Richard Powers and the Blown-Up Cultural Narrative
Andrew Leonard has a fascinating, if discursive, profile in Salon of the novelist Richard Powers. In it, Powers registers a note of discontent with the proliferation of both pop-musical content—the “insane torrent,” as he puts it in his latest novel Orfeo—and all the digital mechanisms that deliver it today.
“Suppose you were born in 1962 and you are coming into your own and music starts to become essential to you,” says Powers. “You are right on the tail end of that sort of folk rock thing, but you are aware historically of how these guys were revolting in a way against the previous generation. And because of the nature of the distribution mechanisms that you talk about, where it’s two radio stations and one record store, there’s a saturation effect for whatever is in vogue and there has to be a countervailing cultural move just to refresh our ears. And that’s the start of punk.
“So you can see these revolutions and counter-revolutions and you can see a historical motion to popular music and it’s thrilling and you want to know what happens next. The state that you just described of permanent wonderful eclectic ubiquitous interchangeable availability — there’s no sense of historical thrust.”
Leonard sums up the point thus: “Universal ubiquity has blown up the narrative.”
There’s something to this, I think. Granted, I’m pushing 40; I’m not as hip to trends as I was when I was a kid, and certainly not when I was covering them for a daily newspaper. But the point is, it’s undeniably the case that it was once fairly easy for a casual music fan to keep abreast of the latest thing. Right up until the early aughts and the passel of “The [monosyllabic plural-noun]” bands playing neo-garage rock: that’s the last time I can remember there being some kind of identifiable “movement” in rock music.
Now there is no one thing.
As a caveat, I will admit it’s somewhat rockist to think along these lines. Just because Pharrell Williams or Bruno Mars or Robin Thicke aren’t trad-rock frontmen, why can’t they be seen as the vanguard of an eclectic dance-pop revival?
And part of the fragmentation that Powers laments isn’t even technologically-driven; it’s generational and racial. Much of what we would’ve called rock music 30 years ago now falls under the rubric of country music. It’s Top 40 for white people. It’s blues-based rock tricked out with splashes of fiddle and pedal-steel. (Bruce Springsteen astutely noticed this recently: “country music is kind of where rock music has gone, really, at this point … It’s basically kind of pop-rock music … It’s where rock music continues to have a certain currency.”)
So, a good chunk of the energy in rock-ish songwriting is devoted to the Nashville machine, which critics don’t take terribly seriously and hence wouldn’t bother to suss out trends that fit on the continuum of Powers’s reaction/counter-reaction “historical thrust.”
All that said, I suspect Powers is right. We’ve probably seen the last of swing-turns-to-bop or prog-is-wiped-out-by-punk cultural shifts in popular music. Powers seems to quite openly admit that these shifts had been abetted by self-styled tastemakers, who have seen a drastic decline in influence over the last 15 years. He argues unabashedly that the culture desperately requires those media filters.
I don’t know if I’d go quite that far. Then again, I say that having come of age in a culture that had filters. I say I can do without them. But I was shaped by them. What about my kids’ generation: how will they know what’s good, what’s worth listening to, what (as a Clash fan would have put it) matters?
They’ll be free of a “narrative” imposed from above. Instead they will have the “insane torrent.”
Everything will be at their fingertips.
But perhaps they will miss greatness right under their noses.