L to R: Lana Del Rey, Perfume Genius, Run the Jewels, Perfect Pussy (Graphic: Nancy Gonzalez/TueNight)
I’m so out of it. Even when I think I’m kind of into it, I’m so out of it.
And I can’t believe I’ve become this person.
Thumbing through the December 15 year-end wrap up edition of New York magazine, I flipped my way to “The 10 Best Pop Albums of The Year” and got excited by the list of names I didn’t know. A few, I did: Lana Del Rey, St. Vincent, Aphex Twin (Aphex Twin? Hello 1990) and Perfume Genius, whose sinister and sinewy “Queen” popped up on Pandora.
No Swift, no Mars in the top 10 (they did make the longer online list), this was a more high-minded, artful interpretation of pop by critic Lindsay Zoladz. Fair enough. I decided to sample some of it on Spotify: Frankie Cosmos, Run the Jewels, Angel Olsen, Todd Terje, Jesse Ware and Perfect Pussy.
We’re in a new zone, led by a generation waiting for the bass to drop as they dance themselves into a pleasant, sudsy lather.
Look, I’ve been out of the game for a while, but as a former pop music critic you’d think I’d be more open to new sounds, but my ears couldn’t stand it. Everything sounded so gooey and gauzy — edgeless. With soulless EDM (that’s electronic dance music) permeating the young’ns ears, it feels like it’s permeating every genre, too. Zoladz described Del Rey as “Billowing, bizarre and triumphantly unnerving” and that could describe just about everything chosen. Frankie Cosmos was the creepiest, a wide-eyed birthday party of dopey kid-style songs. Or the edgiest of the bunch, the offensive darlings of everyone’s year-end list, the hip-hop mixtape turned album by Run the Jewels.
The New York Times and The Village Voice Pazz & Jop lists didn’t give me any more hope. FKA Twigs?
I DON’T GET IT.
I told myself this would never happen to me. As a kid I’d spend hours thumbing through my parents quirky record collection of Josh White, Miles Davis, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Johnny Cash and was proud of their musical adventurousness. But the albums were gathering dust, and there weren’t new additions — the collection was like a fixed time capsule. Somewhere along the way they lost their fire for new sounds. It wasn’t that they weren’t open to new music; I’d make them mixtapes or drag them to a Junior Brown concert (not exactly new) and they’d listen and love. But the drive to self-explore seemed to dissipate. And some of the stuff I liked sounded weird to them. My Mom snickered upon hearing Jayhawks singer Mark Olson croon the earthy and earnest song, “I’d Run Away.” She said, “He sounds ridiculous.” She’d had a similar reaction to hearing The Smiths or Schoolly D in the ’80s. She’d scrunch up her nose and say, “What is that?!” Something was dissonant to her ear. And at the time, I didn’t get it.
Now I hate to say, I do.
I’ve written a little about this before, that just in the last few years I find myself flummoxed by the optimistic, overjoyed strums of Mumford and Sons or the cooing lullaby disco of Grimes or Local Natives. The trend has long since moved on from in-your-face punk, political alt-country, hip-hop bravado to feathery, gooey wails. See Sia, One Direction, Nick Jonas, Sam Smith, Pharrell and his quiet, earthy happy-tude. Even hip-hop has taken a turn for the slow cruise. Frank Ocean and B.o.B. offer reflective, pensive rhymes that make me want to stage dive off a bridge.
That’s not to say there aren’t incredible new bands to my ear. St. Vincent, D’Angelo, The Black Keys, tUnE-yArDs, Lianne La Havas, TV on the Radio, I could go on and on. And heck, I like Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars — a lot. But there’s a pervasive sonic mood that’s starting to feel really strange and unfamiliar.
Caveat: I don’t write much about music anymore, so I’ve got some uncritical distance and lack of familiarity with everything that’s coming out.
But I know I’m not alone. My college buddy David, who used to regale me with stories of Meat Puppets shows, posted on Facebook the experience he had forgetting his headphones at the gym, and having to listen to the piped in sound system:
“Which is unswervingly awful, running the gamut from insipid and utterly uninspired dance pop (bleated vocals and hack white rap about the joys of “partying” over tedious beats that even a Neanderthal would no doubt think were a bit unoriginal); to limp, effete simperings which I believe must be Justin Bieber…”
We’re in a new zone, led by a generation waiting for the bass to drop as they dance themselves into a pleasant, sudsy lather. We shouldn’t be surprised. Music is a marker of age. You get tired, jaded. You resort back to albums that never feel old: Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Prince’s Purple Rain, the Clash’s London Calling (long since selling Jaguars).
Consider this: ‘80s music to this generation of 20-somethings is like what ’50s music was to we 40-somethings. Dancing to Blue Monday is a quaint to them as Rock Around the Clock. Just let that sink in…
As another music-head friend George wrote to me, “My time for being hip and relevant (whatever that means) has sailed, I think. Just at a time when I’ve also felt these lists and numbering are more and more ridiculous, too, but I’m not sure which came first. I mean, I’m all happy I got last year’s Verve: The Singles Collection box for Xmas, and am happiest about Jimmy Smith’s funky organ cuts. So what do I know.”
For those of us who pride ourselves in discovering new sounds, you still want more.
As my optimistic, former punk rock band guitarist pal Anna said the other night, “Sure there’s a lot of crap, but I firmly believe there will always be good new music.”
She’s right. I’m still exploring and loving new bands like Haim, Lake Street Dive, even if they’re a little throwback-y.
To each his own. I just may be covering my ears more often.