Year 2010 in Review

This is a reprint from Ohm Park, thank you Davy!

Years and decades are fairly arbitrary lines in time, but it’s interesting how things can be so easily organized in this way. Maybe it’s coincidence, maybe we can find a narrative in anything, or maybe there is something else at work. But in terms of the history of music, 2010 was very much the beginning of a new chapter.

The ’00s could be characterized as the slow ascent of indie music propelled by how the Internet changed everything. But in 2010, I get the sense that the influence of both indie and the Internet has reached its limit and now the oversaturation of those influences is pushing things in an entirely different trajectory. Of course, indie/Internet/blog music is still not exactly mainstream; there are plenty of genres that are more popular. But it has grown large enough to reach that point every popularized genre arrives at when it starts to cannibalize itself and embrace its own clichés, well on the road to becoming a parody of itself like hip-hop and country currently are. I started to worry this was happening at the end of 2008, but then the anomaly that was 2009 came along and my pessimism waned.

Looking back now, so many incredible, transcendent records just happened to converge in 2009 to cap off the decade, and this year lacked last year’s breadth of records that could both capture a wide audience and demonstrate an authentic, artistic vision. There were certainly some, but in terms of what was most widely praised in the indie world, for the most part 2010 was unimaginative and derivative.

Now it would be easy to just write this off as simply the cyclical nature of genres rising and falling in pop music–things get popular and then they start to suck. And that’s definitely part of it. But there’s something cultural at work as well. For someone who is, say, twenty years old right now and living in the United States, the backdrop to growing up has been 911, eight years of Bush disasters and wars capped off by a few years of a horrible economy and government dysfunction. Politics and the news have been beseiged by an intangible turmoil for a decade now, and it’s hard to ignore how this has affected the psyche of people growing up in this environment, even if those people are apathetic to these phenomenons. And really, If anything, these events have helped bolster the apathy of the youth for the world around them; this generation has a strong desire (which some may describe as a sense of entitlement) to skip all the bullshit and just be happy.

And this isn’t just about politics. As technology continues moving ahead at an unyielding pace, not everyone adapts to the change and embraces it. Globalization and the ever increasing complexity of the world around us can create a yearning to return to a simpler time. There is an anxiety about the current state of things, and this can help establish a feeling of nostalgia for the past, when times were perceived to be better. And that yearning for the past and simplicity has pervaded the fashions of music. Everything popular now is lo-fi or rips offs of styles decades old. Many people want to write off the 2 year running chillwave fad as just a blip, but its really a telltale sign of what’s happening across all of music, the convergence of all of these trends. It’s the ultimate escapism into simplicity and nostalgia, and that is what 2010 in music has been all about.

There are other cultural threads that push music in this direction as well. The reality TV/American Idol culture has ended up permeating into indie as much as indie has permeated the mainstream, if not more. People seem to only care about celebrity and gimmicks. More people are interested in Best Coast’s cat than in discovering musicians who are actually innovating things. And now that technology has shattered the bar to entry and enabled anyone, no matter what level of talent, to be able to create music, working at one’s craft has become increasingly irrelevant. A talented producer can make just about anyone sound good in a certain manner. And the sort of music that is popular now doesn’t require very much effort to make anyway.

Technology, specifically enabling anyone to be able to download anything for free, has shifted the way people listen to music. When you could only afford to buy so many records, people spent a lot more time with their music, and that benefited music that had a lot of depth, carefully crafted records. Now people blow through as much music as fast as possible, so the sort of music that people celebrate is the kind that catches one’s ears right away, even if there is nothing to it beyond the surface.

In just about every way, music has become more about style than substance. The artists who were successful this year by and large achieved success by means that had absolutely nothing to do with the merits of their art. It was all about back-stories, connections, cashing in on trends, hiring the right publicists, being friends with the right people, being hyped by the right blogs, etc. Sure, some of those successful artists happened to make some good music, but that’s not why they became successful. The environment has also has become one where artists are punished and marginalized for taking risks. Three great examples in 2010 are Sufjan Stevens, Yeasayer, and MGMT. I may not equally love all three of these records, but I respect the artistic choices they made, and while each has a small but fanatical cheering section, none of these were well received overall. Instead, boring, predictable, easily-marketable, overly-derivative, watered-down drivel ruled supreme.

I think it’s also important to note that 2010 showcased the most centralized music media since the ’90s. Where the ’00’s were all about de-centralizing music media because websites and blogs popped up everywhere and created infinite choice, now there is simply too much information out there for anyone to make sense of it. You see, the truth is that most people want to be told what to listen to and not have to do the hard work of finding it themselves. Other than us music nerds, most of which have our own blog, people don’t have the time to search across website after website looking for something new. So people have now migrated to fewer and fewer locations to find what they want. In the indie world, that means the aggregators, Pitchfork, which lines their content up with what’s popular on the aggregators, and the handful of superblogs that are now under Pitchfork’s payroll. The few music journalism institutions that still make money are only interested in making more of it and expanding their audience.

That can only be done in two ways once you have already captured a significant audience. Either create content that is so good that it transcends the topic of the content, which is hard, or just pick topics that are the most popular within the realm of relevant topics the institution can discuss, aka the SEO strategy, which is much easier. That’s why you see Pitchfork give Kanye West’s newest record a 10.0 and why Creative Loafing pretends Justin Beiber is part of the Atlanta music scene. Why go to the effort of creating interesting content when you can just reference celebrities and get tons of attention? I mean, you can’t really blame them, because they’re just giving people what they want. In the longterm, the Internet didn’t really change the nature of music journalism at all, only the structure. It created a temporary anarchy and changing of the guard, but we’re long past that point now. The professional music media is back to being nothing more than celebrity gossip reporting of another flavour.

Now, all of the trends I’ve described above don’t necessarily make me excited about the state of things. Simplicity, nostalgia, and commercial viability aren’t exactly on the top of my list of what I look for in music. But from my perspective, I can’t be pessimistic about it either. What I’ve been describing so far is about trends and what is popular, but that doesn’t at all speak to the sheer amount of quality, artistic music that is still being produced every second across the world. For someone who is willing to dig deep, there is an endless supply of music for anyone’s taste. And so really, it’s still a great time in the history of music for everyone, except artists taking chances and hoping to make a living from their music, and there’s still even a small chance to breakthrough that way if you’re really lucky. So what’s popular is starting to suck, but that’s okay because the underground is as fertile as it’s ever been.

If I was going to parallel 2010 to any other recent year, I guess 1998 would probably be the most appropriate. Trends aren’t looking so hot and that doesn’t look to change very quickly, but there’s plenty of incredible music if you know where to find it. And ultimately trends come and go, and things are always in a state of flux, so there’s no telling what could happen in the years ahead.

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