A recurrent topic of mine is "Kids These Days: What's the Deal with Their Music?" Unlike the previous generation, my complaint is that popular music has barely changed in 25 years. Rap music is still the same old same old; the LA "New Rock" radio station KROQ sounds almost exactly the same as when I left LA in 1982, except styles have gotten narrower (fewer synthesizers and fewer girl singers); and country sounds like the lamer sort of 1970s rock.
The great age of rock music was driven in part by the electric guitar, which first emerged with Charlie Christian's participation in Benny Goodman's band in the late 1930s. Just as the development of the pianoforte (soft-loud) was essential to the Romantic music of the 19th Century (imagine if Romantic composers had had to compose on harpsichords!), the electric guitar was central to turning rock 'n' roll (which could be performed just fine on the piano, as Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard had shown) into rock. Around 1964-1965, the world discovered how protean the electric guitar could sound, and that set off one of the great eras in popular music history.
But there was an important ethnic angle, the slow synthesis during the 19th and 20th Centuries, mostly in the Mississippi watershed, of an Afro-Anglo-Celtic style. And that started to come apart with the punk-New Wave era at the end of the 1970s, which was a rebellion, in large part, against the dominance of the blues, as institutionalized by the Brits from the Beatles onward in the sainted Sixties. Devo, with their robotic rendition of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," was a representative New Wave act -- not particularly talented, but that made them more representative than some idiosyncratic genius. Their message was: Let's stop pretending we're Mississippi Delta bluesmen; we're nerdy suburban white kids with three digit IQs.
An article in The New Yorker --"A Paler Shade of White: How indie rock lost its soul" by Sasha Frere-Jones -- starts off as a review of an Arcade Fire concert and then touches on some of these issues.
By the time I saw the Clash, in 1981, it was finished with punk music. It had just released “Sandinista!,” a three-LP set consisting of dub, funk, rap, and Motown interpretations, along with other songs that were indebted—at least in their form—to Jamaican and African-American sources. As I watched Arcade Fire, I realized that the drummer and the bassist rarely played syncopated patterns or lingered in the low registers. If there is a trace of soul, blues, reggae, or funk in Arcade Fire, it must be philosophical; it certainly isn’t audible. And what I really wanted to hear, after a stretch of raucous sing-alongs, was a bit of swing, some empty space, and palpable bass frequencies—in other words, attributes of African-American popular music.There’s no point in faulting Arcade Fire for what it doesn’t do; what’s missing from the band’s musical DNA is missing from dozens of other popular and accomplished rock bands as well—most of them less entertaining than Arcade Fire. I’ve spent the past decade wondering why rock and roll, the most miscegenated popular music ever to have existed, underwent a racial re-sorting in the nineteen-nineties. Why did so many white rock bands retreat from the ecstatic singing and intense, voicelike guitar tones of the blues, the heavy African downbeat, and the elaborate showmanship that characterized black music of the mid-twentieth century.
Unfortunately, the author appears to be too young to know his history correctly:
"MTV had been on the air for nearly two years before it got up the courage to play the video for Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” in 1983. (Jackson was the first black artist to appear on the channel, though it had played videos by the equally gifted white soul act Hall & Oates.) Jackson’s 1982 album “Thriller” is the second-biggest-selling record of all time (after “Eagles: Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975”), but he alone could not alter pop music’s racial power balance. Black and white musicians continued to trade, borrow, and steal from one another, but white artists typically made more money and received more acclaim."
No, he's confused here. Blacks were huge stars long before then -- Ever hear of the Supremes? Stevie Wonder? Aretha Franklin? Jimi Hendrix? Marvin Gaye? Ray Charles? Johnny Mathis? Nat King Cole? Ella Fitzgerald? The biggest stars of the post-1964 classic rock era were British (Beatles, Stones, Who, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd), but among American acts, blacks did fine.
The first two years of MTV, 1981-1982, were an anomalous period in which white rock fans were overtly anti-black. (I recall Prince, opening for the Rolling Stones at the LA Coliseum in 1981, being showered with boos no matter how much heavy Hendrix-style electric guitar he laid on.) This was specifically because white rockers blamed blacks (wrongly) for disco. (They should have blamed gays -- as Tom Wolfe pointed out at the time after visiting Studio 54, the music industry was covering up just how gay disco was.) It was a passing phase growing out of the anti-disco backlash, and wasn't true before or after.
"If young white musicians had been imitating black ones, it was partly because they had been able to do so in the dark, so to speak. In 1969, most of Led Zeppelin’s audience would have had no idea that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page had taken some of the lyrics of “Whole Lotta Love” from the blues artist Willie Dixon, whom the band had already covered twice (with credit) on its début album."
Oh, come on ... Everybody knew British rockers were copying black bluesmen. The Brits talked about it constantly -- in their limey speaking accents that contrasted so hilariously with their Memphis singing accents.
Nor were whites only "stealing" from blacks. Consider Aretha's 1967 classic "(You Make Me Feel Like a) A Natural Woman," which was written by the Brill Building husband-wife team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Indeed, a strong respect for Jewish showbiz professionalism contributed mightily to black musical success. Most famously, Motown founder Berry Gordy explicitly organized his recording company to mimic the methods of Hollywood movie studios of the 1930s.
The author goes on to make a better point:
"In the mid- and late eighties, as MTV began granting equal airtime to videos by black musicians, academia was developing a doctrine of racial sensitivity that also had a sobering effect on white musicians: political correctness. Dabbling in black song forms, new or old, could now be seen as an act of appropriation, minstrelsy, or co-optation. A political reading of art took root, ending an age of innocent—or, at least, guilt-free—pilfering. This wasn’t a case of chickens coming home to roost. Rather, it was as though your parents had come home and turned on the lights."
For example, after the first rap Top 40 hit in late 1979, white bands released various raps in 1980-81, such as Talking Heads' "Crosseyed and Painless" (with super-nerd David Byrne rapping "Facts are simple and facts are straight / Facts are lazy and facts are late"), The Clash's "Magnificent Seven," and Blondie's #1 hit "Rapture." It was a fun novelty fad, and the cool New Wave bands were hopping on the bandwagon. And why shouldn't they?
Now, though a white performer has to be as good at rapping as Eminem or he'll be tarred as the new Vanilla Ice.
So, white musicians retreated from anything to do with black music, not wanting to be accused of being the new Pat Boone and stealing Little Richard's act.
Meanwhile, it turned out that blacks weren't such almighty natural creative geniuses either, at least when freed of the anxiety of living up to white demands. Black songwriting collapsed. Writing melodic hooks came to be seen as incompatible with keepin' it real. By the 1990s, black songs that weren't raps didn't have much more melody than the raps did. Hip-hop just droned on forever, although it may now, hopefully, be finally dying.
The terrible irony is that blacks turned themselves into new minstrels, acting out ridiculous gangsta rap fantasies for white fans, sometimes with lethal results.
At the Super Bowl halftime show this year, oldtimer Prince gave a tremendous performance in the pouring rain. For his two cover versions, he pointedly chose songs written by whites and covered by blacks -- Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" (most famously peformed by Jimi Hendrix) and Creedence Clearwater's "Proud Mary" as done by Ike and Tina Turner. His message was clear: Let's get over this obsession with who stole what from whom. Together, we Americans conquered the musical world. We can do it again if we just grow up.