David Brooks Mourns Passing Of Simpler, More Innocent Time In Media; Is Troubled By Crazy Noise The Kids Listen To; Raises Concerns He Is Actually 400 Years Old

Posted by: Jon Fine on November 20, 2007

Under the guise of writing about a segmented society, the New York TImes’ David Brooks ends up flogging a very, very tired (and distressingly baby boomer-culture-centric) argument about the perils of media choice in today’s column.

He’s basically bummed out that there is no longer one unifying Rock Culture:

But cultural history has pivot moments, and at some point toward the end of the 1970s or the early 1980s, the era of integration gave way to the era of fragmentation. There are now dozens of niche musical genres where there used to be this thing called rock.

(snip)

Back in the Feb. 18, 1982, issue of Time, Jay Cocks wrote that American music was in splinters. But year after year, the segmentation builds.

I’ve been disgorging the following rap at public events and in private conversation for a while now, but I think this is the first time I’ve actually written it down. Here goes:

I went to high school in suburban New Jersey between 1981 and 1985. Commercial radio formats stunk. At that time, I knew there was this thing called “punk rock”—Rolling Stone acknowledged its existence, even, although it barely wrote anything about it. But knowing it existed didn’t mean you could, you know, find it.

You did not hear it on the radio. You did not see it in stores in the ‘burbs, which might—might—have had one copy of the Sex Pistols album and one record by an American band like Dead Kennedys of Black Flag. You did not read about it in the mass media of the day. It did not dent MTV playlists. (There wasn’t one Beatles-on-Ed Sullivan-moment—to put this in Brooks’ clichéd phraseology—for this music culture, because no major media outlet granted it airtime.) There was a small underground, of ‘zines and college radio and the one or two clubs in each state that booked these bands. But there was no way to access it without knowing people who knew people, and scrawny, socially maladroit, severely uncool high schoolers had a hard time knowing the people who knew people.

And even after you got hooked into that world, you could often hear about records that would take you years to find.

Today, of course, MySpaceYouTubelast.fm/mtv2, you name it, and the barriers are down. My younger relatives do not bother buying CDs, and yet they are exposed to volumes of bands and forms of music I could not have ever imagined as a scrawny, socially maladroit etc. suburban teen.

For some reason, this is not a net improvement for David Brooks. He also can’t resist putting on the grandpa hat and grumbling about this horrible noise the kids listen to:

And [Little Steven] says 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.

As a result, much of their music (and here I’m bowdlerizing his language) stinks.

Which is a much easier way for Brooks to put in than ‘I don’t understand the music that’s developed since I was paying attention to rock music, and I don’t want to put in the time it would take to do so.”

But, whatever. All I can tell you is that I grew up in at the tail end of the era that Brooks apparently lionizes, when choices were limited by media formats anda thousand subgenres had yet to bloom.

It sucked.

There is a past era to which David Brooks wishes to return, one in which he understood the music influencing the popular and semipopular culture, and one in which choices were largely made for him.

I was there for part of it, too. And I do not share his nostalgia.

Reader Comments

hr

November 21, 2007 1:19 PM

Amen.

If I have to read one more Brooks hack piece I am going to burn my subscription to the Times.

Don

November 21, 2007 2:18 PM

You will never, ever, not as many times as you write this convince a baby boomer that their freedom of 1966 was your oppression of 1979. There are many records they deem classic that I run out of the room away from because they were "the man" forcing this down my throat, or ears, whichever is a less disgusting concept.

Specifically, when my whole life is ahead of me at age 7, why did my teachers always break into Carol King's "It's Too Late Baby." No. I was 7. It WASN'T too late baby, the time was NOW and I was LIVING IT. That song is singularly wrong.

For Little Steven, one of the most knowledgeable Sopranos castmembers, to suggest that a lack of quality in music is because teenage rock musicians don't know the basis of where their music comes from is bizarre at best and dangerous at worst. There is no prerequisite to rock and that egalitarianness is EXACTLY why the teenage garage band of the 1960s that Little Steven lionizes is the penultimate experience of traditional rock and roll. The Kids Didn't Know what they were doing and they did it anyway! The kids didn't know the roots of the soul music that the Beatles and Rolling Stones stole and in American suburban bands aping British bands mimicking African-American soul bands you had a strange mix of unknowing styles that formed a perfect storm.

In computer programming this is generally called 3GL. On the web, it would be Web 2.0. It is the synergy that business demands from innovators.

Within that there is no requirement that 18 year olds in 2007 understand the Treniers. In fact, I will go out on a limb and suggest that understanding would hamper innovation by lionizing the past.

Then, as if Brooks's theory wasn't strange enough, I challenge him to answer this question: The segmentation in the music market is primarily a force of African-American affluence which allowed for successful radio stations and outlets to cater specifically to wealthier African-Americans who didn't need to be marginalized like they were by media prior to the civil rights movement. The primary outlet for what, in the 1940s was called "race music" was never radio, it was jukeboxes. With the destruction of Jim Crow and segregation came market segmentation. Does David Brooks secretly wish for a return to Jim Crow where the only music on the radio was music for the status quo? How can he answer this question without betraying the dreaded "fear of rap."

Atom Moiety

November 21, 2007 2:41 PM


I applaud the segmentation of music. I'm glad it doesn't cost $4K a day in a $500K studio to make a record anymore. I applaud the rise of amateur culture: 1000 monkeys typing randomly on 1000 typewriters for 1000 years and one of them is bound to type the King James Bible. OK so Brooks sounds like a geezer but he makes good points. Punk today isn't the Anti-Flag or TSOL I listened to on boom boxes while skating ramps in 1985. Its earliest reference point seems to be Green Day. Most indie rock is a tireless rehash and footnote to Weezer, if you can even believe that's possible. Did you catch the Sex pistols reunion on Saturday Night Live? It was a joke compared to a Springsteen concert. To me it sounds like Brooks is saying where are the SONGS? Why can't skinny suburban white kids tap into the mystery handed down in the Pentatonic Minor scale brought over on slave ships? Contrast a prominent 1930s delta blues artist to the indie/emo/electroclash flavor of the week. You might get some sex, some fashion, and a catchy HOOK, but you ain't gonna get a SONG. Where is the new John Lennon with a laptop, appropriating black music and then creating a music that's entirely new from what's left? It sure isn't Conor Oberst. The grandeur of those 1970s bands, while often imitated, has never been matched or surpassed. Do you think the concert business model is sustainable with no acts that can draw 20,000 people?

Jon Fine

November 21, 2007 3:07 PM

Atom,
Comparing a Sex Pistols reunion to Springsteen today is a false choice (although, for the record, I’d choose the Pistols reunion if “none of the above” were not an option). And while the last thing I want to do is to defend emo’s flavor of the moment (or emo anything, or Conor Oberst), I don’t agree with the implied notion that rock music has to be based on either the blues or pentatonic scales. I mean, really, why? Let’s get new approaches inot the mix. Let a million new forms open up, etc. Let each generation make its own new rules. Not much gets interesting until the old rules get broken anyway, as we’re endlessly reminded. Also, given the explosion in distribution, the new thing could well have been invented 453 times over by now, but you might not ever hear it unless you’re paying very close attention. The surfeit of content creates its own problems, it’s true, but they’re far more preferable problems to have.

--Jon

Robwein

November 21, 2007 4:00 PM

The music argument is just a cover for Brooks' larger, and simpler, problem--he wishes he was young again. And he can never be. We all feel that way sometimes, but the rest of us don't whine about "these kids today" in the paper of record.

John Bates

November 21, 2007 4:46 PM

I *do* know about rock/popular music. I grew up with it. Had a strong dose of C&W growing up too. My sister in law went down into the bayous, found Mississippi John Hurt and recorded his blues for the modern era. I grew up in Kansas City where the best music was black music.
So I know rock, blues, jazz, and pop and I've followed it ever since, and it has flowed unerringly downhill.
Today's kids are the victims of some of the most over-marketed, under-creative popular music ever. It can't decide whether it wants to be vapid or violent. Creativity, musicianship, and talent all peaked more than twenty years ago and it's been downhill ever since. Popular music today isn't fragmented into niches, it is in fragments on the floor, and the only thing that keeps it going is the relentless marketing of the record companies and the media outlets that feed off their products and so-called stars.

Larry Gassan

November 21, 2007 6:17 PM

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be, and never was. In 1968 I clearly remembered a cavalier dismissal of Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller, and the Dorsey Brothers as being hopelessly passe etc. Anyone cued up Country Joe Fish recently without cringing? In 1982 there were earnest discussions as to how the Clash had sold out, when in reality they were learning how to play better. And however sucky it might sound to you today, eventually that model will be buried by something coming up.

Nick

November 21, 2007 7:45 PM

Interesting article and comments. Yeah, this guy Brooks does indeed sound like another whiny baby-boomer pining away for the album-oriented rock formatting of his lost youth, but he does have a point. So much of today's popular music is totally devoid of character, creativity or passion. You really have to ignore the major record labels and radio conglomerates and go searching off the beaten path to find some truly original and satisfying music.

As a fellow product of the 1970s and 80s NJ suburbs, I would heartily agree with Jon Fine, and I'd bet we listened to many of the same stations. But I would just add one small point of clarification: commercial radio still stinks. I now have several years of experience working for a major radio corporation under my belt, and in many ways it was a very sickening experience. If you cringe just listening to some of the crappy homegenized formats, DJs and playlists on the radio, imagine working for these buffoons. That's a mistake I'll never make again.

Luke

November 24, 2007 6:53 AM

The absolute (and ironic) ignorance of music history displayed by the initial author and frankly, by these follow-up comments is appalling.

I may agree with Brooks' philosophical point, though he points to the wrong era and the wrong artists. Musicians MAY have indeed gotten "worse" over time (if there is such a thing as "better" or "worse" in artistic terms). Music may have peaked in the early 1900s with the atonal scratches in Stravinsky (all aural revolutions following owing to his spirit, if not his compositional frameworks). Maybe music, formally, reached its apex with Shostakovich and conceptually with Schoenberg.

However, to even vaguely suggest that the (admittedly exciting) guitar middling of certain 60s rock n' roll acts and the more-inferior commercially inclined childish inferiority of teen idols (including the Beatles) is the apex of anything displays a REAL ignorance of music history. To suggest that today's musicians all-in-all lack the knowledge of some of yesterday's without knowing very much about either is absurd. Brook's understanding of music history seems plainly pathetic, ESPECIALLY the music of today, which he thinks is poor on in its commercial relations to the commercial music HE listened to in the past (which wasn't particularly unique, either).

There may be another reason, musicians have gotten "worse" ... more interesting art forms. After all, what was the real dominant ART form of the 20th century? What was the youngest art form? Film. I'd say recorded music was a close second, but musical composition was further behind.

Now, if anything, the Internet represents the exact opposite of Brooks' (uninformed) thesis. The Internet creates an opportunity for those who can't afford conservatory or art school to be exposed to the most obscure of artists and art forms. How else could a kid in central China come upon Washington, D.C.s mid-90s post-hardcore boom or the works of Ligeti or the paintings of Laylah Ali or the films of Richard Kelly?

Conversely, the shrinking world of the Internet has been responsible, I think, for the reinvigoration of popular music in American and elsewhere ... not popular meaning what's on the radio (which, I believe, has always been fairly pathetic), but popular in terms of form. The best example of this I think is right home in New York City (well, Brooklyn), where a host of experimental pop bands have begun fusing world music influences (strange percussions, pan-ethnic instruments) with rock instrumentation and song structures (drum kits, keyboards, etc.).

I simply find it hilarious when people comment on something as experts when so little of their knowledge is focused on that "something." I find Brooks one of the last likely authorities on the history of rock n' roll, an art form born of basements and youth. Obviously, Brooks doesn't know where to find the "good" art when he probably spends his days in an office doing phone interviews and library research, driving home around the same time every day to do the same thing every night. Meanwhile, in basements and warehouses across the country (and increasingly across the world), an art culture of music, movies and media thrives.

Sheila

November 26, 2007 5:32 PM

Why do I have the feeling that this jagoff (nice tie, Davebo) is one of the people who said Kurt Cobain was the Voice Of His Generation - because there just HAD to be ONE and only ONE, right? And this guy had to be IT, because he was DEAD?

Furthermore, was anyone else was unlucky enough to catch the Eagles interview on 60 Minutes? A better argument against "acts that draw 20,000 people" never have I seen.

And another note: the top song of 1969 was not by the Beatles, Janis Joplin or any other sainted Rock & Roll Hall of Fame denizen. It was "Sugar Sugar" by the Archies. Thank God for unifying rock culture!!

Fred

December 5, 2007 1:18 AM

For all this alienation David Brooks experiences, you would think he'd be a better writer, struggling to express his inner self. Guess it doesn't work that way when you're old.

Post a comment

 

About

The media world continues to shapeshift as new forms arise and old assumptions erode. On this blog, Bloomberg Businessweek will provide sharp analysis and timely reports on the transformation of this constantly changing terrain.

Categories

 

BW Mall - Sponsored Links

Buy a link now!