Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Pop Music's Natural Life Cycle

It may not be the most noteworthy death in the history of rock and pop, but today Al Martino, the American crooner who had the first ever number one hit in the UK, has died aged 82.

What struck me about this is that rock and pop were founded on young rebellion. The NME may have first published its chart in 1952, before Elvis, Bill Haley and Jerry Lee Lewis torched the musical script, but the introduction of the chart recognised the growing cultural role that popular music had among young people.

The 1950s was the decade when the word 'teenager' first came into popular use. With growing affluence and material prosperity, those hormonal surges everyone feels at that age were set free in a broader cultural context, and the idea of young rebellion, symbolised by music, drugs and fashion coming together in youth subcultures, became something to scare adults with and help people create their own identities, horizontal generational identities rather than vertical family identities, en masse for the first time. Subsequent generations terrorised their parents with the Beatles, the Sex Pistols, Acid House and... well, maybe it got a bit tame after that as it became corporatised.

The point is, the first generation of teenagers is now dying old, of natural causes. Pop culture has, in some ways, reached the end of its natural life span.

Where will it go from here? Is there life after X Factor? When the drummer from Coldplay talks excitedly of how the new album is going down in focus groups among key demographics, and the NME increasingly resembles Heat magazine with added black eyeliner (on the blokes), can music ever be dangerous and exciting again? In a society increasingly obsessed by youth and scared of its children, is there anything left for teenagers to rebel against? When X Factor has a special category for "over 25s", has teen rebellion won the cultural war or been suffocated?

And should I still even care now I'm in my 40s?

1 comment:

  1. I knew it was all over the day I heard "Sympathy for the Devil" being played at my local Woolworth's supermarket.

    And yes, we should care now that we're in our 40s. The Baby Boomers refused to grow up and we've inherited an infantile culture that continues to race to the bottom in order to shock and rebel. At this age, it's to be hoped we'll wake up one day and realize that going to see the Buzzcocks again is just going to be a bit tired, sad and rather pointless and perhaps one would rather engage with something a bit more sophisticated. If only it were there. We can cede youth culture back exclusively to the young, but we haven't done much in the way of building an alternative.

    (This is a lament, not a lecture. A guy who makes comics about penguins and gorillas best leave the rocks in his glass house on the floor.)