blog regarding a number of silly stories about how the Pope (then Benedict XVI) was somehow and in some way embracing and celebrating the music of the Beatles on the 40th anniversary of the release of the “White Album”. That led to a little rant on my part about how stupid it is to say, as did L’Osservatore Romano, the semi-official newspaper of the Vatican, that the popular music of the late 1960s was far superior to that of the early 21st century. To that end, I made five points. Here is the post, below the fold (the pic above, by the way, is “The Music Man” painted by Norman Rockwell in 1966):

The headlines started popping up over the past 24 hours or so:

And my favorite: “Pope forgives Lennon for saying Beatles were bigger than Jesus” (The Scotsman). Never mind that the Pope had nothing to do with the article, was not quoted, and probably is not a fan of the Beatles. These stories came about because of an article (not yet available online) in L’Osservatore Romano, as Catholic News Service reports:

The newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, published a lengthy and laudatory retrospective on the Beatles Nov. 22 to mark the 40th anniversary of the release of the “White Album,” the group’s groundbreaking double-record set.”Forty years later, this album remains a type of magical musical anthology: 30 songs you can go through and listen to at will, certain of finding some pearls that even today remain unparalleled,” it said.With rock songs like “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “Helter Skelter,” ballads like “Julia” and “Blackbird,” and dreamlike pieces like “Dear Prudence,” the album represents the “creative summit” of the Beatles’ career, it said.

Okay, fine. Whatever. This doesn’t bother me at all, even though I’ve never been much of a Beatles’ fan (gasp!); in fact, I almost never listen to their music. Here is the source of my irritation:

What characterized the “White Album” and the Beatles best music in general was an inventiveness that stands in stark contrast with popular music today, the newspaper said.”Record products today seem mostly standardized and stereotyped, far from the creativity of the Beatles,” it said. The modern pop music industry is too willing to sacrifice originality and fantasy in order to satisfy the consumer models it has adopted and promoted, it said.The newspaper also recalled that the Beatles were recording with rudimentary tools compared to those used by the high-tech recording industry today. Even so, “a listening experience like that offered by the Beatles is truly rare,” it said.

Where to begin? First, it is misleading in its comparison of the best music from one generation with the best-selling music of another generation. It’s not just apples and oranges, it’s apples and horse manure. If you are going to compare the Beatles, who produced some of the best pop/rock of their time (and, yes, of the past forty years), with Britney Spears, Hannah Montana, David Archulata, Pink, and any given “flavor of the month” boy band, then you must be fair, turn the tables, and compare, say, U2, Radiohead, Prince, Coldplay, and The Police—just to name a few—to such stellar 1960s artists as Bobby Goldsboro, Lulu, Boxtops, and Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, all of whom had big-selling albums between 1965-1969.

Second, it must be recognized that the music industry has changed dramatically in the past forty years. Most of the best pop/rock music of today is not released by major labels, nor do artists need to rely on major labels the way they did forty years ago. There’s no doubt that the Beatles, along with artists such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, U2, and a handful of others, were consistently able to combine commercial success with artistic merit (don’t even bring up The Rolling Stones: I loathe them and their music). This is, I think, more difficult to accomplish today—not because there aren’t good pop/rock artists (more on that in a moment), but because the marketplace is far different from what it was in the good ol’ days; it is fragmented and wildly diverse, in large part due to the internet and advances in computer technology. I’m not saying things are better, but that they are quite different. And that difference makes all the difference when it comes to the comparisons made (wrongly) by L’Osservatore Romano.

Third, the article states, “The modern pop music industry is too willing to sacrifice originality and fantasy in order to satisfy the consumer models it has adopted and promoted.” Sure, that is true of a significant portion of the modern pop industry, but is it true of all pop music? Or, turning the table again, was the “pop music industry” of the 1960s filled only with people wishing to make music of timeless artistic merit? I don’t think so (which is one reason I don’t listen to much of Sinatra’s music from the late Sixties). Good pop music is usually made despite the whims and machinations of the music industry, not because of it.

Fourth, there is a lot of good, excellent, and even exceptional pop/rock music being produced today. And, to build upon the last point, much of it is being created outside of or on the fringes of the mainstream pop music industry. Yes, there is also a lot of dreck. A lot. But there always is. But for every Britney Spears there is a Brandi Carlile, Kate Bush, Tracy Chapman, Tina Dico, or Cowboy Junkies; for every David Archulata there is a Van Morrison, Seal, Sting, Jeff Buckley, Iron and Wine, Sigor Rós, Sufjan Stevens, or Martin Sexton; for every Pink there is a Björk, Lamb, Portishead, or Sarah McLachlan. For every boy band there is a Soundgarden, Radiohead, Muse, or Porcupine Tree.

Finally, the Beatles, Michael Jordan, and “Lost” only come along once in a great while, not only because they are so good, but because they do things in a way that wasn’t done before. The “rudimentary tools” used by the Beatles were far superior than what anyone had just a few years before them, and they made it possible for the musical ideas of Paul, John, George, and Ringo to come to fruition. In a similar way, the advent of stereo sound in the 1950s paved the way for Sinatra to enter into the second great phase of his career, the Capitol years. But it usually takes time for the cream to rise to the top, and only time will tell what artists from the first decade of the 21st century will be worthy of listening to again and again years from now. I’m not sure if the L’Osservatore Romano will be paying attention, but I hope to be.


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