June 26, 2012

Particularism and rock bands

David Brooks returns from following Bruce Springsteen's tour around Europe, where 50,000 Spaniards sang along to songs about New Jersey's industrial wastelands, and writes:
It makes you appreciate the tremendous power of particularity. If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place, if you embody a distinct musical tradition, if your concerns are expressed through a specific paracosm, you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all. 
Maybe this is why younger rock bands can’t fill stadiums year after year, while the more geographically defined older bands like U2, Springsteen and the Beach Boys can.

Probably not the main reason, but it's still an interesting point. There is a real hunger among fans for a band to be from somewhere, even if they hadn't actually gotten there yet. Kurt Cobain wasn't from Seattle, he was from a hick town and then from Olympia, but he was hoping to eventually get to the big city. So, Nirvana got swept up in a narrative powered by the general rise of Seattle in the late 1980s (Starbucks, Nordstrom's, Microsoft, etc.)

One big change is the decline of the Southern tradition in rock. A huge fraction of electric guitar bands were once either explicitly Southern or wanna-bes (the Rolling Stones at their peak in Honky Tonk Women era). But that seems to have gotten suburbanized away, with assertively Southern musicians going to Nashville instead of into rock. 

52 comments:

Shouting Thomas said...

Gotta disagree, Steve.

Nashville is rock these days. The best country bands are just about the only bands out there playing rock in the style of the 60s and 70s.

Listen to Outlaw Country on Sirius Radio.

DaveinHackensack said...

Definitely not the main reason. The main reason is that, before the Internet, music wasn't as atomized. So there were fewer bands with larger followings.

As for Bruce's particularism, it doesn't require being from a particular place. He's written songs set in Ohio (Youngstown) San Diego (Balboa Park), etc.

Bill said...

Grunge and Kurt Cobain never would have gone anywhere without the particularism. It was an entirely local phenomenon. When I was a 14-year-old boy, I'd go with friends to the local record store to buy Sub-Pop LPs (hard to believe we actually still bought LPs in the late 80s). Later, we went to clubs like the Off Ramp and the OK Hotel.

We all had our favorite bands, and they were all local. Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Motherlovebone -- you name it.

When Nirvana went big in the early 90s it was the beginning of the end. Suddenly, Parisians were walking down catwalks in flannels. Truly bizarre...

I don't know if it can ever come back in the age of instant downloads. The strength of the local music scene was its isolation, and Seattle was very isolated.

Will it ever be possible to repeat this? Who can say, but it doesn't appear likely at this point. Local scenes these days seem to be dominated mostly by "grad school bluegrass" types, who have very limited appeal outside public radio.

Anonymous said...

OT:

He also wrote: “I like the English. They have the most rigid code of immorality in the world.” And this: “You Liberals think that goats are just sheep from broken homes.” Don’t you love him already?

The English speak their language so well. We Americans borrow it and mess it up. We don’t know how to have fun with it. We think polish is phony; it embarrasses us. For them polish is joy. We allow them to practice it, because it’s their way; but we frown on it amongst ourselves.

sunbeam said...

I think modern acts just suck honestly.

It's only partially relevant but I find American Idol and the other shows like it unwatchable.

Whereas the British versions have really good contestants usually.

I personally think we are just in our second or third decade of crappy musical talent. At least with acts that make the mainstream.

Maybe it's all working as intended though, the Music industry still makes big money.

David Davenport said...

But that seems to have gotten suburbanized away, with assertively Southern musicians going to Nashville instead of into rock. almost

Maybe because the Nashville music biz is still doing business, while rock is almost kaput, save for oldies acts such as Springsteen.

And is Nashville country more suburban than "rock"?

Anonymous said...

"Suddenly, Parisians were walking down catwalks in flannels."

That was me. Sorry.

beowulf said...

My GF and I have been watching The Voice UK (that Tom Jones is kind of awesome).

There was a English guy auditioning who looked like Greg Allman's son, rocking out to Bon Jovi. He seems like a nice guy but was a fish out of water on the show. I wonder if he can come to America on a trucker visa?
http://youtu.be/Ftqn1SCMcsQ

The BBC has an admirably laissez faire attitude towards copyright enforcement, you can watch all of the episodes on Youtube.
http://youtu.be/ohLpWqQjRD8

Anonymous said...

"Suddenly, Parisians were walking down catwalks in flannels."

I read "Parisians" as "Persians", and wondered if the Iranian Dress Police had gone even more barking mad than usual.

Anonymous said...

The universal appeal of particularism.

Victor said...

U2, Springsteen, and the Beach Boys sell more tickets than younger bands because rock music is far less popular today and the younger bands aren't writing any hits.

James Walker said...

The Brooks theme here is "stick with what you know." If the Brooks of 2008 knew what the Brooks of 2012 knows, perhaps he wouldn't have fallen for Obama's pants crease and thought O would be a great president. This column is further evidence that Brooks is enduring a sort of personal crisis as the scales fall from his eyes regarding Obama, Springsteen European tours not being a usual topic for Brooks.
The David Brooks European tour will probably feature a few more columns on things like the collapse of Greek universities and declining birth rates in Calabria, but make no mistake,
David was Born to Run, at least circa summer 2012.
Brooks is over in Europe getting smashed at Springsteen concerts to escape the train wreck of Obama at home--which he helped engineer.

Anonymous said...

Maybe Springsteen attracted a lot of people because young rock fans like both old stuff and young stuff while old rock fans only like old stuff and don't care about new stuff.

So, Springsteen could have attracted both old and young, whereas newer acts only attract the young.

Anonymous said...

In Springsteen's case, I think the popularity simply owes to his great songs of the past. Actually, his real breakaway hit BORN IN THE USA wasn't very particularist. It lacked the gruffness and the edge of his 70s albums. Blue collar angst was turned into a kind of generic flag-waving Americana albeit with a bit of irony.
So, its appeal wasn't all that different from that of Michael Jackson, Police with SYNCHRONICITY, and Mudonna.
And does anyone listen to U2 for Irishness? They made some great but they have one of the most generic and universalist sounds ever put on vinyl. And many of their uplifting songs were actually about America.

Anonymous said...

The truly particularist artists like blues singers and down-to-earth Country music stars are not international stars. Would Spaniards sing along to Loretta Lynn?

Anonymous said...

"One big change is the decline of the Southern tradition in rock."

It got yuppified and gayified with REM. But REM had some great songs.

ogunsiron said...

I think Steve's point was that bands and musicians don't have to be "diverse" in their music or personnel to appeal to a very broad and diverse audience.
A band like Iron Maiden is pure english whiteguy heavy metal but that hasn't stopped them from filling up stadiums in South-America. I'm not aware of reggae bands trying to integrate japanese music into their style. They just play what they like and the japanese eat it up as is.
Norwegian black metal is almost ridiculously parochial ( songs about norway, norwegian woods and fjords, norwegian old gods, norwegian weather, norwegian national romanticism, etc) and yet the whole underground metal planet was into it for many, many years.

Black Sea said...

"Somewhere is better than anywhere."
--Flannery O'Connor

Anonymous said...

This proably contributes significantly to the continuing popularity of rap - its strong regional pride, regional flavor. Especially Krunk, the bouncy, aggressively southern rap of Ludacris and Nelly that was big in the early 00's. I've completely lost interest in hip-hop since graduating high school, even "good" hip-hop, but even I miss the idealised southernness of the rap of my youth.

Anonymous said...

The claim that good music isn't being made today is patently absurd. Sunbeam, check out:

Grizzly Bear, Radiohead, Tallest Man on Earth, Local Natives, The Decemberists, Fleet Foxes

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nnxPKY7NSoM

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9MDI1_C83g

Good Current Rock n' Roll: White Stripes, Black Keys, Kings of Leon, The Strokes, Arcade Fire, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Alberta Cross

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SOWTnZUGSBo

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=az_2oiccZNo

Whiskey said...

Charles Blow (yeah, I know) of the NYT pointed out years ago that the music business in 2009 was making about 10% of the gross revenues of 1999. Downloads, collapsing CD sales (with massive margins) make music a shadow of itself revenue wise. Its online but I'm too lazy to find it.

Most bands make money from touring, not royalties and record sales. Bands with large, rabid fanbases make money off touring, those with few fanbases don't.

USA Today had an article about Kenney Chesney touring, he had a total of 80 trailers, half going to different sites so he can move from city to city overnight. So country stars can make money, obviously.

The poster upthread who said that acts now suck because of White demographic collapse (low birthrates) is dead on. From the early 1980s to today, there is about half the White teen population base.

Muzack said...

I've posted this simple fact before on this site: music scenes require large urban concentrations of young like minded folks. Rock and its offshoots are waning because of the macro demographics but also the extreme shift in urban demographics across the western world.

It's no accident that the last great rock music scene in the USA was Seattle which was a very white metro area. Metro meaning including the suburb cities and towns.

Pittsburgh might be a modern candidate for the next big music scene but the numbers aren't really there in the youth cohort. Same for Phoenix.

Nashville is like a last ditch effort due to it being the last Southern large city with a white majority. But the culture isn't right for rock style music.

There is no way to have a major white music scene in the following cities because of drastic racial or age shift: SF, LA, DAL, DET, CHI, PHI, BAL, ATL, MPH, STL etc. The replacement populations don't have the music IQ required to generate great music scenes (mestizo & Asian) or the birthrate is just too low.

The situation is becoming the same in London and other cities in Europe.

Muzack said...

Anon: the total hit output of those bands is miniscule. The music biz runs on hits.

The modern bands recordings don't have much shelf life either. We can see a clear trend in the overall value of American recorded music produced in each decade. The peak value was the 60's and 70's which followed the substantial 50's which was itself a big improvement on the 40's.

Since the 70's the value of music produced in each decade has dropped continuously. I thought the 00's was the nadir but apparently we are going even lower.

The post modern music is now dumbed down to please the ears of the new demographics. It's a culture of infantile musical composition at this point. The Clash and even The Pretenders were stripped down reactionaries in their time. Now they look like nerdy musicologists.

Btw there's a link out there of the top twenty 80's records. It's such a weak list compared to what came before in previous decades.

Simon in London said...

Whiskey:
"From the early 1980s to today, there is about half the White teen population base."

Do you have a source for that? I'm not finding any age demographics by race data online.

Muzack:
"The situation is becoming the same in London and other cities in Europe."

I think you're right that London is too Diverse to produce white working-class music anymore, though X-Factor's Olly Murs does a nice pastiche of early '60s Britpop. I think there are still some mostly-white northern ex-industrial cities, but barely having left London in 12 years, I could be wrong.

Peter A said...

People crave identity, and the more a band defines itself as being from a particular place, the easier it is to build a following. The Dropkick Murphys are a good example of a non-Southern band following this route - they are a defiantly "Boston Irish" band. The leader speaks with a strong Boston accent, and the fans, even in Europe, latch onto this. I saw the Dropkicks in Austria last year and there were hundreds of fans at the show in Red Sox, Bruins and Patriots gear, most of them clearly not American. Musically the Dropkicks are pretty solid, but not exceptional. It's the whole Boston white working class thing that keeps the fans excited.

FF said...

All is not lost:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBOuqyqmtJk

Tarantino Fan said...

Brooks seems to be channeling (probably not consciously) some of the theories of Pere Ubu frontman David Thomas, who likes to talk about the importance of geographical naturalism in rock and roll.

http://ubuprojex.net/press/chernov.html

Anonymous said...

People are into what they're into.

I'm not impressed with 50,000 Spaniards singing along to a Springsteen song. It's Springsteen, lefty bard and the critics' darling.

Far more impressive is seeing something like the video from the first Rush visit to Brazil. Complex (for rock) music, obscure lyrics and active derision from the critics didn't stop 80,000 fans in Sao Paulo from singing along.

David Brooks needs to get out more.

Mark said...

In the fifties and sixties you had distinct regional sounds and record companies that catered to those sounds. Think of Sun, Chess, Stax, Motown etc. The move away from regional based music probably started as long ago as the seventies. I was a local punk rock musician in Indiana then. Indiana had a long regional musical history but, rather than pay attention to any of that, everyone tried to sound exactly like what was going on in London (Sex Pistols, Clash) or New York (Ramones, Talking Heads). An Indiana regional based punk rock would have been more mainstream, more bluesy or country tinged and had lyrics that dealt with everyday things that happened to local people. The local artist who came closest to that was John Cougar Mellancamp and his popularity agrees with your theory that people like music rooted in a certain location.

Mr. Anon said...

"David Brooks returns from following Bruce Springsteen's tour around Europe,...."

WTF? Who goes on a trip to Europe to follow a band? Anyone, let alone some middle-aged guy following a middle-aged performer. What a pathetic twit Brooks is.

Anonymous said...

Nashville is rock these days. The best country bands are just about the only bands out there playing rock in the style of the 60s and 70s.

Agreed. The lines have also blurred to the point that a lot of what was rock would now be called country. As a thought experiment, imagine that The Eagles hit it big in 1992-5 or 2002-5 rather than in 1972-1975. Same songs, different decades. Nobody called them anything but a rock band back then, but today they'd be labeled as "Alt Country", even though Henley was the only one of the four to come out of the "South" (east Texas).

Paul Mendez said...

Nashville is rock these days. The best country bands are just about the only bands out there playing rock in the style of the 60s and 70s.

Gotta agree with Shouting Thomas.

Today's "country" is simply 1970's "country rock." If you get tired of listening to 35+ year-old Tom Petty, Eagles, and Jackson Brown, songs, try listening to a "country" station for a change.

Carol said...

Nashville is the last refuge for white musicians and fans. You know, the kind who say they like "all kinds of music - except rap." Add to this the sub genres "newgrass" and "Americana" for more discerning tastes.

You'd think the white hipsters at all the bluegrass festivals would be embarrassed about the lack of diversity.

astorian said...

I wouldn't expect David brooks to know this but all over the world there are enormous crowds coming out to see heavy metal bands that most Americans thought broke up decades ago. Seriously- iron maiden draws incredible crowds in India and south America... and it probably isn't because of their sense of particilaridm! Rather it's because metal translates brilliantly wherever there are thorny teenage males!

Kylie said...

"The truly particularist artists like blues singers and down-to-earth Country music stars are not international stars."

Mississippi John Hurt, "Avalon Blues".

"Avalon my hometown, always on my mind."

Particularist and universal in the best way.

John Mansfield said...

Old rock bands can be successful because old people have money. They're doing now the same thing that Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin were doing in the 70's. In the 70's there weren't any 30-year-old rock bands, but now there are, and there aren't many 60-year-old Dean Martins today that anyone cares about.

Steve Sailer said...

Mark from Indiana:

Check out this music video of Larry Bird highlights set to Mellencamp's "Small Town."

TGGP said...

I particularly like seeing non-English speaking countries with Oi bands. Ach ja, vee are cockneys.

Anonymous said...

does anyone listen to U2 for Irishness? They made some great but they have one of the most generic and universalist sounds ever put on vinyl. And many of their uplifting songs were actually about America


I can't think of one U2 song which is uplifting and about America. Admittedly I haven't heard any of their recent stuff.

Bullet The Blue Sky was about America, but not very flattering.

The number one theme of rock music has always been teenage angst. It's not surprisg thst as America and the West have aged, rock has been in decline. Nor that it hit otd peak as the baby boomers came of age.

Anonymous said...

The lines have also blurred to the point that a lot of what was rock would now be called country. As a thought experiment, imagine that The Eagles hit it big in 1992-5 or 2002-5 rather than in 1972-1975. Same songs, different decades.



Creedence Clearwater Revival would never be considered "rock" today.

Once reason the genre is in trouble is that it's been narrowly redefined to mean only the Black Sabbath/Metallica/metal wing of the business. "Rock" now means some guys with very long hair wailing away on their electric guitars while screaming unintelligibly.

Anonymous said...

The striking thing about the current music scene compared to that of the sixties, seventies, and eighties is that music is no longer composed by the people performing it.

ABBA were essentially Benny and Bjorn, who wrote all the words and melodies. But they were also part of the band. Fast forward about four decades and Sweden has given us Max Sandberg, aka Max Martin. He's written a huge amount of number one hits, but he does it for other people - Britney Spears., the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Usher, Taio Cruz, Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne, and more.

The Beatles and The Doors and Aerosmith and so on were creative artists. The current "musicians" are better described as "performance artists". Their job is to project an image and nothing else - they don't write the songs they sing and often don't even play any instruments.

sunbeam said...

Anonymous wrote:

"The striking thing about the current music scene compared to that of the sixties, seventies, and eighties is that music is no longer composed by the people performing it.

ABBA were essentially Benny and Bjorn, who wrote all the words and melodies. But they were also part of the band. Fast forward about four decades and Sweden has given us Max Sandberg, aka Max Martin. He's written a huge amount of number one hits, but he does it for other people - Britney Spears., the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Usher, Taio Cruz, Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne, and more.

The Beatles and The Doors and Aerosmith and so on were creative artists. The current "musicians" are better described as "performance artists". Their job is to project an image and nothing else - they don't write the songs they sing and often don't even play any instruments."

I think you are on to something with this. A few years ago (2004? 2005?) there was a news item about software being used to predict hit songs.

I haven't heard much about it since, but I'm sure this kind of thing has only advanced since then.

Country Music is awful about this in my opinion. I think someone plans these acts out to the last detail (at least the ones you see on TV and in videos). From the hairlength, it's shade, and boob size for the women. For the men they stick one of those dumb ass cowboy hats on them and call it a day.

And you can damn well bet they aren't writing their own songs.

I grew up on country. The 1970's were the high water era for it in my opinion, with the 60's close behind.

The 1970's were my childhood, but I really don't think that influences my thinking. I'll listen to country from the 50's for example. I just don't think it is as good on the whole though.

It was also pretty common for some of the country acts in the 50's to cross over on the pop charts I might add.

(When Country Music pretty much just emerged; earlier it was the Carter family, the first real country act. Before them it was folk in my opinion. Before the 1950's country really didn't exist. Yes we could argue this.)

Starting in the 80's country music became dreck that makes me physically ill.

I don't like hip hop, but I prefer some of that to modern country.

Country Music now is the most packaged, bland, tasteless, empty music out there.

Anonymous said...

Mark, were you a part of the Gulcher/Gizmos/MX-80 Sound axis in the 70's?

White RB

The Anti-Gnostic said...

they don't write the songs they sing and often don't even play any instruments.

And, they can't sing. Literally, cannot sing. Make Katy Perry flat-chested and lower her hip:waist ratio and she'd make a great receptionist. Ashley Simpson, what the hell? Who let her near a microphone instead of hiring her to fetch the engineers coffee?

One hypothesis: the "casting couch" is widespread throughout the music industry. You ought to do some digging on this Steve.

The Anti-Gnostic said...

they don't write the songs they sing and often don't even play any instruments.

And, they can't sing. Literally, cannot sing. Make Katy Perry flat-chested and lower her hip:waist ratio and she'd make a great receptionist. Ashley Simpson, what the hell? Who let her near a microphone instead of hiring her to fetch the engineers coffee?

One hypothesis: the "casting couch" is widespread throughout the music industry. You ought to do some digging on this Steve.

The Anti-Gnostic said...

Speaking of particularism Steve, remember Wall Of Voodoo? I wept over that breakup almost as much as I did the Talking Heads. I haven't been that mad since they cancelled M.A.S.H.

Norville Rogers said...

I had a theory about the decline of Southern-oriented rock. It came from noticing the unstoppable increasing SWPL prestige of Robbie Robertson/the Band (who were of course Canadian) in confluence with another critics' toy, the No Depression alt-country movement, resulting in a deracination of echt Southernness as a media flavor.

It's true there was always a healthy dose of faux Southerners in the original climate, chiefly British interlopers. But apart from the genre having burned out on its own time, the rise of mass-manufactured icons who affect some part of the rebel style overlaid on a Beverly Hills upbringing, ultimately leading to Miley Cyrus, must have hastened it. And, as you have pointed out in your articles about air conditioning, the South has just changed economically. Probably not coincidental that Southern rap grew the fastest in the mid-90s, and so much that it boosted critical darlings like Outkast along with idiotic party acts centered around Master P, Lil Jon, et al.

Anonymous said...

I know there are a lot of techies here. Nobody likes techno? I'm not that into music anymore, but I still get excited by the "newness" of techno music. It has to be found because edgy radio stations are a thing of the past.

Brooks is all wrong, he was probably reading the cool comments here about the appeal of provincialism in novels and that inspired him to take a stab about applying the idea to music, but music and songs are more like poems, where setting isn't so important or even necessary.

Anonymous said...

Look for Passion Pit, from that bastion of elitism, so often mentioned here, Cambridge MA. Electropop is pretty cool to my ear - no real telling where it came from, except that the lyrics are in English.

Anonymous said...

I never thought singing your own songs was such a virtue. The great songwriters of the 1925-1955 era wrote much better songs than anyting the rock genre produced: only Lennon-McCartney and a couple other teams of the era even came close to the average quality of work by Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer, the Gershwins, Berlin, Arlen, Loesser or even, I hate to admit it, Sondheim.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, however, is clearly inferior to much of rock.

Anonymous said...

The unpopularity of "World" music might be a negative argument for particularism. Maybe I'm not giving Brooks enough credit.

Spokane tim jones said...

Oh well, I just feel sorry for Kurt though. On his peak for his popularity. I always remember him. And as for Bruce, oh well, he's always be the best.