If the noughties were an album, 2000 would be a meandering opener, a directionless ambient track lightly seasoned with dread, it would be entitled ‘intro’, or ‘prelude’, or ‘prologue’, 2001 would be the big opener that really draws the listener in and sets the tone for the remainder of the record to come. 2004 and 2005 would be where the album picks up the pace further, fully embracing the dark turn hinted at by 2001, with a brief reprieve by 2007 and 2008. 2010 would be a lengthy, foreboding track with a marching rhythm of inevitability, heralding the grim future that only graced the intro. The kind of album that ends with no pledge of solace or shelter, just a question mark, a blank cheque placed before a binary future of alternative dooms.
To analyse trends in any cultural, social, or political phenomena in decade long chronological chunks is no doubt a lazy sensationalist convenience, and it may just be my bias as someone who came of age in the years spanning the turn of the Century, but it does feel that in these years immediately following 2000 the old order began to crumble. God knows I’ve read enough smug articles on liberal new-sites telling me as much. Sources of information on…well, anything, became decentralised, unstable, and before the keepers of normality knew what had occurred or how to stop it, it was too late. Adaptation was the only option, an acceptance that the status quo has only recently conceded to, and that in the smallest possible degree.
The true meaning and impact behind the rise and proliferation of the internet is an inheritance so profound it is impossible to overstate the significance it has had, and will have. Indeed, commentators have failed spectacularly to truly awaken themselves to this fact. We thought the addition of a few more television channels was revolutionary enough, but with saturation of content trumping real innovation, the novelty was short lived. It heralded the age of the endless sitcom repeat more than it did imaginative TV (although admittedly TV has got crazy good more recently). Again, we thought MTV would change the face of music forever. And it is true that the music video quickly tried to assert itself as an art form in its own right. But MTV was both symptom and cause of another cultural phenomena, perfectly illustrated in caricature form by programs such as ‘Beavis and Butt-head’; that of the braindead teen, as ‘out-there’ as their hippie forefathers, but lacking any moral compass; important because it signalled the terminus at the end of the short yet enduringly powerful concept that was ‘youth’. The foggy notion of the irony ensconced hipster was soon to follow, and after nearly two decades this has not gone away, nor will it go away, being so adaptable, so undesirable, and so well cloaked in vague definitions depending on who you ask.
Whatever the real impact of MTV, it proved to be a mere footnote in what was to come post 2000. Video might have killed the radio star, but the internet threatened to kill album sales, the nature of music consumption and dissemination, the financial viability of the artform, the potential democratisation of popular outlets, the complete subversion of physical magazines as an outlet of knowledge, the democratisation of opinion and knowledge through online forums, user submitted review sites, user moderated archives, the list goes on into analysis nothing short of nailing the door to the ceiling while Rome is sucked out of existence. And it continues in new and unexpected ways. Youtube and Spotify hits are now the true markers of popularity. Radio manages to keep its head above water simply through the enduring popularity of the car as a mode of transport and the fact that much of its original audience prior to the internet is yet to die.
All of these paradigm shifts playing out in miniature within music have of course been occurring at the grander level of politics and society. The central institutions whose job it was to distribute information and ultimately carve the narrative path of the age are coming apart at the seams, to be replaced by a whole spectrum of diverse voices, some informed, some not, some professional, some not, some benign, some not.
People born long after the 1960s and 70s are still able to acquire an approximation of the Zeitgeist of said decades, even if people who lived through them claim that it never really felt like the picture historians and cultural commentators try to paint for us now. Whatever truth there is in this, it is also true that even the most detached contemporary observer would be incapable of crafting a sweeping declaration to define their own age; this act requires a degree of chronological space to accomplish. Indeed one could almost argue that the problems arising from the current era spring from too much analysis and comment rather than too little, but after a certain point an excess of information is qualitatively the same as too little.
A very brief and clumsy history of rock music that you already know would do here; a simple series of waves and trends followed by a reaction in the opposite direction, as predictable as Newton’s third law. In the 1950s and 60s the concept of ‘youth’ reached fruition post WW2, closely linked to the birth of pop music. The 1970s saw artists become more ambitious with this form, with the rise of the album, progressive rock and heavy metal, exploring themes beyond immediate personal and social experiences and radio friendly play-times. The late 1970s witnessed the inevitable backlash to this with the rise of punk. In the 1980s pop music was awash with reinvention. Structure and composition remained much the same, but they were rediscovered through new technologies, forcing more ambitious contemporary music underground. The 1990s again heralded yet another inevitable backlash against this heavily synthesised pop music with the rise of grunge and so called Britpop.
And then what happened? Pop punk? Nu Metal? Descendants of the alternative rock boom of the early 1990s? So with the benefit of 7 years distance from this decade, what happened musically and why? The only discernable mainstream trend of the 2000s one can pick out was a conglomerate of danceable pop/rock acts, and bands hell-bent on running with the boringist aspects of Radiohead into exponentially boringer sonic shades of beige. This was loosely collected under the moniker of ‘indie’, a term adopted from previous generations; a label which now, thanks to cultural entropy, is as impossible to pin down as any other signifier of contemporary Western music.
We now have 7 years of chronological space from the 2000s, and having lived through it as a fully conscious observer of the times; I remain unable to sum up what the fuck actually happened beyond the early part of said decade. I immediately pre-empt your response to this by saying I extremely very much do not care what god awful post 2000 movement you felt you were part of, it just wasn’t all that significant compared to its predecessors and I’m not interest in any misguided opinions to the contrary. Anyway, is the internet solely to blame for this lack of centralised Zeitgeist? The defining artists of 2017 that inherited whatever homogenous cultural blob that was the 2000s are not wrapped around any discernable movement. Whatever framework or label journalists, record labels, commentators and academics used to group artists together does not seem to apply any more. Coldplay, Adele, Katie Perry, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Kayne West, Ed Sheeran, and Beyonce are all megastars certainly, but they are famous by virtue of being the most watered down and accessible versions of disparate styles. Whatever talent they did possess in their formative years, this is lowest common denominator music.
With every new generation, with every new movement that defines that generation, there is a generation one step older that claims the younger are doing it wrong, or they are just listening to a newer version of that band what was big when they were young. In part this is true. All popular music is a watered down version of an older more underground hence less accessible form of that music. But there is a very real sense in which in actual fact this might just actually be in fact a real true fact this time around.
Cultural entropy has always been kept in check by a central body of institutions that carve out the narrative arc of history, sometimes revising history, sometimes defining the present, but always large enough and loud enough to drown out voices of dissent. Now the rules have changed, the wheels have come away from the bodies that policed a modicum of paradigmatic order. The complex spectrum of outlets where opinion and definition can be broadcast and consumed is cleaving society in new and as yet unknown ways. The thinkers of our age have only just woken up to (and offered causes) for this, let alone sought diagnoses and cures for the outcomes already identified as undesirable (just look at the amount of subgenres within the metal scene these days).
In a tenuous but altogether deliberate twist, let’s divert our attention to a microcosm of culture in order to isolate some of the effects this has had. Then at least we will be able to analyse some of the variables with a view to a more general framework to work with once we cast the net a bit wider. Outside of the charts, serious music fans have often turned to the reviews of trusted critics and journalists as a source of discovery for new music, and also a point of intrigue for those that enjoy discussing such matters. Reviews would be offered by popular magazines, and as a new artist the very selection of your latest release for review would be considered a point of pride. Later, with the rise of MTV certain music programs would make time for review slots, music discussion, and gossip. Indeed, even at this stage the democratisation of opinion was creeping into the public dialogue, with fans and listeners being encouraged to phone and write in with opinions they knew would be broadcast to a wider audience than ever possible any other day of their life.
Magazines are a funny one. Reading the reviews sections as a youngling first sparked the awareness that large record companies *might* be in cahoots with the editors of these magazines. For any young fan, experiencing contemporary music for music’s sake for the very first time, the revelation that something very unjoyful was going on behind this most joyful of experiences is always a disconcerting sensation. Shoddy albums being given a free pass with 4 star ratings, tand rue ambition dismissed, aside from one or two featured albums of the week only a few sentences of space dedicated to the majority of the albums reviewed, a financial as well as stylistic decision, that made magazine reviews the popcorn of the medium; text nuggets ending in either endorsement and encouragement to buy, or a tentative reluctance to align with the band/label without entering into full throttle condemnation. The point is that magazines represented one of the very few gatekeepers to mainstream success for new artists, along with TV and radio. The knowledge transmitted, the opinions offered, even the selection of what to feature; all of this was dictated by the vested interests of the editors, their investors, and the influence of powerful record labels. The art of reviewing was a façade.
This filter of content has now eroded. Professional journalists are still out there, offering their services to the highest bidder, but across the board they have been forced to up their game, forced to compete against free content and user submitted reviews. As a form of creative writing, reviewers will always have to live with the fact that they are essentially part of an expansion pack for the form of art they are critiquing, an optional extra or means for people to filter the content they consume, one that will ultimately have to make way for art itself which needs to stand on its own two feet, away from the words of praise or dissent.
With music and beyond, the democratisation of knowledge and opinion is a double edged sword, something that has been thrown into sharp relief in the last few years. On the one hand we are no longer reliant on the seemingly intractable web of larger financial interests to dictate what music we are exposed to and what we should think about it. The supply chain between artist and fan is now shorter than ever, which in theory would lead to a flourishing underground music scene. On the other hand, the fact that any swivel eyed piece of pond life can transmit an opinion across the globe without any prior credentials for us to judge the value of said opinion has only accelerated cultural entropy. For this reason, a site like metal-archives tries to moderate its content by allowing users to submit reviews for approval by the moderators, if the standards are met, the review can be published on the site. Time consuming no doubt, but when the user content offered is opinion not fact, a self-moderating wiki system would not suffice. Instead it is forced to walk the line between policing content whilst giving users a sense of freedom in what they post, and ultimately letting go of complete control over what content can be read on the website.
Over the years I have read many thoughtful and well written reviews on metal-archives, I’ve submitted some of them myself, and it is interesting to compare the various tactics and styles that people use, from no no’s like track by track reviews, to accounts of personal journeys with different records, to a more philosophical and detached approach. But recently I feel discouraged to offer my own content and I have found myself wondering why.
The reason may be closely linked with other seismic shifts in just who the gatekeepers of culture really are. I’ve written more extensively on the history of music consumption elsewhere, here it is relevant that thanks to the pervasiveness of free content, or unlimited content for a small monthly fee, one function of the review as a barometer of what records to buy is now redundant. The days of saving pocket money for that monthly purchase are over, so the careful deliberation based on the opinions of respected journalists and critics is no longer necessary.
This leads budding reviewers even further up the path of creative writing, into the realm of either abstractly arguing why you should be listening to a particular piece of music, as if listening to the thing was not enough to tell you as much (you may be listening in the wrong way, listening without hearing), or else indulging in lengthy accounts of self-discovery attached to the music and why it means something personally to the writer. This all sounds well and good, but with such limited content to discuss this makes an engaging style a rarity. Retail websites with user submitted review sections will also allow for the rating of the reviews themselves, reviews of reviews is a field in itself, indeed moderated websites such as metal-archives make it their business to review reviews before they can be published. Meta-reviewing is one path of pedantry I will not to indulge further.
Many believe we have reached cultural, social, and political saturation point. And unlike sterile equations about how musicians will run out of chord sequences or how all pop songs are essentially the same, it may actually be true this time. The art of reviewing may be a relatively trivial instance of this, but it does represent the amount of excess weight that has now latched itself onto an historical narrative that has well and truly run away with itself, away from us. The direction is out of our control, our very grasp on the direction and if there even is one is now beyond us. Whether this is a benefit to culture or a detriment is probably still yet to be seen. The saturation of content that the internet brings with it is not so much a double edged sword as clusterfuck, monolith sized Rubik’s cube of jagged blades, occasionally punctuated by cushioned partitions; arguably more significant than the industrial revolution. I take no joy in reviewing anymore, simply because I find myself aspiring to a more regal, poetic, dispassionate style, but I believe this take on the process is now obsolete simply because it only serves to add to the noise of a cultural universe where music can speak for itself, and break through the barriers of the consumer’s financial caution in the process. A more conversational style may still have a place, a place I still enjoy visiting, but this might as well bleed into actual conversations with peers, online or in the flesh.
The excess of free content now available, in the world of the arts, news, comment, public conversation…I would not offer to say if this is ultimately a negative or a positive for the progress of humanity (whatever you think that amounts to). The very notion of paying for content – music, news, film – once a fact of life, is so insulting to many consumers now that they will allow it to block their participation, arguably leading to such things as mid-sized music venues closing down, newspapers and magazines going under, and institutions like the BBC being brought to its knees. However, the democratisation of knowledge, in theory, can only be a good thing. In practice however, the imperfect human condition appears to be tearing this unique opportunity apart, piece by piece.