Up the Downstair

Being a weeklie podcaste from Madison, Wisconsin featuring several remarkable curiosities therein occurring being a compendium of live music from divers artistes

Once He Used to Join In, Every Boy and Girl Was His Friend

October 12th, 2011

Touré recently published an article called “Why I miss the monoculture” up at Salon in which he laments the fragmentation of pop music and pines for the prelapsarian days of “Massive Music Moments”, i.e. – mega-popular albums that provided a common tongue for pop music fans and linked them via a shared passion for the music.

I live for those times when an album explodes throughout American society as more than a product — but as a piece of art that speaks to our deepest longings and desires and anxieties. In these Moments, an album becomes so ubiquitous it seems to blast through the windows, to chase you down until it’s impossible to ignore it. But you don’t want to ignore it, because the songs are holding up a mirror and telling you who we are at that moment in history.

These sorts of Moments can’t be denied. They leave an indelible imprint on the collective memory; when we look back at the year or the decade or the generation, there’s no arguing that the album had a huge impact on us. It’s pop music not just as private joy, but as a unifier, giving us something to share and bond over.

He cites albums like Thriller by Michael Jackson and Nirvana’s Nevermind as examples. With singles culled from them all over the radio and music videos saturating MTV, these albums “made you part of a large tribe linked by sounds that spoke to who you are or who you wanted to be”.

Personally, I don’t miss his “monoculture” because I was never really a part of any such thing. I absolutely hated Thriller when it was released in 1982 and I continue to loathe it today. Madonna? No thanks. Born in the USA? I’ll pass. I didn’t care for Purple Rain when it came out either and the same goes for It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Nevermind. While millions of people were obsessed with these albums, I was off somewhere else obsessing about something else. I’ve gotten into much more music because the album cover looked cool than because it was played on the radio ten times an hour.

I don’t begrudge Touré his love of MMM, but I found statements like these to be simply ridiculous.

The last two albums that truly grabbed an enormous swath of America by the throat and made us lose our collective mind were “Nevermind” and Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic.” They sprung from something deep in the country’s soul and spoke to a generation’s disaffection and nihilism.

I have never listened to The Chronic but let me say that, from my vantage point, the only people who felt that Nirvana spoke to an entire generation were the editors of Time, Newsweek, et al. Hey Touré, how about leaving the romantic bullshit out of this? I’m not sure how many GenXers there are but a lot of us didn’t give a rat’s ass about Nevermind. There are also lots of us who like Nirvana’s music but never felt that Kurt Cobain’s lyrics somehow captured the existential angst and unease that, you know, every single fucking one of us GenXers had because of the oil crises of the 1970s and the Reagan years. If I were to start generalizing like he does about black Americans, he’d be rightfully angry and rightfully so yet he feels no compunction about making the most sweeping pronouncements about an entire generation of Americans.

The (boom) box was a public device that broadcast your choices to everyone within earshot and shaped the public discourse. The man with the box had to choose something current (or classic) that spoke to what the people wanted to hear. Now the dominant device, the iPod, privatizes the music experience, shutting you and your music off from the world.

Has this guy never heard of the Walkman? I’ll bet that there were a helluva lot more people having their private music experiences with a Walkman than there were men with boom boxes who felt the need to create a “public discourse”.

There are niche joys everywhere, but nothing I can obsess over alongside a million others. Nothing that makes a big statement and speaks to what America is or should be or will be…I want music that bonds me to my peers and my generation. I’m stuck with music that makes me happy, but makes me feel like I’m alone.

Am I really supposed to believe that Thriller spoke to what America was in 1982 or should be or was to be? Touré opines that “an artist has got to be proposing some sort of revolution” to get the attention of millions of people to produce one of his MMMs. The ubiquity of that album was not evidence of a massive conversation about this country, but was proof that people like a beat and that Epic had a good marketing department. Plus Michael Jackson had charisma and could Moon Walk. How exactly was Thriller revolutionary?

The point that Touré is missing is that there never was a monoculture, at least as he defines it with his rose-colored glasses. He is only slightly older than me yet my memories of 1980s and 90s music don’t jive with his. I listened to a lot of progressive rock while others I knew were metalheads. Some listened to country and some to classic rock. And there were those who were satisfied with whatever the Top 40 station played. There have always been tribes when it comes to popular music. Sure, there was crossover amongst the groups, but having some common excitement for Nirvana does not mean that everyone felt Kurt Cobain spoke to them and that they all came together for some big latchkey kid cotillion.

I don’t know what past Touré is living in, but it’s not the one I experienced.

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