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Fragmented music, fragmented society?

In a New York Times column this week, David Brooks opines that today's explosion of musical choices has weakened a shared cultural bond.

This week in the New York Times, op-ed columnist David Brooks mourns the passing of what I'd call the classic rock age. This was the era in which everybody learned about a musical act at the same time--the fabled Beatles-on-Ed-Sullivan moment--and it wasn't uncommon for active bands consisting of young people to sell out 20,000-seat arenas. (John Bonham and Robert Plant weren't even 30 when Led Zeppelin sold out the 60,000-seat Kingdome in Seattle in 1977. When's the last time a young, non-nostalgia-act rock and roll band had that many fans?) Brooks argues the explosion of musical genres in the last 20 years has eliminated this common bond, and helped contribute to (or perhaps is symptomatic of) a disintegration of shared culture. A bad thing, in his view.

It's not a new argument. Brooks cites a recent opinion piece by Sasha Frere-Jones, The New Yorker's pop critic, that current rock music no longer borrows from the African-American tradition and has somehow lost its soul as a result. (He also reveals that he plays bass in a funk band, which is ironic given that funk bands are considered the squarest of the square among urban white musicians and the college radio/weekly paper crowd that idolizes them, and I know because I used to play in one.) Brooks also notes Carl Wilson's response in Slate that indie rock isn't racially segregated as much as it's socioeconomically narrow--it's what rich white professionals listen to. (Both are worth a read if you're interested in the cultural implications of music.) The argument extends beyond music as well--Andrew Keenhas written that the Internet has created a fragmented universe of self-proclaimed experts and meaninglessly narrow niches in every field of commerce and intellect, and that the lack of a common field of discourse threatens the foundation of society. (My words, not his.)

Then of course, there's the other side: Business Week's Jon Fine writes that he was a music fan at the tail end of the period for which Brooks expresses, and that it sucked. (His words, not mine.) In his view, it's great that today's kids can immediately discover thousands of songs in any genre (or recently invented subgenre) and aren't bound by the narrow playlists foisted upon them by commercial radio and MTV.

Maybe it's just beause I'm pushing 40, but I feel some of the same nostalgia that Brooks is writing about. My reasons are slightly different, however.

Like John Fine, I first started listening to popular music in the early 1980s. Growing up in a lily-white suburb of Seattle, my two sources for music discovery were FM radio and my friends, all of whom listened to the same FM radio stations I did. Our shared musical language was hard rock and heavy metal, and you could tell a lot about a person by his (or in rare cases, her) favorite band. AC/DC fans were the hardcore delinquents. (Mike Judge knew this.) Iron Maiden fans were the same as AC/DC fans, only with a more cartoonish sense of humor. Ozzy/Sabbath fans were trying to be scary. Rush fans thought they were smarter than everybody else (or played the drums). Pink Floyd fans thought they were deeper than everybody else. Zeppelin fans secretly wanted to be hippies but were scared of being considered effeminate. Doors fans didn't care if people thought they were hippies. Deadheads wanted people to think they were hippies, but weren't. Who fans were the cool jocks--often soccer players. Van Halen fans were the less cool jocks.

That was basically it. The Beatles were for kids. The Stones were too adult--everybody liked the tongue logo but nobody actually listened to them. Rap (it wasn't called hip-hop yet) was for our little brothers and sisters. MTV bands were shallow and of the moment--not enough time had passed to distinguish U2 or The Police from Men At Work or A Flock of Seagulls. Some of the theater kids listened to what we called New Wave--Talking Heads, Devo, Love and Rockets--but these were outliers, purposely strange and off the map, not even trying to be part of the culture.

For me, things started to split apart with Jane's Addiction, which I first heard in 1987. They're considered trite now--especially after the "reunion" debacle of a few years back--but at the time, they broke down a lot of barriers. On the surface, they sounded like typical hard rock or metal--high-pitched singer, big rhythm section, guitar solos with lots of pentatonics. But the singer dressed like a freak--more like those theater kids we didn't understand, with piercings and constantly changing hair color--and the lyrics were weird and aggressive and sensitive, all that the same time. Better yet, girls didn't hate them on first listen.

In high school, you had to go a little bit out of your way to discover a band like that. Sure, they eventually got signed to Warner Bros., but they weren't on the radio or the cover of Rolling Stone (yet). You only heard about them from a friend. That's the same way punk used to be--the kids with DK stickers didn't buy them at the mall, they mail-ordered them from Alternative Tentacles. Love and Rockets records were available first as imports.

Of course, Jane's Addiction begat Perry Farrell begat Lollapolooza, which paved the way for Nirvana and the grunge explosion of the early 90s, "alternative" radio, the punk revival, Green Day, Hot Topic, and the rest. Now every "serious" rock music fan over the age of 35 claims that punk rock saved their life and you've got babies wearing Ramones shirts.

In a sense, both Brooks and Fine are right. Without the shared musical culture that Fine found so oppressive, there would have been nothing to rebel against. When the Sex Pistols and Ramones wrote fast songs with two or three chords, that was a thoughtful and considered rebellion against twelve-minute prog rock anthems from Yes and the like. Now, I tend to agree with Steven Van Zandt of the E Street Band (who's quoted in the Brooks column): a lot of kids write three-chord songs and play at one volume--loud--because they don't know how to do anything else. There's no rebellion or creativity, just laziness.

Fortunately, I don't have to listen to it--there's plenty of other music available. And that's something to be thankful for.