In search of “new” music
Music, as we now know it in North America, developed out of a long history of social and cultural movements. The evolution can be traced back hundreds of years so for the sake of relevance I will jump right into twentieth-century, post-WWI society.
American music has its roots buried deep into jazz, blues, folk, country and gospel music, all of which emerged out of the Caribbean and the southern-most rural states during the 1920s. Many white, middle-class Americans were having their first exposure to what they called “black” or “race” music with blues musicians such as Mamie Smith.
During these early years the different genres of music were relatively segregated from each other. Blues styles tended to develop locally in places like Louisiana but the Great Depression forced many poor musicians to move north to New York City or Chicago.
Jazz was urbanized on a more general scale and took advantage of blues’ popularity by borrowing overarching song structures but focusing more on instrumentation. Because jazz was able to reach a wider audience than blues it was able to approach new listeners who would be more open to what was seen as “unconventional” blues.
Interestingly enough this migration of blues musicians into more urbanized cities, and the resulting melting pot of music and culture, was initially perceived as having a negative effect on society. The movement, while advocating civil and social justice, was blamed for the moral degeneration of the middle-class, white youth that frequented the bars where these musicians would play.
By the middle of the 1930s jazz had made its way into the mainstream through its influence on big band and swing music.
The idea of “mainstream music” as we conceive of it today could be observed by this time as major labels and promoters had awakened to the big business potential of getting artists to endorse products and instruments.
With World War II, the increased use of radio and rapidly growing domestic markets the 1940s, which culminated in the birth of rock and roll in 1949. Artists like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Bill Haley were eager to jump on the flourishing Chicago jazz and blues scene with their own special addition, electric guitars.
Lyrics like “Yeah they said you was high-classed … well, that was just a lie” from Presley’s “Hound Dog” reverberates an anti-establishment undertone in rock music that would become more obvious in years to come.
As this counterculture began to develop out of the 1940s hipsters of jazz, blues and rock, country music and gospel began to find its way into this American melting pot as a result of changing circumstances for the “status quo” for most of its listeners.
The Golden Age of gospel was also a reaction to changing circumstances, in this case the rise of secularization, which later evolved into the soul and R&B of musicians like Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Ray Charles.
In the 1960s, music was characterized as often having direct links to things like the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, sexual revolution, feminism, environmentalism and Black Power. This politicization of music allowed what was called the “folk roots revival” in 1966 with artists like Bob Dylan who emphasized lyrical and personal composition.
Although the 1960s exploded culturally with the British Invasion of bands like The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and rising stars like Jimi Hendrix mesmerizing thousands at Woodstock 1969, the optimism of the era was short-lived. The 1970s brought the death of Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison as well as the breakup of The Beatles.
With these central figures lost the movement lost a huge amount of its inertia and wound up splitting apart into the many subgenres that still compete for market dominance today. Bands began to essentially “do their own thing” and the music became less about the movement and the community and more about the image and the lifestyle.
Today we are over-stimulated by commercial music and it does not seem likely that music will ever be able to exist again on such a free and personal level. REM saw commercial success following the split of genres as “the alternative band” and because of that labels now always look for a blueprint band to represent whatever is the “new” genre and then emulate it to irrelevancy.
This blueprint was used to gauge the new grunge genre with Nirvana and Kurt Cobain. In the same way that this process killed Cobain, it is killing our music and, effectively, our identity and meaning.