Music is Dead, Long Live The Apps

Jaron Lanier wrote quite a bit about the affairs of the current pop music scene – there is the open letter to DJ Spooky, and then the say ideas are laid out in his book “You Are Not a Gadget.” (In particular see chapter 9 – “Retropolis”.) The leitmotif is that the music has stagnated in the recent years, especially with the proliferation of the Internet as the dominant cultural medium. In the twentieth century every decade or so brought about a revolution in music and consequently in the popular culture. Jazz in the 20’s, blues in the 30’s, swing in the 40’s, rock’n’roll in the 50’s, psychedelic rock in the 60’s, punk in the 70’s, hip-hop in the 80’s – and then it stopped. The constant stream of cultural revolutions spearheaded by the music dwindled out.┬áHe attributes this situation to the bias of the new digital culture towards re-appropriation and mash-ups. That lack of new music is due to the people constantly bringing back and re-mashing the old stuff. I am simplifying quite a bit here for the sake of brevity – please read Mr. Lanier’s own words to get his full opinion, his books are a very engaging read.

I remember thinking along similar lines in the late nineties, feeling that the revolution was overdue and wondering what it would be like when it arrives, what kind of musical genres will emerge. And looking back from 2015 I have to agree – it never did arrive. And I understand the feeling that Jaron Lanier expresses – that of disappointed bewilderment: “What went wrong?” It is natural for an inquisitive mind to start looking for an answer to that question. In his open letter to DJ Spooky he proposed six possible reasons of why things went so wrong each very interesting and thoughtful. I would like to argue with Jaron, but not with his proposed answers, but with the very question he’s asking.

Nothing went wrong. The cultural revolution happened, but unlike the previous ones it was not spearheaded by music. And I think that he is very right to suspect that the Internet is the culprit here. The 20th century was rules by the unidirectional broadcasting – radio and television. (There is, of course, the publishing world as well, also unidirectional, and it did contribute to the phenomenon of music popularity, but to a much lesser degree.) In that world music in the form of a song was the perfect candidate to lead a cultural revolution. It has high emotional content, message distilled and crystallized, and delivered to the millions. It is no coincidence that the TV brought both the protests in Selma and Montgomery and the concert of Elvis right into your living room.

All that changed with the Internet and its multi-casting structure, especially when web 2.0 came of age and gave us first LiveJournal and MySpace, then Facebook, Twitter and the rest. The need to look up to a pop icon to express how you feel – or make you feel whatever they expressed – has vanished. Things changed a bit, got very fragmented – a meme or a tweet carries a lot less cultural content than a song – but the revolution happened there, on Twitter and Snapchat, not on LPs or CDs. The kids who wanted to “be in a band” in the 70s or “make beats” in the 80s now want to have a YouTube channel or make an app. Elvis and Tupac Shakur were replaced by Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.

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