Who cares if guitar music isn’t part of the mainsteam, and why is pop culture so important in the first place? It’s a fair question, and one I often ask myself. After all, the digital age has allowed increasingly minute niches to flourish, creating tiny economies of scale, leading to an absolute boom of creativity on the fringe.
Whether it’s splicing guitars with African drums or warping together wryd folk with progressive guitar solos, the 21st century has seen the world of the weird and wonderful flourish. In the 70s visionary artists like The Pop Group couldn’t hope to last for more than a couple of years (after all musicians have to pay the bills too) while today a wonderfully eclectic artist like Sufjan Stevens can explore his most grandiose and wilfully challenging conceptions without having to sacrifice his artistic vision or his standard of living. In fact, the niche and reunion market is now so strong now that The Pop Group have been able to reform and tour a range of venues that they could have only dreamt of gracing in their 1979 prime.
Innovation in guitar music is of course alive and well; Animal Collective are transforming their strained notes into reflective aquatic shimmers, Fang Island are struggling to contain their unwieldy spiralling riffage, while even Dave Gilmour would be lost for words, and perhaps a little scared, if he heard Mastadon’s snarling thirteen minute progressive metal marathons.
Simply put, the artistry is there to be found, and it’s as fascinating and exhilarating as ever, the problem, therefore is finding, supporting and encouraging the next generation. The responsibility lies, in part, with the artist, the more they shun the mainstream the more they limit their potential influence.
Popular Culture or the mainstream is still the primary force for shaping our artistic environment and documenting our cultural/societal movements. The radio waves, music television, and even major Internet sites like YouTube and Spotify shape our collective experience and inform the next generation of artists.
Trends in music have always been direct reactions or responses to popular culture, and the ever-changing zeitgeist. It’s a simple notion, but between 1997-2001 when the Nu-Metal craze came into vogue the sales of Deejay decks rose and the sales of electric guitars dipped nationwide, similarly, during the post-Strokes indie revival that trend was snapped and reversed in the UK. Ask any guitar shop owner and he’ll tell you that when a scene like grunge or a guitarist like Jack White are prevalent in our culture the sales of guitars go up.
Today, Rock isn’t moving from one generation defining trend to the next, Punk isn’t blowing prog aside, and post-punk isn’t rising out of punk’s ashes, as it did in the 70s and 80s, instead we are watching a slow decline, a retraction and a disappearance from the mainstream. Today’s scene isn’t defined by a new sound (sorry Chillwave) but instead by a reunion craze and an obsession with the past. Where the hottest ticket in town is Rage Against The Machine, where seeing Soft Bulletin or Daydream Nation played in full is more important than seeing the next big thing, and where having an encyclopaedic knowledge of rock’s past is more relevant than being able to identify the next big thing.
We asked Roger Waters’ guitar genius David Kilminister on the eve of Jack White’s decision to disband The White Stripes why he fell in love with guitar playing and what he thinks of today’s scene, and his reply was complex, nostalgic, but entirely typical:
“Personally I spend way too much time on the computer now, and I guess if I'd had a computer when I was growing up then I probably wouldn't have practiced half as much.
I also think that radio is partly to blame, because when I grew up I was listening to all this amazing music on the radio all day: Queen, 10cc, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Chic, Thin Lizzy, The Beatles, Steely Dan, Black Sabbath, Michael Jackson, the Who, the Eagles, the Carpenters, Stevie Wonder, the Police, Elton John, ELO, Deep Purple, Nazareth, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Status Quo, Wings, Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, etc, etc, etc... There was so much GREAT stuff.
It's a major reason why I play music, because I heard all these great songs and I felt inspired. To be honest if I grew up listening to mainstream radio now I probably wouldn't even be a musician…society seems more geared towards instant gratification now, no one has the patience for anything.”
It would be easy to dismiss Dave Kilminster as an old guitarist reacting to a scene that he simply doesn’t understand, but he’s actually hit the nail firmly on the head, identifying both the danger and a major symptom of the problem.
Major label bosses, TV and radio executives and most importantly A&R men have been well aware of the retrospective trend in rock, and as a reaction to plummeting world wide sales and the stagnation of rock as a genre, they are erring towards the safe bet, the reunion tour, the plush reissue package, the immediate hit and acts that sell NOW.
Money, TV time and huge promotional assistance are being directed away from new guitar music, away from music’s future and towards more immediate, and arguably, more transient endeavours. Minimizing risk and maximizing profits with low risk investments is the order of the day. Music remains top down industry and for better or worse label bosses still set the pop culture agenda and, in large part, the festival circuit follows suit (only Sonisphere has taken a real risk this year by backing new headliners).
The next generation isn’t being afforded the chance it once was, the past refuses to disappear, it lingers and it’s pushing modernity to one side. Taking investment, advertising and support mechanisms away from those acts who could turn the world on it’s head, denying the guitar legends of tomorrow the access to the mainstream and the chance to inspire the next generation, not in small pockets but en mass.
The present competes with the past not online or in record stores, but in the mainstream, suffocating innovation as Nirvana videos loop on Kerrang and as we all sit at out laptops, open Spotify, YouTube and iTunes and decide; “should I listen to this new record that might be good, or should I check out The Beatles or Hendrix or Floyd or Dylan or Metallica”. It’s all there, it never disappears from record scores, because the shop space is now infinite and the choice unlimited.
The ultimate problem with the past, and with this unparalleled breadth of choice, is that it can’t be moulded. Movements and shared experiences cannot be created when individual choice is so dominant, while I investigate Public Image Limited, you discover Van Halen and your best friend becomes enamoured with Jay-Z. This generation’s blossoming infatuation with the past cannot be channelled, the British invasion or the ascendency of hair metal can be revisited but we can’t and aren’t all doing it at once and we certainly aren’t doing it together. It’s a fundamentally disparate experience. Past revolutions cannot be remarketed (only reinterpreted) and they can’t define the cultural movements of today, they belong to a bygone era and they cannot fulfil the role of popular culture in 2011.
The future may well see the world selling less of more, but it condemns us to scour in ever increasing isolation, making those great moments of social and cultural unity more illusive, and making those generation defining axe men who everyone can name, no matter personal taste, a relic of the not so distant past.
Jack White might well be the last of a generation, but of course trends can change and many believe that the world of guitar music is cyclical, and the next big star or scene is waiting right around the corner. They may well be right, but as the industry and traditional media throw in the towel, one thing is for certain, the next great revolution in guitar playing is going to be built from the ground up and may well coming flying out of left field.
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