For most people, only one name comes to mind: John Philip Sousa. Yet over a century ago, in America at least, the average person would be able to reel off a good number of names. Somehow a once-popular genre has become defined by just one of its dozens of major composers.
This was one of the topics on a recent EconTalk podcast with guest Chuck Klosterman on his latest book What If We’re Wrong? He examines past works and trends and demonstrates that contemporaries were almost always wrong in what they expected, or did not expect, to be a long-lasting masterpiece.
His best example is Moby Dick. At the time, it got mixed reviews and largely faded into obscurity. But come the 20th century it had become the American novel. Something similar happened to Bach, after Mendelssohn revived his importance in the 19th century.
After the discussion of march music, Klosterman asked what rock artist we expect to define the genre. He predicts, I think quite reasonably, that come a hundred years historians will treat rock music as much more homogeneous than we do. Just as Sousa has come to define march music, Elvis, say, may define rock music.
My guess is that it will be David Bowie. He is the sexual revolution, the avant garde, the popular, the adolescent, all in one.
How many jazz musicians can you name, for instance? My generation – let’s say the under 30s – can probably barely name five. My parents’ generation can doubtless name more, but gradually we’re seeing the genre homogenise through the narrow lens of history.
I suspect this is where rock is heading. It’s close to saturation point, with mainstream rock and pop musicians sounding ever-more alike, and with creativity being more subservient to commercial demands than ever before.
What will come next? Very crudely, and trying to accommodate both America and Europe, the transition of popular music seems to have been thus: local folk traditions, alongside popular variations on opera arias and the like, march and festive music, dance music from ragtime to big band, youth music starting with rock ‘n’ roll onto modern day rock and pop.
Rock and jazz owe everything to the musical traditions of African American slaves and their descendants. Will migrants (not that black slaves were ‘migrants’ exactly) again help to reinvent popular music? It would seem implausible in the case of Islamic migrants, the dominant migrant cultural force in Britain, at least. And Hispanic culture has always been inherent within American culture, so it is unlikely to be a revolutionary force either.
I wonder whether there will be a revival of jazz, say, rather than a new genre. Moreover, I wonder whether the increasing size of pop music – the stadiums, the production values, the celebrity, the ridiculous glamour – will become overwhelming, and that a new genre will be a more intimate form of music, rejecting the ostentatiousness of contemporary pop/rock. Perhaps it’s just my hope for a humbler, more local kind of popular music.
In reality, though, I’m much more pessimistic. And I have my doubts as to whether pop music will die anytime soon while billions still seem to be amused by the I-IV-V chord sequence – or the four-chord trick.
When the dominant form of music has very little to do with music and much more to do with the buoyancy of a female singer’s bottom, or how claustrophobic the dynamic range is, one does start to feel a touch apocalyptic.
But let’s say we know that rock/pop music will die out by the next century. How will the historians of 2150 view the genre, and who will emerge as its central historical figures? I doubt anyone’s guess will be right. Those at the forefront of today’s culture will fade, and historians will find relevance in the most unlikely of artists.