Friday, June 4, 2010

Where's the Zeitgeist?

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.


  1. thanks for the link. These guys remind me of Credence Clearwater. You have posed a very interesting question. I read your post three times trying to form an opinion, but I don't know the answer. I think maybe the answer will be left to the social historians. I can tell you this: I had to hide my 23-year-old grandson's posts on Facebook because he kept quoting lyrics (?) from "gangsta rap," and I worried about others being offended by the language etc. Actually, I think I'm too old to make that judgment call. Almost everyone I know from age 10 (sometimes younger) to 80 (sometimes older) listen to their own music on an i-pod or some other kind of electronic device, whereas before we used turntables and couldn't drive a car with anything other than the radio playing music. I know this must seem that I'm skirting the issue of what role music plays in the upcoming generations' cultural identity. I'm going to think about it more, and am interested in other's opinions. ~bonnie

  2. I hate to write this - but I am not sure if music does not occupy the same place in our culture that it did back in the 60s/70s - it is just that it does not have the same role in our age group, and the young have less weight on society than we did, they are far less numerous than we were, proportionally, to begin with. (I mean In Europe and Western countries in general, of course)
    For youngsters who live with music nonstop thanks to their i-pods, (and think of the technical limitations to listening to music in those days)- it does serve as a means of rallying to a group, as a way to belong, to define oneself, and one's values too. It is just that these tribes are more varied, just like the types of music you mention, and society even more split up into different statas, that we are less familiar with. Let us post the question on facebook and see what answers we get!

  3. I still have this album! yep, vinyl, and a record player, too. great music, then & now.