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Is Rock Dead? (and Other Questions from Readers)
And I invite you to ask questions of your own
People always have questions. But recently they’ve started sending them to me.
Below I take a stab at answering a few of them. The names of the questioners are eliminated to protect the guilty.
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Did we run out of melodies in the 1980s?
Sergei Prokofiev was asked a similar question back in the 1930s. “We need not be afraid,” he replied, “that there will come a time when all melody will have been exhausted and we shall be obliged to repeat old tunes.”
To support his view, he compared music to chess—and noted that there were 60 million variants just leading up to the white player’s fourth move. He concluded that, from a purely mathematical perspective, we have barely scratched the surface of our melodic possibilities.
That said, the simpler the song, the more difficult it is to create something fresh and new. I suspect that the fear that we have exhausted melodies is actually a disguised concern that commercial music today is embracing very simple formulas. If we expanded our musical palette, many of these apparent limitations would disappear.
Do I have an assistant or helpers?
I do everything on my own. I keep telling myself that I should hire someone, or maybe even a small team—but I never get around to it.
My biggest source of help right now is my son Thomas, who gives me informal advice and occasional ideas for articles. He has deep expertise himself in the arts, and especially classical music. But this is a casual working relationship, as you might imagine.
So, yes, I should hire somebody. But there’s another problem here. Do you know that trick question in job interviews, when the interviewer stares you down and asks: What’s your greatest weakness? Well, here’s mine: I’m not good at delegating. I’m plain lousy at it—I do things myself, for better or worse.
That said, I must admit I’m envious when I read passages like this in a jazz book—where the author thanks his 19 paid research assistants. (It’s a great book, by the way.)
I dream of what I could do with that kind of support. I would be forced to delegate, and that would be a good thing. Maybe I should start hiring interns, or take some job where grad students are at my beck and call.
On the other hand, I clearly benefit from doing all my research by myself. It’s given me the core expertise that serves as a foundation for everything I do nowadays.
Why is there music everywhere, all the time?
When I was younger, I hated background music. I still find a lot of it annoying, but my views have gradually softened on this subject. In fact, they have more than softened—I’ve almost completely reversed my opinion.
My attitude changed because of what I learned while researching and writing four books on the social history of music. I saw that people want music integrated into their day-to-day lives. They crave it. They want to tap into the enchantment of songs outside the concert hall and night club.
They actually perform better—as an athlete or surgeon or sailor or factory worker or whatever—if they can draw on the power of music.
So the problem isn’t that music is everywhere. The real obstacle is that the way this usually happens in out society is corny and uninspiring. When done the right way, the dividing line between background music and foreground music blurs and disappears. Music becomes part of who we are and what we do.
That’s a lovely way to live.
I will write about this again in the future. In particular, I will lay out a whole blueprint for how we achieve this blissful holistic music culture in the final chapter of the book (Music to Raise the Dead) I’m publishing here at The Honest Broker.
Is rock dead?
When rock took off in the late 1950s, many people thought it was just a passing fad. But rock was still going strong in the 1960s—and 1970s and 1980s, etc. At some point, I actually started to assume that rock and roll would never die. The music captured a stance of defiance and independence that somehow appealed to each new generation in turn.
I continued to think that way until sometime during the 1990s. Then everything began to change. A software-and-laptop sensibility started shaping every aspect of commercial music—a song was now something you did on a computer, like coding or building a humongous spreadsheet.
For this same reason, the electric guitar also started disappearing from hit songs, along with flesh-and-blood drummers, and other human instrumentalists. At the epicenter of commercial muisc, people got replaced by digital simulacrums—which were smooth and perfect in every way.
In measured doses this was a good thing, and expanded our sonic palettes. But you can get too much of a good thing.
Then, finally, a rising school of music criticism known as poptimism came to the forefront. Its ascendancy revealed that many people (at least in the journalism field) had long been seething in silence, irritated at guitar heroes, rockstar posturing, and all their dope-smoking fans.
Ah, the poptimists were silent no more. They announced their intention of attacking the rockists and putting them to flight. (The terminology is a little ridiculous, but don’t blame me—I didn’t make up these words, and rarely use them.)
I watched this play out from the sidelines, bemused and uninvolved. I listen to every kind of music, but my most passionate engagements have been with jazz, blues, classical, and world music. So a battle between rock fanatics and pop lovers seemed a wee bit irrelevant to me—it’s like picking which billionaire you like best. I thought back then (and still do today) that the most creative music of our time is rarely made by superstars with huge endorsement deals. As a result, I’ve focused most of my own attention on artists ignored by both the poptimists and the rockists.
I live in the cracks, my friends, moving like a viper through these suburban streets.
Even so, I’m saddened by the idea of rock dying. I look around and see that the most famous names in rock are old people who won’t be around much longer. And even a jazz purist like me admires many of these artists, knowing in my heart of hearts that rock added something fierce and fun and defiant to our culture that we need more than ever right now.
So if rock dies, you won’t find me dancing on its grave.
I’ve written elsewhere about the decline of the counterculture, and the replacement of in-your-face rock with ultra-slick computer-generated pop has clearly contributed to that trend. So if rock makes a comeback, I’ll cheer and applaud and maybe even twist and shout.
But is that even possible?
I listen to a lot of new rock albums, and it’s rare that I hear anything that isn’t just a retread of something somebody else did better long ago. That said, there was a mindset back in those distant days (1967 or 1968) that rockers were allowed to do anything and everything in their music. (Number nine…number nine…number nine….) I believe that rock could really get us twisting and shouting once more in the digital age if we took that notion seriously again.
What’s coming next in music?
For many years, I was naive about music trends—but in fact they follow the exact same pattern as trends in financial markets, currency rates, and other spheres of human activity.
I have written about this elsewhere. But the basic rule is that dominant trends go to an extreme before they reverse. There are all sorts of psychological reasons for this, but I will skip over them here. The key point is that huge culture-defining trends must reach a saturation point before they reverse—and at that juncture, their very dominance creates a stale, stagnant feeling that makes the whole structure vulnerable.
I believe we are currently in such a situation in pop culture right now. We’re like audiences in 1952, who were listening to the pop music of that era, blissfully unaware that rock ‘n’ roll would soon rewrite all the rules of the music business. (By the way I believe something similar occurred around 1600, and again in 1760, and at other junctures in cultural history.)
Something like that will happen to us, too, in the not-so-distant future. You can almost taste it in the complacency of the dominant pop culture businesses, with their tired formulas and endless reboots. A hard rain is gonna fall, and nobody will be safe from the coming storm.
In the near future, I will publish an in-depth article on cultural stagnation, which is more than just an issue in music—it’s everywhere. I will assess to what degree we are experiencing it right now, and try to predict what will happen next.
Will your Substack book Music to Raise the Dead appear in print form.
In theory, I plan to have a print edition. In practice, the Honest Broker doesn’t really enjoy peddling his wares to decision makers and their teams at the establishment publishing houses. If I spend too much time doing that, I wear out the knees on my pants.
So I haven’t begun the process of making a print edition happen. In the meantime, I continue to publish it online for my subscribers—at the rate of roughly one chapter per month.
In a way, delaying makes perfect sense from a business angle. For whatever reason, the number of readers here has been skyrocketing, doubling every few months. So my leverage with publishers—who obsess over metrics of this sort to an unhealthy degree—increases over time. In other words, they would be better off negotiating with me now rather than in 12-18 months, but I benefit from delaying. And if the process ends up taking some time, maybe I won’t need new slacks after all.
Where will your archives go when you die?
I’ve seen how some archives work, and it’s often depressing. I once visited a very renowned archive, and asked to see some rare oral histories held in their collection—and they couldn’t find many of them. These invaluable documents had disappeared, without a trace. But I wasn’t surprised, because the environment at the archive was chaotic, and security seemed non-existent.
In other instances, I’ve talked with archivists who seem burned out, and act as if their collections are heavy burdens—and perhaps they are. When I tell them that I might be able to convince well-known musicians to donate their materials, a look of horror spreads over their faces. I even had an archivist tell me outright: “No, no, no! We really don’t want materials donated—just tell them to give us money instead.”
Gosh, if only life always worked that way. Don’t give me any work to do. Just send me a check.
I know I’m going to hear a lot of complaints from archivists for sharing these stories. And I’m sure there are many fine, trustworthy repositories out there, and devoted people working in the trenches. But my firsthand experiences are what they are—and make me cautious about donating my personal archive.
Maybe I won’t have to make a decision on this. Both my sons have scholarly interests, and perhaps they will want to take over my library and research materials. It’s too soon to say anything conclusive about that. So I will defer this decision for a few years, at least.
What have you been watching lately?
I got so many promising recommendations from readers here. Because of their input, I added around 20 movies and TV series to my watch list. So far, I have seen (and praise) Drops of God, Hell or High Water, Derry Girls, and Halt and Catch Fire.
That was fun—so let’s do it again. If you have a question you’d like me to answer, share it in the comments section.