“An artist’s job is to be a witness to his time in history.” – Robert Rauschenberg
As I read the above quote and relate it the current music industry, I feel frustrated and confused. I feel as if too many artists are telling monotonous and one-dimensional monologues in a world full of very vivid and complicated dialogues. I think what happened to challenging the establishment? What happened to standing up to the man and pointing your middle finger at him? What happened to all the filth and the fury?
For the past three or four years, music listeners and musicians alike have been engaging in this happy go-lucky courtship of nice, apologetic pop tunes, glamorous lifestyles rid of malcontent, and generally good vibes. Looking at some of the most current and even dying trends (glo-fi, shoegaze revival, hipster rap), music has been in a very cozy and comfortable state for a while now.
At one point in time, we were fortunate enough to rely on the indie and underground scenes to voice alternative opinions and bear the brands of the counterculture. Now many indie acts have gone pop and are exploiting the pop trends. I can name a million groups that want to imitate the glittery pop sounds of MGMT, Waaves, Vampire Weekend, Neon Indian or Beach House. And none of them have a unique message that speaks to any particular demographic. It’s as if they want to make music that is as friendly and unassuming as possible – the new motto is don’t create conflict, enjoy what already exists.
I suppose the real question is, are artists morally obligated to produce material that questions the status quo? Is it our duty to have an ulterior motive and stand for something greater than music?
One of the last records that really moved me was Fleet Foxes‘ record. It’s such a lush and beautifully written record with all kinds of ambient sounds and nuances woven into the tapestry of the album. But there’s nothing threatening about it, it’s just magnificent songwriting, but does not challenge any kind of system. I think about artists/activists like Rage Against the Machine and wonder what happened? Do musicians no longer feel as if we are entitled to voice our opinion on politics, social injustice, and crimes against humanity?
I think about John Coltrane composing “Alabama” or Bob Dylan writing “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” Or I reminesce about The Clash and Bad Brains’ social and anti-political messages. Even Metallica and Slayer personified symbols of brutality and rebellion back in the day. I don’t see too many people mimicking those gestures and I wonder…have we left an “era of cool” and moved into an era of complacency?
I don’t even recognize resentment or defiance in many of the youth these days. I see teenagers who enjoy going to coffee shops on the weekend and downloading the latest Drake or Lady Gaga song onto their ipods while sipping white cafe mochas. Kids wearing plaid shirts, horn-rimmed glasses, and Vans. Teenagers who check Pitchfork Media religiously – they remind me of yet another clique-ish and “hip” social group whose lifestyle has filtered into the mainstream. I almost miss the weird goth kids with the huge Jnco jeans and black eye liner who hated the world.
Nonetheless, as this article comes to a close, I cannot find clarity or truth. And the only way I can find inspiration is from you, the readers. I encourage you to leave comments and debate the questions within this post. Tell me I’m wrong, tell me I’m right, tell me I spelled something wrong. Either way, voice your opinion – is it still the artist’s obligation to be a witness of his or her time in history? Or are we moving in the opposite direction?