Yesterday, I came across an article in the New York Times about James Taylor and Carol King, who are currently traveling the world with their "Troubadour Reunion" tour. The songs written and sung by Taylor and King, who have been collaborating since the 1970s, were part of the musical backdrop of my youth. Like many of my peers, I owned all their early albums. I even saw James Taylor perform in concert at UMass Amherst in the spring of 1970. The music of Taylor and King, and the fact that so many of my fellow baby boomers listened to it, helped define the spirit of the times, the zeitgeist.
Motown, soul music, heavy metal, folk rock, psychedelic rock — the music of the sixties and seventies both created and epitomized the cultural climate. Sure, some of us liked Elton John while others grooved to Jimi Hendrix, but most of us listened to all of it. We listened to it on drugs, we listened to it while protesting the Vietnam War, we listened to it to figure out who we were and where we were going. This vast common absorption in the music of a relatively small group of performers made an event like Woodstock possible. The free love fest reflected the music and the music reflected the values of its listeners.
Since that time, there's been an amazing proliferation of musical style and content. Technological developments have enabled musicians to record on a shoestring. Garage bands can disseminate their music to niche audiences, enabling a huge number of groups to gain a following. In most respects, this is a good thing, a wonderful thing. But it's also overwhelming and has led to tremendous fragmentation in the music world. Totally different audiences listen to rap, hip-hop, country, alternative rock, pop, and techno, to name just a few of the many genres competing today. I can't name them all because I probably haven't even heard of them.
A lot of contemporary music is brilliant — great musicianship, beautiful melodies, complex musical themes. By comparison, the music of my youth sometimes sounds simple and repetitive. It's not the quality of today's music that has muted its ability to transform the culture, it's the sheer number and variety of musical styles and performers. One could argue that the very diversity of contemporary music in fact embodies the spirit of the current times, with its emphasis on celebrating our differences. But I don't believe that argument holds up — at the current historical moment, music is a powerful means of self-expression but it's not at the center of our cultural identity.
I'd love to hear your take on this. If you agree with me that music doesn't occupy the same central role in our culture that it did forty years ago, what, if anything, has taken it's place? Reality TV? Facebook? Video games? The Internet itself?
Click on the link below to listen to one of my favorite songs by The Band while contemplating your response.