This is the full text of Tim Mohr's response to <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/20/opinion/20brooks.html?ex=1196226000&en=d332245a02761b71&ei=5070&emc=eta1">this piece</a> by David Brooks. I copied the whole thing because Mohr writes for playboy.com, a place none of you could probably go to read his essay.
I think Mohr is 100% right on about the idea of the calcification of musical tastes, and not just by Baby Boomers (even though they are the most prime target). I know lots of people who just stopped listening to music after college, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. People are into different stuff, and new music slides down the priority list for a lot of people (if it was even on the list at all). I get that completely.
The problem I have (and apparently share with Mohr) is when people who don't even listen to new music try to tell me how terrible music is these days or groan that there just isn't anything to listen to. There is <i>so much</i> good music around it isn't even funny. You just have to look for it actively, as opposed to it being counted down each week by the guy who did the voice of Shaggy on Scooby Doo (and Robin on SuperFriends).
Tim Mohr from playboy.com:
Before I wade into yesterday’s David Brooks piece, The Segmented Society, let me first make an admission: Yes, I know, attacking Brooks—or the Times in general, for that matter—on matters of pop culture is akin to shooting fish in a barrel. And yes, it’s clear this is a disingenuous effort on the part of the Old Gray Lady to generate coverage in the blogosphere, where someone with Brooks’ scarce knowledge should by all rights simply be ignored. But hey, if he and the Times insist on getting in our grill, I’ll grudgingly administer a smacking.
So here goes.
David Brooks, you, sir, are a jackass.
Let’s start with the basics: Polarization and fragmentation are not the same thing. Indeed, they are almost diametrically opposed concepts. “People are anxious about fragmentation and longing for cohesion,” Brooks suggests, moving on to attempt to draw a false analogy between his view of the music landscape and that of the political landscape. “This is the driving fear behind the inequality and immigration debates,” he writes.
Actually, the immigration debate is an attempt to conflate polarization and fragmentation, to create two polarized blocks—“real” Americans and illegal (Mexican) immigrants—rather than address the much more complicated, and stratified, socio-economic (and ethnic) reality. Debates on inequality are not based on anxiety about fragmentation, either. The concerns there are about the possibility that economic policy, and particularly tax policy, is pushing us not toward a fragmented society but toward one divided into two polarized blocks—the haves and the have-nots. This is the same concern often expressed about the seemingly intractable red state-blue state divide, too—political affiliations losing the segmentation along issue lines that used to be able to create some flux—and Obama’s “no white America, no black America” rhetoric to which Brooks also alludes. This should be simple stuff for a reporter: Polarization bad. Fragmentation, on the other hand, especially within a manageable spectrum, is far less problematic. And when it comes to the music marketplace, it’s the best thing ever to happen.
But let me explain, by examining Brooks’ ideas about music.
“People who have built up cultural capital and pride themselves on their superior discernment,” Brooks asserts, “are naturally going to cultivate ever more obscure musical tastes.” This is one of those broken-record complaints of the square. People without a clue about music console themselves with the false notion that people who do are just willfully obscurist. (Just as geeks console themselves with the false notion that all jocks are dumb.) In reality, it’s just a question of whether you are open to new music or not. If your tastes ossified when you exited the frat house basement upon graduation, you will be damned to write pieces about thirty and forty year old bands and how great everything was in the old days because for you, everything going forward is obscure, and becomes more so each year removed from the last time you actively listened to new music. Naturally, if you continue to listen to new music, you—duh—listen to new music. The music isn’t obscure; it’s obscure to David Brooks and others of his ilk for whom music is set in aspic.
For people who are open to new music, this is a golden era—the greatest era, in fact. Fragmentation hasn’t been foisted upon us by marketers or music corporations. Nothing could be further from the truth. (The incessant whining of the music industry and the closure of the Tower records chain might have alerted a more astute journalist to the fact that the changes underway are not industry-driven.) The major music labels would love to be able to continue flogging diamond-selling LPs on the buying public forever; segmentation is the last thing they want. Fragmentation has been achieved despite marketers and the industry.
In the past, the industry functioned as a valve. On one side of the valve new music bubbled around in a relatively small and impoverished underground. On the other were record buyers—that was where the big money was. The valve itself was controlled by the few major music conglomerates—they decided what and how to market to buyers. That set-up began to show signs of vulnerability with the re-emergence of independent record labels in the 1980s and into the 1990s. And now, with digitalization, that constricting valve—which was only possible because of the limitations of physical distribution—is a useless relic. Consumers and musicians can get in touch directly, meaning there is no longer any distinction between underground and mainstream. Combined with the plummeting costs of recording, sequencing and mixing, this has caused a thrilling proliferation of new music—but stokes fears among those who are unsure how they will discover new music now that they must be much more self-reliant in this area (not to mention the fears it stokes in the industry, which can no longer extort fans to buy albums from what are really mostly singles artists).
Which is to say, Brooks has it exactly backwards. Whereas he bemoans marketing as the source of all this evil fragmentation, the opposite is true—he is at sea because marketers are no longer able to consolidate the music market to create albums capable of selling ten million copies. It hardly needs saying, but for anyone who loves music, this is a good thing—and one certainly hopes Little Steven, who, quoted in the Brooks piece, also champions little-known garage bands of today as well as bands from bygone eras who were unable to navigate their way past the industry gatekeepers, feels the same way.
But perhaps not, judging by the article’s next egregious point. Brooks attributes to Little Steven the idea that “most young musicians don’t know the roots and traditions of their music. They don’t have broad musical vocabularies to draw on when they are writing songs.” This is a perfect example of the way baby boomers are blinded by their self-absorption. Yes, Keith Richards knew Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed. But it’s not as if the possible antecedents for music stopped with Chicago blues. Take the contemporary new rave scene. David Brooks may not be aware of the Prodigy, but the Klaxons sure as hell are, and those are the roots of their music. (The Prodigy were also assimilating a number of influences themselves, especially hip-hop and acid house.) Same goes for Gang of Four and their legacy among the angular guitar bands of the last few years, like Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand. And even for acts from the same baby boomer era Brooks addresses—whether they were non-rock like Serge Gainsbourg or experimental like Silver Apples—who became part of the musical vocabulary of later generations. Today’s rockers are not ahistorical, they just don’t over-inflate the importance of baby boomers’ canonical history, as the boomers themselves do.
One of the greatest things about pop music is the way it changes. And its transience is something to be celebrated, not decried. Pop has never operated in a vacuum; it’s always been tied to youth culture niches. Sometimes it’s trivial—“The Twist,” “The Humpty Dance,” Soulja Boy’s “Crank That.” Sometimes it feels more substantial—the songs that soundtracked the Summer of Love, anti-Thatcherite protest music, Eminem’s anti-Bush “Mosh” released during the run-up to the 2004 election. And even rock addressing seemingly timeless themes like young love is rooted in time and place—think about the difference between the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl” and Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” despite their having been recorded just a few years apart in the same state.
Songs and styles mark ephemeral moments in time. And time did not stop when boomers’ listening habits calcified. The evolutionary course of pop is inexorable—and should be. God forbid we get stuck listening to the Eagles, Pink Floyd and Boston (to name a few artists with the diamond-certified albums Brooks seems to cherish). Man, I lived through classic rock radio as boomers like Brooks spent the 1980s remembering their glory days. If they’re the ones defining it I say screw “this thing called rock,” as Brooks describes it, and f*ck their need for self-affirmation through mass shared experiences like a Bruce Springsteen arena show.