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.
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.