James Batcho, PhD | Popular Music’s Two Great Eras (a thesis)
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Popular Music’s Two Great Eras (a thesis)

CHIANG MAI. There are, to me, two great eras of popular music.

1967-1977: The first era begins with Sgt. Pepper. This isn’t to claim that it’s The Beatles’ best album, but it set the tone for what was possible in popular music, an era of experimentation that lasted for 10 years. Not just psychedelic or prog, but everyone was experimenting during this period, trying different things, stretching the conventions of a “song.” There were so many other bands during the early period that helped shape what came (Pink Floyd, The Doors, Jimi, on and on…), but The Beatles were the model. This period died by 1978 as prog rock overdosed on itself (interesting how many epic prog swan songs were released in ’77) and folk ran out of things to say. In between you also had Motown, master singer/songwriters, and some of history’s greatest crooners.1

1989-1994: The second era begins with The Cure’s Disintegration. 1989 was a year when glam metal and all its vain posturing was mercifully dying out; British pop, before it was named “Britpop,” was cinematic, atmospheric and moody; and passion and inventiveness were re-emerging (I’m thinking here of Sinead O’Connor, Fishbone and Jane’s Addiction breaking through, ’89 being the middle point between the two best albums for all three of them). Things exploded in 1990, rivaling ’69 for the best single year in pop music. This was the time of grunge, but we can’t forget the women who broke through: Tori Amos’ rupture; Edie Brickell’s depth; Bjork’s cosmic inception (yes, I’m being allusive here). These were not singer-songwriters or celebrities with pipes but courageous artists. I’d like to pick on someone to blame for the death of this era—faux grunge like Seven Mary Three, Bush and Three Doors Down ruined everything, as did media labeling—but in truth everything diminished after Kurt Cobain died.2

An interesting question is what happened during the dead years. What went badly between 1977 and 1989? And what has happened since 1994? Both feel like periods of loss—a loss of experimentation, hope, sincerity. Perhaps it was mind-opening illicit drugs giving way to doctor-prescribed mind-closing drugs. Perhaps it was careerism and technological abuse (MIDI in the 80s, cell phones today). To me, punk shoulders a lot of the blame for the psychocultural damage it did. In some ways it was necessary damage, but it took years for bands to shake off the shame and to regain the courage to be intense and sincere and bold at the same time. As punk became the unconsciousness of all popular music, its conscious expressions became commodified. An insecurity over the appearance of self-indulgence brims under the surface and combines with a need to formulate passion into a consciously marketable package: a punk-branded capitalism, antithetical to all punk was. So it’s a double loss given rise by punk: a fear of sincerity and a commercialization of feeling. We’ve never gotten over this. The reason grunge worked is because it combined the disillusionment of punk, the loftiness of musicianship, and grandeur of its melodies. Listen to “Drown” by Smashing Pumpkins and you hear an entire era in a single song—sadness, joy, gravity, flight, sincerity, attitude, experimentation and musicianship—but only if you take in all of it and really listen, the entire 8-plus minutes.

There was a ton of great music in between 1977 and 1989. There’s some good music to be found now too. But there’s no wave, no movement to break this structure of consciousness, then or now. I’d like to think we’re due for a new one, but there would have to be a sense in the zeitgeist that things are rising rather than falling. We’re not there, not in an era that continues to fear sincerity with a brand new hyperconsciousness on appearances; not during this emphasis on one’s personal product; not while we allow machines and automation to compose and perform the music while media proliferation and algorithms direct people’s attentions. Passion is a scary thing in this Trumpist age, so information triumphs over raw emotion and becomes the new savior. This is why we find very little protest in popular music. It’s more difficult to gather around something bigger than oneself in a world of continuous and immediate gratification. The only soul or sense of experimentation to be found in music isn’t something that’s going to “happen.” It will have to be found individually in hidden alleys, by going out to a club and seeing/hearing what’s going on in the neighborhood. There are still people out there with skill and courage on actual instruments, making great music as a band of listeners. But you gotta go out and find it.

1 Not pop, but this was also a really wild period in jazz.

2 Not pop, but this was also a time when the “new classical” thing was taking shape (Arvo Part, ECM), as were world-ambient-dub projects (Bill Laswell, Adrian Sherwood, Jah Wobble) and “post-rock” (Talk Talk up to Tortoise).