2012: Music Writing and the Return of Monoculture?

It seems that many year-end arts and music lists feature a kind of longing look back at the supposed “good old days.” Both writers and commenters take part in this, though the latter — pumped up by their own InternetTrollJuice™ — like to take things to extremes. Basically, that the musical world is going straight to hell. The problem is that this has always been the case. Things were always better way back when. Right?

The good news is that not everybody feels this way. I certainly don’t. In a couple of recent National Public Radio blog entries titled What Happened To Music Writing This Year? and The Year In Pop Charts: Return Of The Monoculture, we have two not-so-dour assessments of popular music and the contexts it inhabits.

First we have music writing. It’s not what it used to be, mostly because that’s just no longer possible. As is pointed out, we live in a world where the various social media outlets can give a musician a much larger “readership” than the magazines and Web outlets attempting to write about them. Coupled with the fact that there are just so many more cultural news outlets in general and what you have are hundreds (if not thousands) of media sites screaming into the search engines wind. Before MTV came around, there were only a handful of publications: Rolling Stone, Creem, Crawdaddy, and a few others. In this era of digital downloads, artist-driven social media, and shared streaming playlists, does music writing still have a viable function?

And what might its function be with the possible return of pop music monoculture? I say “possible” here because I’m not sure I’m in agreement with what the latter article is attempting to do: to show the similarities between 2012 and the year 1984. Certainly the big hits of 1984 did form a kind of pop music monoculture: everybody was listening to Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark,” Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” and Nena’s “99 Red Balloons.” Both pop and rock radio played these songs, and they were all in heavy rotation on MTV. For this past year, the big hits — Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” Gotye’s “Somebody I Used To Know,” and Psy’s “Gangnam Style” were given as evidence of the return of the shared cultural experience. These songs have spent a lot of time at the top of the charts (and “Gangnam Style” is the YouTube monster), but do they have 1984-style crossover appeal?

Using my (unscientific and incredibly inaccurate) sample of one (myself): I’d only heard the Gotye song this morning after reading the Pop Charts article, my only listen to “Call Me Maybe” was that impossibly cute version she did with Fallon and The Roots, and OK…I’ve watched the Psy video a few times (one billion plus viewers can’t be wrong). Still, I’m not projecting when I say that I don’t think there’s a huge amount of rock/pop crossover in the listenership. The article indicates that the tide may be turning with regard to (still powerful) radio, with many stations moving away from specific formats and back into Top 40. Might we see the return of a more open commercial radio? I doubt it, but I’d be the first to welcome it back.

For the record, I kind of dig all three of the above-mentioned pop tunes (though I don’t think “Gangnam Style” holds up outside of the video). I’ve listened to some Frank Ocean and Janelle Monae and yeah, there’s a lot of good stuff going on out there. There’s really no reason to draw a line in the sand between now and the “perfect past,” unless you’ve come to the conclusion that nothing new is worth your time. In that case, I guess you just got old before you died.

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he writes several weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.

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