By Lauren Armao
Musicians are often considered legends: Bowie, Cobain, Jagger, Presley, Hendrix, Jackson – even when referred to by their last names, these iconic figures are still just as recognized and respected by people all over the world, regardless of gender, age, or race. These figures in history were able to transcend borders and connect to a universe of individuals through the power of music. In their time, they made political statements, started movements, and brought a generation of people together.
Today, bands such as Nirvana, The Smiths, Green Day, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and others are still just as admired as they were in previous decades, even though nearly all of these artists have stopped releasing music. They have solidified their place in music history and have millions of loyal fans still listening all over the globe.
Why? What makes these artists so special? Why do we induct them into halls of fame; why do we still play their music on the radio? Why do we still buy their t-shirts and have their posters on our walls? Why do these artists continue to exist on a high pedestal in the world of music?
The real question we can ask ourselves today is, does modern music have the same staying power? Will today’s popular artists leave the same lasting legacy?
Music as a cultural asset: music with a purpose
Music today has much less cultural significance than it did thirty-forty years ago. Throughout the decades, especially the 70s-90s, music was intertwined with society and culture, including politics and fashion, and each decade had a distinct sound to it that defined the era. You can’t talk about those decades without mentioning the music that came along with them. The 60s and 70s brought psychedelic rock, disco, funk, and soul. The 80s saw a big surge of heavy/glam metal bands, new wave, synth pop, and alternative rock. The 90s continued to foster a larger alternative rock scene along with more grunge-rock, post-hardcore, indie rock, pop punk, and skate punk, as well as a thriving hip-hop and rap scene and influx of teen pop stars and boybands in the late 90s.
Call me a musical elitist, sure, but a good majority of older music simply had more substance. Not just in terms of instrumentation and progressions, but also in terms of lyrical content. It was a form of protest; it called out society and government and addressed social issues. Even songs that dealt with themes of love, sex, and relationships did so in a more intelligent and crafted way. Lyrics were thought provoking and raw, and musicians were powerful voices that spoke their views to a generation on war, poverty, sexism, racism, and other universal topics and issues. Music had more of an ability to make a difference in the world, and it was often used as a way to react to current issues and events.
In the 70s, a time of immense change for the nation, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin On?” was a reaction to the Vietnam War and reflected the anxiety of times. Even in Europe, the punk music scene started to build up rapidly as a way to express the frustration and misery people felt during the time period. In the 90s, Nirvana’s song“Rape Me” – a title that got their album In Utero banned from Walmart – addressed the sensitive topic of sexual assault head on and gave victims a voice.
A personal connection
In the decades of the past, music was purely physical. It was personal. You went to the record or CD shop to buy your music; you bought albums and held the artwork in your hands. A box set from your favorite band was treasured. The only time you could see photos of your favorite artist was if they were printed in magazines or if you bought their poster and hung it on your wall. Live music was special. Until MTV started occasionally broadcasting live performances, if you wanted to watch a band play live, you had to physically go and see them. You couldn’t just Google search “Green Day concert videos”.
A digital revolution
In the 2000s and 2010s, music feels almost like an afterthought. In the digital age, we have access to hundreds and thousands of forms of entertainment at our fingertips: video games, movies, TV shows, YouTube, online magazines (like Melodic!), interviews, articles, social media, and much more. With the rise of streaming platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music and the internet as sources for consuming music, listeners are quick to skip songs and move on to the next thing. Hits come and go, and songs now go out of rotation within weeks. Pop and hip-hop have taken over the Billboard Hot 100 completely – there’s simply no diversity in popular music anymore. Many people don’t take the time to listen to full albums the way they used to. With playlists, you don’t have to sit through a whole album to get to the song you want; it’s right at your fingertips.
The truth is, the music industry has changed – it values hit singles over full albums, autotune over artistry, and sex appeal over raw talent. Some may say that it’s always been this way, but it can be seen now more than ever as we’ve dived into the 21st century.
Man vs. machine
The industry was built on live music. While you can argue that today’s technology has brought us better recording equipment and state of the art studios, we’ve lost a lot of the “realness” that goes into a record. Autotune wasn’t invented until the late 90s – if you wanted to be a musician before then, you had to have actual talent. That’s why live albums from those eras sound so great – nobody was relying on autotune in the first place to polish their voices; people had natural talent.
Many of today’s mass-marketed music lacks dynamic and depth, not just in lyrics or talent, but straight down to how it is recorded and processed. In the studio back then, everything was analog. When listening to “older” music, you really feel like you’re in the studio listening to the bands play. Today’s musicians can hide behind computers; many have backing tracks with extra vocals added during live performances. In the studio today, machines have replaced real instruments, because it’s cheaper to produce.
It’s up to us
The bias in this article is clear. I personally think that today’s music is not as memorable as hits from the past, but that’s just my opinion. Some of you reading this might be enraged and disagree completely, and that’s okay. Everyone has a different opinion about this (this is an opinion article). When it really comes down to answering the question I asked in the title, “does modern music have the same staying power?”, the bottom line is this: it’s up to us. I could drag this article along for pages and pages discussing the different catalysts that have affected the music industry and the music itself over the last few decades. I could spend hours debating back and forth with others about the current state of it all.
But, it all comes down to this: we will remember what we choose to remember. And based off of musical preferences, experiences at concerts and meet and greets, and other factors, this will be different for everyone. We have no way of knowing or controlling what the general population of the world will remember in another few decades, but we do have control of what music we will choose to keep close to us. Some of us will still be singing the 1975, some of us might be blasting Taylor Swift, and some of us might still have All Time Low on our playlists. Some of us might still listen to all three.
This article might be an opinion piece, but here’s a fact: The music industry is in the hands of the consumers. It’s up to us to keep it alive and well.