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Sunday, September 1, 2019

Music: Where The Hell Is It Heading To (Twenty Years After)? - An Anniversary Essay

Music: Where The Hell Is It Heading To (Twenty Years After)?
An anniversary essay

Introductory note for those who expected more reviews and got this instead: Please do not worry, more reviews will be coming pretty soon. This essay took me about a month to write and, to a certain degree, explains why the reviewing conveyer has slowed down to a temporary standstill. Among other things, I needed to get this out of the system before I go any further, because certain ideas work better in the context of a systemic explanation, rather than being chaotically spread across a hundred different texts. Your thoughts, objections, additions are very welcome here as comments, although I would kindly ask to refrain from on-the-spot emotional outbursts and read the entire text carefully if you want a discussion — keeping in mind that none of the ideas, complaints, or generalizations herein are intended to be individually offensive or derisive.

Prelude: A Slice Of Personal History

ʽThere must be some way out of hereʼ,
Said the joker to the thief.

As hard as I myself find it to believe... it was twenty years ago today, not a day less, that a certain young (and, frankly, quite inexperienced) music reviewer had decided to take on the world (or, at least, the particularly inquisitive part of the Internet) and lay down his general perspective on the evolution and then-current state of popular music — flatly, but ambitiously, entitled «Music: Where The Hell Is It Heading To Today?» As you can still see from the dusty comments, the essay provoked a small, but fairly strong outburst of criticism; much of it was well-deserved at the time (admittedly, the author was but 23 years old and had about one year of Internet writing experience), but some of the remarks, more likely, just reflected different mindsets and angles of view — or could be ascribed to an involuntary noble retort of optimism against the authorʼs crude pessimism.

Today, I shudder at the thought of even reopening that web page, much less rereading its contents or rewriting its shortcomings — but not because I no longer sympathize with its main points; rather, I just cringe at the obviously naïve and at the same time pretentious ways in which they were stated (a flaw that the essay, of course, shared with all my early reviews, arguably forgivable for a beginner, though that is for the readers to decide). A lot of things happened since then — I have opened my eyes and ears to a lot of new influences; have expanded, shut down, reopened, shut down again, rethought, restructured, acquired new enthusiasm for and got bored with my review site / blog; most importantly, like many of us, lived through the end of one era and the stabilization of another. So much has happened in the meantime that it almost seems now a matter of honor to try and revisit that early frame of mind, reassess it, and restate the early, shaky, naïvely arrogant points in light of all the experience accumulated in between 1999 and 2019 — so they could at least cease to be naïve (and just go on being arrogant).

Arguably the single most important thing about that experience is how the rapid evolution of the Internet has solved the issue of availability of stuff. In 1999, since I never listened to the radio out of stubborn principle, my main source for new music was, of course, shopping for CDs — not an easy task for a young researcher with a limited income, fully dependent on the cheap pirate market of the intellectually curious, but financially hungry city of Moscow. Being far more interested in spending money on something like David Bowieʼs Heroes than Radioheadʼs OK Computer (or, even more shamefully, on something like Genesisʼ Abacab than Portisheadʼs Dummy — just to give you a brief example of how it worked back then), it is more than fair to say that I had a fairly skewed picture of whatever was going on in the musical world in the mid-to-late Nineties. The same problem, I imagine, existed for most of us at the time — unless your professional life revolved around music, you were either a live-in-the-present or a live-in-the-past kind of person, and the two of you had a hard time finding common language, largely because you lacked the resources to buy a good textbook for the other personʼs one.

With the advent of MP3s, broadband, file sharing, YouTube, and, finally, streaming, the issue of availability is no longer an issue. You may not know everything, but unless you are wilfully embracing a life of digital seclusion, today you have the ability to know anything you wish to know in a matter of seconds. You can make a blitz-playlist and journey from the Renaissance to the 21st century, from one end of the world to the other, from the most popular to the most obscure creations of any genre whenever you have a bunch of free time (and no matter how much we like to complain about it, we do have more free time now than we used to). This is cool — this is a great opportunity for equality, an exciting invitation for everyone to become an instan­taneous expert in anything. This opportunity does come at a certain price, of course, on which I shall comment later — but for now, let us be happy and just concentrate on its good sides.

I first closed up shop around 2005, I think, then once again around 2007; it was a very difficult time for me, with lots of new responsibilities in my regular life, and keeping up with a regular schedule of musical reviews was getting harder and harder — furthermore, I felt that I got stuck in a rut, and that, instead of improving, my writing was deteriorating. It was time to take a break, rethink some strategies, refresh the brain by listening to music just to enjoy it rather than dissect it, and hope for the future to bring along some changes.

In 2009, as I navigated reasonably well through the personal crisis, somewhat improved my personal career and financial standing, I decided that, perhaps, it was time to try and make a brand new start in the music writing sphere as well — and by "brand new start" I really meant it, since an attempt to re-read and improve some of my early texts quickly made me realize that they should better be shelved as historical curios. The idea was that I should go over everything one more time — but now, in this new era of total availability, I had the opportunity, nay, thought I, a duty to put it all into a larger, much more complete and informative perspective. I shall try to be as democratic and open-minded about it as possible, thought I. I shall attempt to enjoy, analyze, understand, and cover epochs and genres that I gave very little thought before — and in order to correct or justify or maybe even completely rethink my attitudes towards modern music, I shall listen to all kinds of stuff that is being produced today, as long as it claims to have at least a little bit of artistic and intellectual merit. Furthermore, said I, in order to be as unbiased as possible, I shall review all these people in alphabetic order — this way, even if takes me a long long time to get through my A-B-Cʼs, I shall have a reasonably representative slice of everything. (After all, it is hard to imagine all the good bands intentionally gravitating towards the beginning of the alphabet in order to get on the good side of an obsessive reviewer who just might come up with this ridiculous idea some day or other).

It was a good goal, and I felt inspired — it was obvious from the start that this would be a project that could never come to an end within one lifetime, but Iʼm always a sucker for such projects... modest goals are for efficient wimps, ambitious goals are for noble losers. A restart! A reboot! A chance to atone for all the past sins and, with luck, to accumulate a heap of new, juicier, far more sophisticated ones. Except for the fact that I still had no idea whatsoever of how to write about hip hop, I was ready to tackle everything from pre-war urban blues to glitch electronica. Most importantly, with the triumph of Total Availability, I could finally test my earlier pessimistic conclusions on the fate of popular music — letting go of musty biases and making at least a modest bet on the potential of the new millennium. Giving all the different ages of pop a more or less equal chance seemed like the right way to go.

For a while, things went down smoothly, and I actually liked the obsessive "alphabetic principle" because it gave me a chance — an obligatory duty, in fact — to catch up on relatively obscure, but worthwhile artists, all the hundred-year way from the urban blues of Alberta Hunter to the math-rock of Adebisi Shank, and it also liberated me from rigged weighing scales: clearly, it is much easier to make a grand case for old-time music when your left cup is exclusively reserved for the likes of the Beatles, the Stones, and Bob Dylan while your right cup contains everything that the latest fads and trends, no matter how corny or generic, have to offer the consumer. And I really enjoyed catching up on many of the developments that originally passed me by while I was too busy savoring the past catalogs of Rick Wakeman, Kate Bush, and Iron Maiden. Andrew Bird, Animal Collective, Arcade Fire, Bat For Lashes, Beach House, Beirut, Black Keys, Black Mountain, Broadcast, Chairlift... these are just a few names out of many that provided me with hours of genuine joy, or intellectual stimulation, or both.

One odd thing that I quickly noticed was that, regardless of the change in strategy, my new reviews for old school artists still tended to attract far more attention than my reviews of 21st century artists, even regardless of their overall popularity or critical importance. Refreshed assessments of the Beatles, Beach Boys, or Black Sabbath catalogs yielded hundreds of views and quite a bit of comments; new reviews of any of the artists listed above, with very few exceptions, yielded dozens of views and very few occasional comments. At first, I did not pay much attention to this, ascribing this peculiarity to the fact that most of the readers, in all likelihood, were from my old fanbase, and that old fanbase had no obligations at all to accept my strategic deviations. "George only writes well about The Beatles, and has no idea of whatʼs been going on since 1975 ", that sort of thinking. Well — okay, maybe I deserved this, maybe I had just painted myself way too much into one corner to have any right to expect that anybody would ever care about what I could say about Aphex Twin, let alone Boards Of Canada. Iʼll just mosey along with the flow and hope that time will heal some of the wounds... for now.

As time went by, however, worse things began happening. I had reviewed a fairly large number of aspiring young artists who came into the public eye in the early or mid 2000s, and since many of them were obviously not going away any time soon, every now and then I had to catch up by reviewing their latest releases — 2012, 2013, 2014... all the way to the end of the centuryʼs second decade. It was then that I began to notice the problem: for many, if not most, of these artists it was hard for me to put their latest record in context because... I did not remember the first thing about what any of their previous albums sounded like. Seriously, I found myself scratching my head, going back to my first reviews of their records — including those that were, quite often, written about with fondness and respect and highly rated — and realizing that, at best, I only have a vague, abstract idea of what that music sounded like. Even a quick re-listen to select sound clips did not always help: it was as if my memory cells were rejecting this music altogether, throwing it out without much ceremony.

There were exceptions: Arcade Fireʼs Funeral had become rigorously engraved in my memory (clearly becoming my favorite album of the decade and one of my favorite albums of all time), and so were a few tunes from Animal Collective, and from Broadcast, and... well, it is useless to concentrate on particularities at this moment, but the important thing is that they were exceptions, and that was precisely what worried me. It is one thing if you are explicitly dealing with memory overload: your mind, densely saturated with past experiences, simply refuses to soak in any more long-term memories because there is no space for them in your aging brain. But that theory came crashing down precisely because the mind did make exceptions for the likes of Win Butler and Trish Keenan. Moreover, going back into the past, the "alphabetic principle" had allowed me to build up some new old favorites that I had previously ignored, and these seemed rather evenly distributed across most of the decades of the 20th century — from Blind Lemon Jefferson to Al Stewart to the B-52s to Luke Hainesʼ Auteurs and Black Box Recorder.

Yet another realization that eventually struck me as I was browsing through the relatively large list of 21st century artists, and found reliable statistic confirmation, is how many of those people were essentially one-shot wonders — so very often releasing a first album that was really, really fresh and exciting, and then retreading farther and farther into self-repetition and predictable mediocrity with each subsequent release. Even my beloved Arcade Fire did not escape that fate: as far as I am concerned, they never topped the consistency, energy, and maniacal inspiration of Funeral (and as of 2019, it is fruitless to expect that they ever will — fifteen years is already twice as long as the Beatles had existed as a creative force). To the best of my memory, this was definitely not the case even with a decade as recent as the Nineties, when you still had artists like Radiohead or Björk expanding their vision or even radically redefining themselves with each new record. Now, on the other hand, it seemed that artists were praised for and expected to just keep on being themselves for as long as possible — I mean, regardless of which Beach House album you personally consider to be your favorite, it is useless to deny that in the grand scheme of things, they all sound very much the same, and are only distinguished by nuances that have as much subtlety as nuances on any given AC/DC album. (On the other hand, it may at least be argued that it took Beach House a few tries to arrive at the peak of their consistency — if you agree with me that Teen Dream is probably their peak — the absolute majority of their peers just blows the entire wad first time around).

And thus it was that step by step, inch by inch, this good will credit provided to me by the good fairy of Total Availability found itself dissipated. Perversely, the more I tried to immerse myself in the active goings-on of 21st century pop culture, the more I became attracted to the music of the Nineties and even the Eighties — decades that I used to altogether despise while living through them. All of those twenty years, set against the experience of the most recent twenty years, now seemed like an endless, unpredictable, and often daring and provoking period of pushing forward boundaries and defying expectations; no, still nowhere near as jaw-dropping when you think of the many wonders of something like 1967, but nevertheless a period when people were still actively busy creating different formulae rather than simply following them. It just so happened that back in those days, I did not like these formulae — first and foremost, because of the triumph of electronic means of production over "real" instruments — but this time, it was no longer just a matter of personal subjective preference. On the contrary: I found that many of the 21st century albums that I honestly, sincerely liked upon the first few listens (and, accordingly, reviewed quite positively) made a quick and total retreat from my memory as soon as the review was finalized — while quite a few records from the Eighties and Nineties that I had scorned in writing were actually alive and thrashing within those memory cell walls, sometimes asking to be extracted and reevaluated from a new angle.

In the end, I panicked. Here are two new albums by Black Lips and Blitzen Trapper, and I know for sure, goddammit, that I confessed to liking both of these bands — I gave some of their records a thumbs up, didnʼt I? I certainly did. But here are these new albums, and my obsessive code of honor demands that I write about them, yet I cannot write about them without putting them in the overall context of their careers... except I do not remember the tiniest smidgeon of information about them, do not feel the slightest tinge of emotion when stupidly glancing at the track listings of their allegedly very best albums. Is it just because my brain is going bananas? But if it is, why do I still remember, so clearly and distinctly, Adeleʼs 21, or Andrew Birdʼs Swimming Hour — a small handful of records released in approximately the same time period? Surely it is not because they are more "old-fashioned" than Blitzen Trapper... in any case, "old-fashioned" hardly ever matters to me: I mean, it is hard to find more "old-fashioned" bands these days than the Avett Brothers or Band Of Horses, but they have the same problem — good guys, good music, worth some friendly reviews, and then... out of sight, out of mind.

Problem set; now, before we move on to the properly analytical part, it may be worth it to include some external observations. One informational web resource that I have always held, and still continue to hold in high esteem is RateYourMusic — an opinion aggregator that is more or less equidistant from "professional critical consensus" (which, as a rule, will put Bono and Bruce Springsteen at the top if youʼre over 40, and Drake and Rihanna if youʼre under) and "full-on democracy" (which, like every true democracy, eventually turns into an empire — our current one seems to be ruled by Empress Taylor and Emperor Ed). RYM, on the other hand, from its early inception and up until now was largely dominated by a community of genuine music lovers, whose tastes can, of course, still be manipulated by the force of trends and fashions, but are, nevertheless, more likely to be formed by independent experience (as is clearly seen from the large numbers of thoughtful and non-formulaic reviews found therein). With the occasional oddball exception (such as the rather surprising abundance of heavy metal fans who often seem to regard RYM as their personal playground), I tend to view RYM as a platform that reflects the average consensus of people who do give a damn about music as art, rather than music as a source for making a living or just a casual soundtrack for daily chores.

Consequently, the following observations about RYMʼs Top 10 (or Top 15, or Top 20, no matter) lists for recent years, really going all the way back to approximately the mid- or late-2000s, may actually be meaningful and deserve at least to be taken into consideration.

1) Very few acts tend to have their output successfully recognized year after year after year. Other than just a handful of mainstays like Kendrick Lamar (see below on hip-hop), artists from this yearʼs Top 10 are not highly likely to be featured in the previous or in the next yearʼs top spots. Interestingly, artists that made a name for themselves in the early-to-mid 2000ʼs, like Arcade Fire or Beach House or Sufjan Stevens, have a higher chance of recognition in the 2010s than artists that first emerged in the late 2000s to early 2010s (like Janelle Monáe, whose 2010 debut even I recognize as a modern masterpiece, but who has since gone down like a torpedo according to the overall RYM consensus).

2) Very few albums from those Top 10ʼs make it into the general all-time chart. As of this moment, for instance (August 2019), the RYM Top 100 includes only 12 records that are younger than 2000, of which, it is important to note, half are hip-hop (Kanye Westʼs My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and The College Dropout, Kendrick Lamarʼs To Pimp A Butterfly and Good Kid, Madvillainʼs Madvillainy, Danny Brownʼs Atrocity Exhibition), three are albums by artists whose reputations were well established before 2001 (Radioheadʼs In Rainbows and Amnesiac, David Bowieʼs Blackstar), and only three are by pop/rock artists that truly belong to the new millennium (Arcade Fireʼs Funeral, Sufjan Stevensʼ Illinois, Interpolʼs Turn On The Bright Lights — though even here the countdown stops at 2005). It is interesting and telling, by the way, that the hip-hop surge is a relatively new development: Kanye and Kendrik have been recognized for a long time, but have only recently been "upgraded" to the Top 20.

3) Rock veterans from Paul McCartney to U2 almost never appear in these recent Top 10s, which is a credit to RYM — at the very least, nobody could accuse the resource of succumbing to the ideology of dinosaurism. However, it is worth noting that every once in a while, if you modify your search to include archival releases, the Top 10s are immediately transformed. For example, 2018 will have Bob Dylanʼs Bootleg Series Vol. 14 (essentially an alternate version of Blood On The Tracks) as #1; 2011 yields the top spot to the Beach Boysʼ The Smile Sessions; and almost each year in between has at least one or two spots occupied by something else from the vaults (most often it is yet another of Bobʼs Bootleg Series, but not exclusively so).

4) Although I do not have enough persistence to verify this formally, it does seem to me that the overall numbers of ratings and reviews for top-rated albums in the last decade (2011 to present) tend to noticeably decrease compared to previous years. If true, this would confirm the often talked-about phenomenon of "audience splintering", i.e. people distributed over specific niches and albums primarily targeted at various interest groups rather than the musical community in general (if such a "community" could even be said to exist).

Now it is time to take these roughly objective observations and try to relate them with my personal experiences — avoiding, if possible, as simplistic a general interpretation as "see, I told you modern music sucks". The point that I would rather argue is that modern music — along with, frankly speaking, many other modern things — is increasingly becoming more disposable than it used to be. Which may, in a way, be the equivalent of "sucks" to people like myself, who have always been drawn to things of lasting rather than passing value; but is definitely not a condemnation on the global level.

The fact that a large percent of music (movies, literature, art in general, you name it) has always been disposable — just think of all the armies of forgotten Baroque composers or third-rate Delta bluesmen — has nothing to do with this point. The only thing that this point argues is that in the past, it made more sense to think of the hierarchy of musical quality as a pyramid, with a well-defined apex reserved for the proverbial Bachs / Beethovens / Miles Davises / Beatles / Björks and their ilk. In the present, I can only really think of music as a plateau-shaped trapezoid — a pyramid whose top has been neatly sliced off (or, more accurately, eroded), so that it no longer appears sharply visible above the oceans of time. In less formalistic and/or metaphorical terms, this means that the current age produces just as much, or maybe even more, good music than any previous one — but significantly less (and I would even argue next to no) great music. Granted, uttering the words "good" and "great" so soon may be qualified as poor form, but bear with me for now, and we will return to this linguistic issue later on.

What are the reasons for such a transition? Paradoxically, just about all the possible reasons that I can think of have something to do with progress. Regardless of all the troubles that we suffer on an everyday basis, regardless of the fact that many of us are depressed and tired and disillusioned in our fellow humans, on the whole it is hard to lodge formal complaints when we have higher technologies, more advanced artificial intelligence, more free time on our hands, better access to intellectual culture, more opportunities for creativity — well, not all of us do, of course, but the overall statistics are clearly on the progressive side here. And let me be fully clear about this: I do not intend to lament about this state of things one bit — only a retrograde moron would. Itʼs just that all good things in life come at a price, and we, too, must be willing to pay ours; trying to swindle fortune is at best dishonest, and at worst fatal.

To make matters clearer, let me run through some of the main reasons why, in my opinion, we have largely been deprived of "great" music, and show how they are tied to some of our finest progressive achievements. First, though, an important Disclaimer: None of the ideas laid out below aspire to being original — many of them are simple enough to have probably been written about many times by other people, but since I have not met any sources that would put them all together, I will simply apologize beforehand for not coming up with bunches of references; this is, after all, not a scientific paper, just an improvised little essay. If you know of people who share the exact same point of view on all these matters, let me know their names and weʼll form our own Lonely Hearts Club or something. For now, let us get straight to business.

Problem 1: Overload of Opportunity.

Thereʼs too much confusion,
I canʼt get no relief.

Earlier on, I mentioned how the state of "total availability" had completely changed life for myself — and, feeling quite justified to extrapolate this, for the whole world. Naturally, this life changed not only for consumers of cultural "content" (a word that, as we know too well now, Arcade Fireʼs Win Butler hates so much, for respectable reasons), but for its creators as well. With many more people these days having the time and resources to create and, even more importantly, to publish their creativity, the amount of new music produced each month is, I would dare say, comparable to the entire amount of music produced within a decade as late as 30–40 years ago. (Alas, no statistics, but judging by how quickly the "best-of-2019" list on RYM is filling up barely 1–2 months into the year, I am pretty sure I am not far off).

This phenomenon, of course, has been noticed and discussed many times, with the evaluative conclusion being either pessimistic ("who really needs that much music?") or optimistic ("so many new opportunities are opening up for talented people who were previously deprived of them!"). Stuck in between these two extremes, I want to put forward a vague, but reasonable hypothesis that I would summarize as A Dissipation Of Genius. Very crudely speaking, it would suggest that at any given time, there is only a limited amount of abstract potential "greatness" hanging out there in the air, waiting to be activated — and subsequently, the more people are trying to snatch it out in the air, the less they get individually. Imagine a certain amount of chicken feed being distributed for 20 chickens — and then the exact same amount for 200 chickens. You can pride yourself on your increased population, but just how much meat are you going to get off each new chicken bone?

Obviously, this argument falls flat on its face if we object that "musical greatness" is not hanging in the air, waiting to be captured (though I might remark that this is precisely the way in which quite a few musical geniuses had tried to explain their successes), but is only dependent on whatever is contained within each and every one of us: all of us are wonderfully unique, fully self-sufficient human beings, equally capable of magnificent breakthroughs regardless of any cultural, spatial, or chronological circumstances. This would be an extremely attractive, optimistic, seductively idealistic point of view — which, as far as I know, founds no support whatsoever. "Dissipation of genius" is clearly the status quo in modern science, for instance, where Einstein-type personalities are no longer possible for thoroughly objective reasons, and I do not really see why the situation should be any different in arts; just because Art deals with imaginary worlds rather than the real one does not mean that huge competition for building up and enlivening these imaginary worlds should not result in a certain "pettification" of their innumerable variants.

The main problem here is that these days, even if the musical world receives a new artist whose musical ear, imagination, creativity, professionalism, workmanship at the outset are the complete equivalent of a Brian Wilson or a Stevie Wonder, his/her ability to produce music that would have the lasting quality of a classic Brian Wilson / Stevie Wonder album would be handicapped, and not just because of the "Mind Has Its Limits" factor (see below), but because, first and foremost, music is in the ear of the listener, and the listener would have a much harder time singling this new genius out of the immense swarm of competitors — beginning with the simple technical issue of having to spend way too much time and effort on finding and choosing, and ending with the slightly more complex issue of differentiating. Itʼs like, maybe Win Butler and Regine Chassaigne are every bit as talented as Lennon/McCartney; but with such an overload of bands that essentially sound like each other, the distance between Arcade Fire and, say, Broken Social Scene or British Sea Power or whatever seems nowhere near as critical as the distance between the Beatles and, say, the Hollies — so there is always this temptation to lump them all together and say "oh, yeah, Arcade Fire is a good example of 21st century arena-indie-rock, if you like this band you will also like BSS and BSP and .... and ....", or, conversely, "oh yeah, Arcade Fire? same old tired arena-indie-rock shit as BSS and BSP and ... and ... only a person with very boring and formulaic tastes could like all these bands".

On a more formal and more easily understandable note, of course, it has been noted many times that increase in the number of artists inevitably leads to the rise of specialization and niche-based activity — as a rule, creative artists (I am not speaking here of global market marionettes, they will be covered under "Corporate Calculation") are not even trying to appeal to large cross-sections of the population, instead conveniently choosing a certain sub-genre, anything from "dream-pop" to "doom metal", and sticking to it for as long as they are at least able to make a living from their small, but loyally supportive fanbase. This is the easiest explanation for the abovementioned "first album rules, everything after feels decidedly inferior" syndrome: if your appetite demands certain degrees of variety and freshness, rather than "more of the same", this narrow specialization will probably worry and depress you in the same way that it depresses me. (Personally, I have never been able to understand the "more of the same" ideology — if I have one great album in a certain genre and 10 inferior imitations, Iʼd get far more relistening to the great album 10 times than spending these 10 half-hours on inferior experiences).

That said, I can find examples of artists from the past whose albums all "sounded the same", yet still showed a clear trajectory of improvement — AC/DC 1974–1980 and ABBA 1973–77 are two prime examples (post-77 ABBA are distinctly different because of their transition to disco and electropop). Similar examples from the 2000s / 2010s are much harder to come by; the very conception of "artistic growth", where you start out as an aspiring, derivative, but promising disciple and gradually evolve into an artistic giant, has been discarded in favor of the opposite approach — "you have no chance of making it unless your very first statement blows everybody away". Which is only too natural in a situation of miriads of competing opportunities — you do have the same chance as everybody else... but, honestly, this chance is the only one you get. Yes, exceptions exist (in fact, the very small handful of modern artists who, in my opinion, still deserve the title of "great", as a rule, reach their peak after a few tries), but on the whole, the modern world is more keen on following the model of Dire Straits than the Beatles.

In practical terms, say you have just reached the end of 2018 or 2019 and suddenly discovered that you havenʼt heard any new music this year — not because youʼre a particularly grumpy conservative boomer, just, you know, too busy with stuff and other things. So what do you do? Well, you might go to your favorite musical community and say "hey guys, Iʼve missed out, can you give me your Top 10s for this year so I can have a clue about whatʼs going on?" What will happen in the next few hours is that you will be flooded with individual Top 10s that have very little in common — forcing you to either commit to hours upon hours upon hours, or, much more likely, embark on a streaming or youtubian journey of briefly sampling everything so that you can (and will) eventually settle on those few things that match your pre-established tastes, rather than successfully develop any new ones. In other words, the Overload of Opportunity has a very high chance of leaving you locked inside whatever framework you already had — the more choice you are given, the more likely you are to just stick to the tried and true, out of elementary frustration. It certainly helps if you are young and unburdened with any pre-packed baggage, but it does not make your experience any less messy.

Bottomline: there is such a thing as "too much choice" — something you will probably disagree with me upon if you yourself happen to be a Young Creator (because what Young Creator would ever admit that whatever he/she is creating may not necessarily be a good thing?), but probably more likely to agree with if you are an Experienced Consumer. There is also such a thing as "lasting artistic value" — one convenient way to justify the relative lack of great albums today is to declare "greatness" a completely arbitrary social construct, typically pushed upon us by elitist boomer critics for their personal gain... but personally, I prefer to uphold a more respectful attitude towards humanity rather than promote a conspiracy theory about how the only reason why Sgt. Pepper and Dark Side Of The Moon still receive their top billings is the corroding, zombiefying influence of a bunch of white-haired Rolling Stone types on the people at large — even intelligent people. Nope; some things are simply built to last, and the majority of records produced over the past 20 years are not any of these things.

If you generally agree with this point, you might still ask, "well, yes, there is a tremendous lot of good music produced today and practically no great music; why exactly is this a bad thing?" Here I would stress that it is certainly not bad per se; in fact, if thatʼs the way it is, it is probably part of the natural order of things, and hardly a better reason to become depressed than, for instance, waves upon waves of political shit that surround us on all sides. But it can become bad — or, at least, potentially harmful — in a fairly typical situation where people, driven by the natural curiosity to explore first and foremost what is going on in the present rather than focus on the past, take this trapezoid model, rather than the pyramid one, as the default setting. Contrary to what certain new-fangled post-modern schools of thought tell us, hierarchical structures of artistic achievements in which Shakespeare carries more value than Claire McCarthy (and perhaps, sacrilegious as it may seem to some, even more than Tom Stoppard) and the Beatles carry more value than Carly Rae Jepsen have their use even today. We need our Einsteins, our Orson Wellses, and our Hemingways — we can certainly cope with the fact that the world has restructured itself in such a way that it is almost no longer capable of producing them, but it would be inexcusable, in my opinion, to forget — and criminal to deny — that at certain points in time, it used to have that capacity.

Problem 2: Corporate Calculation.

Businessmen they drink my wine,
Ploughmen till my earth.

From the discussion on how social justice and increased opportunity have contributed to devaluing artistic "content", let us now turn to the discussion on how the same devaluation was assisted by progress in the spheres of technology, sociology, market research, and anything that has to do with improving the financial / popular status of both the artist and the industry behind the artist. This is a subject where left-leaning, liberal-minded people might find more common ground with me than on the previous point — though, in all honesty, I have also read quite a bit of conservative thinkers complaining about the exact same thing.

We music lovers have literally been raised on all sorts of educational stories about tough battles between Commercial Greed and Artistic Interests that are as old as the musical industry itself, and, in fact, go all the way back to the ages of traveling minstrels and court composers. From this point of view, there is nothing new under the sun here: the art of balancing between saying what you want to say and saying what others want you to say is essentially the same now as it was 20, 30, 50, 100 years ago. Yet there have also been certain new developments, I fear, which may have stifled true creativity in ways that were only vaguely hinted at in the past century.

The first thing that needs to be said is that some time ago, the much-maligned record industry wasnʼt all bad. Yes, we are well familiar with countless stories of artists being swindled out of their money; of stupid and harmful "commercial" decisions undermining the integrity of the finished product (wrong album covers, wrong track listings, poor choices for singles, misleading marketing strategies); of blackmailing strategies that pushed artists to sacrifice their identity in favor of endorsing the latest commercial fads. We do, however, have plenty of examples of industry bosses, including relatively big ones, who were clearly driven by other factors as well. All of them had to make money, but some were also willing to take occasional (or systematic) risks — and this is why, despite all the justified criticism, we also have plenty of good things to say about such people as Ahmet Ertegun, David Geffen, Jac Holzman, and many others. At the very least, we remember them as outstanding individuals who could often make erroneous or egotistic decisions, but could not be directly accused of not loving or not understanding music and not wanting it to develop and progress in any way possible. And that is even without mentioning the talent scouts — from John Hammond to Gary Gersh, we once had a small army of talented people whose line of work actually involved finding people with musical talent (and, sometimes, ensuring that their talents would be allowed to evolve without too much tampering).

While I cannot vouch for certain that todayʼs record industry has been completely deprived of people of vision, it is somewhat telling that I intuitively view it as having become completely depersonalized — more of a well-oiled algorithmic system in which individual opinion, taste, and strategy no longer matter at all. How many talent scouts or industry bosses do we even know by name, and how many of them have been known to willingly take risks and experiment? The very size of the labels — with the majority of commercial brands now united as The Big Three — implies that individual responsibility has been reduced to negligible proportions. Marketology is now dominated by rapidly advancing statistic algorithms; very soon, big data-based machine learning will be generating optimal strategies that will be followed to the letter since they are strictly-scientifically aimed at maximizing profits at the expense of population majority. "Risk taking" is no longer an option — not because the major labels can no longer afford risks (they most certainly can), but because they no longer believe in taking risks — which may both have to do with "The Mind Has Its Limits" (see below) and also with the perceived uselessness of this strategy: why entrust something to the clearly fallible hunches of the individual mind when you have perfectly viable recipes generated by rigorous analyses of tons of data?

Naturally, in this situation it would probably make more sense than anytime before to put oneʼs trust in the small communities — little indie labels whose purpose has always been stated as putting art before money (at least big money). Even those of us who have not lived through that time, or, like me, spent it behind the Iron Curtain where the situation was altogether drastically different, can easily read up on the emergence of a sharp line between the major commercial labels and the small independent enterprises that began to take shape around the New Wave era and became particularly flashing in the Eighties — back when the "masses" were happy enough listening to Bon Jovi and Asia and Kim Wilde, whereas the "culturally refined" people (mostly college students, of course) could find solace in the indie underground and college rock radio and Sonic Youth and whoever was still interested in keeping music socially and artistically relevant, progressive, and at least vaguely "dangerous". Even after the much-mythologized event of how "Nirvana sold the underground out", the distinction between mainstream and indie persisted well into the Nineties and the early 2000s: I remember distinctly and perfectly well how each of my "modern music sucks!" invocations on the early Internet was immediately repudiated by a dozen remarks of the "nah, youʼre just not listening to the good stuff! you have to be on the active lookout for the good stuff!" variety. And to a large extent, it was true — I could complain about the Backstreet Boys or Mary J. Blige, and people would counterattack this with MP3 gifts of the Flaming Lips or Wilco, and it made me shut up for a while.

I do not know precisely when and how it happened — apparently, grumble grumble, some of the representatives of our cuddly Generation Z may be to blame — but somewhere along the line, the very concept of indie as something radically good and exciting, as opposed to the stupid, boring, and predictable mainstream has completely lost its sheen. And it goes way, way deeper than the trivialization and cheapening of the term alternative that already took place a couple of decades ago. Back when alternative rock, evolving out of the cradle of college rock and grunge, began to feel like alternatively commercialized rock, losing its grit and ultimately turning into bland monstrosities like Nickelback, people still found the strength to reject it in favor of something fresh and different — dream-pop, electronica, hip-hop, you name it. It seemed as if the opposition between "commercial crap" and "genuine art" would still be able to survive, even if it had to be at the expense of bluesy rhythm sections and distorted electric guitars.

The first signs of this alarming nivelation of the difference between market-approved and market-resistant, the way it seemed to me, appeared around the late 2000s — about the same time that I once again resurrected my reviewing schedule — with the nostalgic Eighties boom. I thought there was nothing inherently wrong with this: after all, the new emerging musicmakers were precisely the Eighties generation, and they must have been inspired and energized by the sounds of their childhood much like Paul McCartney had drawn inspiration from the British music hall ditties of his childhood. It was a bit alarming that much, if not most, of that nostalgia somehow ended up centering on the popular sounds of the decade — all of a sudden, synth-pop and electro-pop were being dusted off as if we suddenly had this consensus that the Eightiesʼ greatest musical achievement was getting people to do stupid futuristic dancing. (Rude hint: it wasnʼt). But then again, said I, British music hall circa 1950 wasnʼt exactly the epitome of musical progress, either: we all grow up with what we hear on the radio (well, used to grow up), so if you happen to be subconsciously motivated by mullets, fishnet gloves, and Casios rather than hard-to-generalize underground attributes, you only have regular human nature to blame for that.

The problem is not that the nostalgic Eighties boom happened, and not even that it somehow refuses to end (even if itʼs long past its bedtime, and I am not yet seeing distinct signs of Nineties nostalgia replacing it). The problem is that the popular, critical, "institutional" acceptance for Eightiesʼ mainstream has somehow mutated into the same kind of acceptance for many other, if not all, forms of popular music that had earlier been deemed "uncool". Appreciation — among the young, allegedly ought-to-be-rebellious music lovers — has risen for everybody from Bing Crosby to the Carpenters to Barry White, though, interestingly enough, this sudden affection for middle-of-the-road artists has largely evaded arena-rockers: Hall & Oates may be easily granted immigration visas into the consciences of todayʼs youth, but Foghat and Black Oak Arkansas are about as welcome there as a destitute Mexican in Trumpʼs America. This latter is also a part of the accompanying trend where quintessentially "rock" music loses its cool, partly because bands like Nickelback did so much to uphold the genreʼs reputation, but partly because "rock" is so often associated by millenials and Gen-Z-ers with their boomer (grand)parents and, therefore, has to be rebelled against according to natural law of generations.

Itʼs all fine and dandy, youʼll say, but where does corporate calculation actually enter into this? Well, arguably the worst consequence of modern generationsʼ (note that I am talking about the best representatives of these generations — smart, active, musically curious people) readiness to embrace the kind of music that their parents typically scorned is that indie and corporate music-makers have, to a large part, become indistinguishable from one another, to the point that the old opposition no longer has the same viability in 2019 as it had fifteen years ago. Because if you are young and smart and if you want to listen to music that will piss off your old and allegedly not-so-smart parents and if it is pretty much the same music that corporate culture was pushing upon the world thirty, fourty, fifty years ago... hey, happy times!

A particularly painful example, in my mind, is what happened to Adele. I really liked 19 when it came out and, while it wasnʼt absolutely-totally great, it seemed like a reasonably fresh and independent take on the female singer-songwriting persona. I loved 21 when it came out — here was actually one of those cases where the second album blew the first one out of the water because it improved on each of its aspects — catchier songwriting, more epic feeling, better mastery of diverse styles, and strong self-confidence stopping well short of annoying narcissism. Once 21 (deservedly) became a mega-hit, however, the industry caught up with Adele, and in between 2011 and 2015 she became part of the system: a veritable army of producers, external songwriters, and imagemakers spinning all the necessary wheels to ensure that the ball keep on rolling. (Just for the record, I think that ʽRolling In The Deepʼ is a great song and ʽHelloʼ is a piece of glossy shit, so that we should know where we all stand; for the same record, I can still remember most of 21 by heart, whereas 25 is completely gone from my heart and mind).

Is this a typical story? Of course — "selling out" is a classic term that we have always used, and continue to use for, say, the likes of Eric Clapton, or Aerosmith, or all those progressive rock bands in the 1980s. The difference is that, to the best of my knowledge, nobody ever describes the difference between 21 and 25 as "selling out". In fact, nobody ever describes anything any longer as "selling out"; the term has officially been retired, because it implies the existence of an invisible, but actual wall between two different musical camps, which is no longer there. Imagine, uh, letʼs say, Olivia Newton-John doing an album with, uh, The Clash circa 1978. Impossible, right? Now skip right ahead to 2015 and we find (former) indie darlings Flaming Lips doing an album with Miley Cyrus, literally one of the symbols of corporate commercialism. Nobody is batting an eye (well, actually, the album was so crappy that everybody had to bat an eye, but the very fact of such a collaboration hardly raised any outcries — because how dares anyone but the most elitist prick in the world say that a teen pop queen / sleazy shock diva is somehow "inferior" to one of the most inventive and daring art rock bands of the past three decades?).

Importantly, I am not saying that commercially-oriented, market-calculated music is incapable of having artistic value. "Daring", "experimental", "challenging", "rebellious" music has always lived side by side with "safe", "conservative", "traditional" music — in fact, the former owes the latter its existence, since nothing can be called "daring" unless you have a proper comparison basis. There is nothing inherently wrong with liking Olivia Newton-John (to whom I myself am quite sympathetic), or even with liking Miley Cyrus (who I couldnʼt care less about). There may, however, be something wrong about failing to, or intentionally refusing to admit some kind of border between these types of music. And there is everything wrong with mistaking one of these types for the other, which is exactly what modern corporate culture has been trying to get us to do — as far as I can tell from numerous debates with my younger friends, with a far greater degree of success in the last 15 years than in any previous period in its history.

The thing is, corporate industry is anything but stupid; it simply took it about fifty years to properly learn how to bottle and sell "rebellion" and "empowerment" to the masses. What used to be, fifty or forty years ago, the playground of cynical, but witty and (at least) psychologically interesting individuals like Andrew Loog Oldham and Malcolm McLaren, has turned into a giant, multi-billion-dollar industry of imagemaking that swallows literally everything in its path, artists and listeners alike, so that they do not even realize that they have been living in the belly of the proverbial whale for years now. Itʼs like the famous Pepsi commercial with Britney, Beyoncé, and Pink — see it still hanging on Youtube and all the people in the comments admiring how it promotes girl power and arguing about who is the hottest of the three... in the end, though, what it really all boils down to is that the Pepsi people want you to buy more Pepsi. (Granted, Cokeʼs ʽIʼd Like To Teach The World To Singʼ wasnʼt much better, but in 1971, they had to assemble a special one-time band to sing it — and who really remembers The Hillside Singers today?).

A long-running gag in my Only Solitaire group is my unabated hatred for Taylor Swift; clearly, though, I do not hate Taylor Swift for being a boring songwriter, and I certainly do not hate Taylor Swift as an actual person (as long as she does not murder any of her ex-boyfriends, which could be a good publicity stunt). All my negative energy towards Taylor Swift (and the like) as a cultural phenomenon revolves around the strong combination of calculation and cheapness of the image that she — or her imagemakers, or her marketologists, or, most likely, all of them working as a single team — is projecting. But no, wait, scratch that. Again, calculated, cheap, insincere acts are as old as pop culture itself. What is new — and what really gets my goat these days — is just how many people whom I would normally consider to be intelligent, discriminating, caring about quality and taste actually go on record confessing their acceptance of, respect towards and (in extreme cases) admiration for the likes of Taylor Swift. Usually in one of two possible variants: the left-leaning / feminist / progressive people admire the lady for doing all the right things ("Tay-Tay has just openly supported LGBT people in her latest video, yay, go Tay! share on Twitter!"), while people who care a little less about politics and issues and a bit more about the music just go "hey, she writes great catchy songs, whatʼs wrong with that?". Score one — a big one — for the corporations. Itʼs clearly been a long, long time since we used to poke fun at ʽDo They Know Itʼs Christmas?ʼ and its dubious artistic values; now all it takes for the big guys is to subtly press a few correct buttons, and presto, we have been taught what real art should look like. And also probably made quite a few bucks for the big guys, in passing.

That said, Taylor Swift has at least never pretended to be anything but a part of the corporate commercial culture, be it in her early country days or in her modern electropop diva guise. But who really did? When I listened to Carly Rae Jepsen and honestly admitted to not hearing that much difference between her music and the usual commercial drivel, people told me "yeah, but the difference is that she is really not a part of the machine — she is doing all of that on her own, whatever she wants". Well... uh... maybe so, and we should technically speak of CRJ as an "indie" artist because... because sheʼd like to think of herself as an indie artist (or something like that, anyway, I have no idea if she ever uses the term). But all the formal attributes are there! You have your army of producers, your army of external songwriters, your synthesized musical arrangements that everybody is using these days, your lyrical subjects of sentimental alienation that are all the rage everywhere. How the heck do you tell the difference?

A particularly nasty endorsement of this barrier-breaking approach would sound as follows: "In the past, we had self-appointed elites — boomer elites, naturally — with allegedly ʽgood tasteʼ, who usurped the public right to proclaiming what was great ʽartʼ and what was not, so that subsequent generations were indoctrinated into believing that The Beatles, or The Doors, or Frank Zappa made great music while Engelbert Humperdinck and Tony Bennett sang disposable crap. Later, the same elites were responsible for putting down disco, synth-pop, new school R&B and other perfectly fine genres because, somehow, things like hardcore punk and Brit-pop and avantgarde and IDM were considered ʽartistically superiorʼ. The time has come, brothers and sisters, to eliminate this fake discrepancy, restore justice to unjustly scorned musical genres and artists, and reject this ʽelitismʼ once and for all. Especially because it had its roots in racism, sexism, and homophobia all along". (That last part is sometimes presented as the icing on the cake — only recently, in all seriousness, I read an article about how the "disco sucks!" campaign was driven by racism and homophobia all along; I only hope that subsequent generations will manage to remember that at least the Gibb brothers were not a bunch of black gay men. Apparent­ly, some modern know-it-alls find it hard to believe that back in 1979–80, somebody could actually dislike disco simply because it sucked).

In propagating this absurdist historical revisionism, people are not simply mistaking black for white: they are unwittingly playing into the hands of the corporate industry that is manipulating their feelings and making them feel as if, by "rectifying" the history of art in this way, they are actually doing some important thing for The Cause. Thus, "rock" music, which used to be perceived as flying provocative and rebellious colors by default, is now increasingly viewed as a rudiment of conservative, sexist, racist forces — who knows, maybe this is the way it is today, but it definitely was not that way in the sixties or seventies. "Pop" music, on the contrary, is being promoted as the gold standard for empathy, tolerance, unification, even psychological depth — which, again, is perfectly fine for the music industry, which has always found it easier to deal with more predictable and malleable "pop" artists than the generally rowdier "rockers". It may be argued that the original rise of "poptimism" in the early 2000s was a natural process, a healthy counter-reaction to the over-the-top expansion of "alternative rock" in the previous decade. But in the end, the "poptimistic" approach played right into the hands of people who would be perfectly happy to have your brains turn to mush, to have your sense of history completely atrophied, and to have your perfectly natural and admirable drive to do good in this world reduced to not forgetting to buy tickets for the nearest Ed Sheeran concert (okay, low blow, but within a text this large, it is hard to finish each paragraph with a tasteful banger).

To be fair, of course, music of the past 15 years cannot be reduced to just a general amalgamation of mainstream and indie values under a banner of pop commercialism. Overload of Opportunity guarantees you a good chance that every single day you can have easy and unconditional access to plenty of stuff outside the system — electronica, hip-hop, death metal, even straightforward pop music that simply refuses to play by the rules. But the overall influence of the system seems to me to be far more alarmingly overwhelming than it used to be, and the technologies with which it spreads this influence far more advanced and subtle than they were at any time in the past. Not that we should be too surprised about it — after all, progress is progress, and it is naïve to expect its fruits to be limited to just the good guys as time goes by.

Problem 3: We Have It Easy.

None of them along the line
Know what any of itʼs worth.

Assuming that we are on the right track, let us now construct, to the best abilities of our limited imagination, the idealized model of what a perfect modern music band should look like. Their heads are not spinning because of the Overload of Opportunity; their minds are not enthralled by Corporate Calculation; they are young, sincere, intelligent, passionate about music, they honestly feel like they have something new and important to say and they combine it with just a pinch of innocence and naïvety that are so essential for a perfect connection with the listener. Maybe I have just described the Arctic Monkeys, or maybe it was Chairlift, or maybe even (God help us all) Bon Iver, I really have no idea. Maybe it was nobody in particular. In any case, the nagging question is: why does this music, regardless of how closely it matches this ideal, so rarely affect me on an emotional level? Why is it that I typically want so much more — on a purely gut level, no overthinking this particular issue — to empathize with pop music makers from the Fifties all the way to the Nineties, and feel the presence of an invisible line just as we pass the ridiculously mystical number 2000?

If these questions seem meaninglessly subjective and alien to you, please feel free to skip this entire section. It is quite probable that they will seem alien to you if you were born anytime after 1990, and with an even larger degree of probability, they will seem alien if you were born anytime before that and your biggest public fear is to pass off as an obsolete nostalgic wreck in the face of the freshly arrived generations. Indeed, this can be a terrifying feeling — we have all learnt our lesson too well from how "guitar bands were on their way out" in 1962, and it is understandable that nobody wants to feel like a fossil in the brand new age of innovative technologies, progressive thinking, and global leadership.

Not so terrifying for yours truly, since I already have a long history of feeling like an obsolete nostalgic wreck — ever since I was six or seven years old, I think — and am therefore in a nicely quaint position of being able to compare how it felt to be an obsolete nostalgic wreck in the Eighties, in the Nineties, and in the new millennium. Believe it or not, these were three seriously different feelings. The first two were largely egocentric, and based very much on ignoring — intentionally or unintentionally — a lot of the things that were going around simply because they were so different from the kind of music that I was accustomed to. In the back of my mind, I wanted everything to sound like the Beatles, or the Doors, or at least Led Zeppelin, so, one by one, I had to overcome my phobias of heavy metal, punk rock, avantgarde, electronica, synth-pop, trip-hop, all the way to glitch and sample-based music. It was a good journey that I remember with fondness, and I sure wish I could still continue it or go on another one, but the problem is that all those conquests were real challenges — barriers that you had to break down, walls that you had to scale, magic potions, if you wish, that you had to imbibe to let your mind and conscience expand. Alas, itʼs been quite some time since I last faced a true challenge.

One thing, perhaps, that I have always valued above everything else about music was the ability of the artist to break down all possible barriers — go all-the-way-out-there, pull out all the stops, never look back, tear ʼem all a new one, that kind of thing. This is not how it should work in real life, where I always like to see mild solutions and compromises — you donʼt really want to see the world go down in flames. Art, however, to me has always been the platform for tense, strong, radical, exaggerated, hyperbolical statements — musical dramas, tragedies, exorcisms, sacrifices, you name it. The volcanic energy of classic Who, the sardonic nastiness of classic Stones, the sharp-as-a-knife bitterness of classic Floyd — these were always preferable over the soft, lulling, smoothly flowing friendliness of the Grateful Dead, a band that had always avoided sharp angles with the same industriousness as the parents of a year-old toddler. Later on, I learned how to get inspired by the arch-cockiness of Prince, the top-of-the-line sexy snap of early Madonna, the depressed deeps of Portishead, the austere minimalism of the Ramones, the putrefying dirtiness of Motörhead... too many examples to list. Importantly, this kind of 100%-empowering music may be produced in any genre — pop, rock, folk, reggae, R&B, or you could push it back all the way to the times of Mozart and Beethoven, it does not really matter. No prisoners, no quarter, one hundred percent: the blooded stage hands of Pete Townshend around 1969-70 have always been and continue to be the symbolic illustration of what it takes to transcend mere craft and pass into another dimension.

My single largest problem with most of the music from this century is that I no longer get any of that adrenaline rush. Yes, there most certainly are occasional exceptions — the abovementioned Arcade Fire is one of them, or, if you smell "rockism" and demand an example as far removed from old-school pop-rock values as possible, then perhaps Animal Collective would be another suitable case (although Merriweather Post Pavilion, their unquestionable peak, is also ten years old by now). But the absolute majority of positive emotions (I am intentionally omitting overtly bad music, of which I have also heard plenty, from this discussion) could be summarized as "nice": listenable, well-crafted, tasteful, but stopping well short of the line beyond which I could be capable of experiencing bliss, and in most cases, clearly inferior next to artists with whom I was already familiar. Beach House? Nice, but nowhere near as magical as Cocteau Twins. Chelsea Wolfe? Commendable love of darkness, but nothing beats my girl Nico. Anaïs Mitchell? Intelligent, knowledgeable, creative, but if you have the mis­fortune of being a female singer-songwriter with the name Mitchell, you have a very tough association to beat. Battles? Adebisi Shank? Almost amazingly complex and creative math-rock, but still nowhere near the imagery and tension of King Crimson who could achieve far more significant results with far more modest means. And the list goes on and on.

Note that I am not even talking here about innovation (this will be taken care of in the next section); I am simply talking about the capacity to make music that is emotionally moving on a very deep level, well within any previously established musical paradigms. It goes without saying that this is a very subjective area, and a lot depends here on the sequence of accumulation. A younger person will hear Beach House without knowing a thing or two about Cocteau Twins — thus, his/her capacity for being amazed and bewildered will already have been triggered, and the epic dreamy soundscapes of Cocteau Twins might seem inferior in comparison simply because, well, you always have those special memories of the one who took away your emotional virginity. (It certainly does not help that, to a young modern ear, the production on classic Cocteau Twins albums might and almost certainly will seem to be horrendously murky and outdated in comparison to modern standards of sound). But if some of us share at all the assumption that certain types of art can have lasting value, and that "lasting value" itself is a concept that cannot be reduced to conspiracies of old heterosexual white males, this implies that any person with a genuine love for art should strive to take art in context, and be able to empathize with the artistic spirit of any generation — after all, we do tend to scoff at statements such as "I canʼt watch old black and white movies" or "I canʼt read Shakespeare because the language is so twisted and obsolete", donʼt we? (Hint: thereʼs nothing wrong or hypocritical about scoffing at such statements even if you do not watch old black and white movies or read Shakespeare on a casual basis).

Anyway, enough with preliminaries and disclaimers, let us cut to the chase. First, as we have known from at least the days of Aristotle, art in general, and musical art in particular, obviously stems from life — in return, it also influences life to a certain extent, but clearly people have to draw on their own experiences and surroundings to find artistic inspiration for whatever it is they are doing. Accordingly, music shifts and evolves in the same directions as the entire world around us, reflecting the state of society (or, at least, parts of the society) at any given time. Second, it is also no secret that the majority of popular artists, ever since popular art began, tend to come from the middle classes — all the way from blue to white collar strata — and, occasional exceptions aside, it is also no secret that on the whole, the levels of hardship, poverty, aggression, etc. in middle class society have been steadily decreasing over the past half century. Get offended if you want to, but we, or, more accurately, our children do have it easier than it used to be.

Read the biographies of just about any beginning rock band in the Sixties and you will find that almost every one of them was literally at the edge of starvation at one time or another. Too often do we admire the out-of-nowhere genius of the Beatles or the Stones without taking a minute to remember years of dedicated suffering that they were willing to endure in exchange for creative and personal freedom. Like, when it comes to the Stones, we always like to snicker at young suburban white-collar boy Mick Jagger aping the features and attitudes of old Delta bluesmen; but we do not always remember that this was the same Mick Jagger who, of his own free will, had preferred the conditions of living in a filthy, crowded flat with his bandmates, scrounging for a living, to a life of assured comfort and stability as an established alumnus of the London School of Economics. Or all that unparalleled, unrivaled, unchallenged aggression on the Stoogesʼ Fun House, an album whose viciousness, as far as I am concerned, has never been surpassed by anybody and the very first notes of which still make my hair stand on end, no matter how many times I have heard them? Just read about the backstory of the Stooges and you will understand how closely it reflected their actual living conditions.

I have to do my best so as not to attach any emotional judgements to these historical observations. This is something that would be better left to artists themselves — artists are, by definition, supposed to thrive on hyperboles and shock value, so let somebody like Clint East­wood talk about the "pussy generation" of today, or wacky old Stephen Stills sing his heart out with vitriol about how "dead stupid cyberpunks" and "gigabyte meth freaks" have replaced the Woodstock generation. I certainly love and respect, en masse, the young people of today — my own son is over 20, so I literally have no choice here — and all the numerous small ways in which they have managed to surpass their fathers and grandfathers. The problem is, for all these small ways they just canʼt make any goddamn great music. They honestly try their best, but they canʼt. For instance, they can write millions of songs about break-ups — arguably the single most popular motif in todayʼs puzzling amalgamation of mainstream and indie — but they cannot make a single one of them burn with the same kind of inner flame as Fleetwood Macʼs ʽThe Chainʼ (I am listing this particular example because I was recently struck by just how totally ineffective the song had been made as a live cover by Florence & The Machine — oh kids, stay away from classics unless you have the guts to really really mean it).

This peculiarity has nothing to do with genetic diseases, or alien viruses, or the loss of ability to empathize or think, or a wilful embrace of decadence and apathy — and everything to do with shifting social conditions. Thus, politeness and inoffensiveness, which have more or less become the happy norm for intelligent young people, are your enemies when it comes to creating art — which should shock and offend if it truly wants to get to the point. Improvements in the general education system mean that formerly vibrant slogans such as "schoolʼs out for ever" and "we donʼt need no education" have largely lost their bite (not that our modern education systems are perfect in any way — but come on: those lines were all written back when corporal punishment was still a thing!). Most importantly, though, perhaps, with increasing opportunities all around, we are no longer able to understand the raw excitement with which young people half a century ago were getting into areas access to which had previously been reserved to higher classes — all those art school students who suddenly found out that they could channel their cultural heritage through themselves and out to millions of people in the outside world, on a scale previously unheard of in world history. Today, your ability to get through to millions of people with one click is taken as more or less a given — and from a psychological standpoint, this may be understood as a handicap rather than a stimulus.

What may have changed for the better (though I am not sure if "better" is the right word for it) is the official amount of intellectual content in modern musical productions. Long gone are the days when people could get away with the "love me do, you know I love you" type of lyrics. Modern math-rockers elevate musical structures to unbelievable degrees of complexity. Modern electronic artists make use of advanced hardware and software achievements to create sonic networks that make not only Kraftwerk, but even classic Aphex Twin sound like undergraduates. Production values have skyrocketed even for artists — perhaps especially for artists — who otherwise represent all the cheapest aspects of modern commercial music making (you know who Iʼm talking about). Many of the smarter younger people like it that way: for social reasons, they cannot bring themselves to sing along with "hey good lookinʼ, what you got cookinʼ", and are ready and willinʼ (sometimes openly, more often implicitly) to relegate poor old Hank Williams to the trash bin of history — just take the same melody, replace it with a less disturbingly sexist and more astutely worded message, and you got yourself a relevant modern classic instead. Although... relevant in the short run, perhaps, but something tells me that somebody like Kacey Musgraves is going to be replaced by the exact same Kacey Musgraves ten or twenty years from now — but the troubled magic captured in Hankʼs singing is not going to return any time soon. Maybe after a nuclear winter or something.

Nor do race, gender, religious or cultural background play a big part here. Thus, upon first listen, I really liked Benjamin Clementineʼs At Least For Now — the man was clearly gifted, a poet, a player, a visionary, and, above all, a person who clearly saw no obligation to stick to a particular formula just because of his skin color, instead trying to create a synthesis of some of the best features of European, American, and African music. And he did not even match all that well my general predictions — apparently, he did have a relatively tough backstory of school bullying and then busking near homeless shelters on the streets of Paris or whatever. And even so, two months after giving his debut album an almost glowingly positive review, I found out that the only thing lingering in my head was the overall concept of this album — not a single particularity about it. Now that his second album has been out for two years, I am almost afraid to approach it — I like the man too much to suffer another disappointment. (Oh, and just for comparison, if you happen to be afraid that I have Alzheimerʼs or something, the last album so far in my life that I have only recently heard for the first time and memories of which have been dazzlingly vibrant in my head for about a year now is Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatraʼs Nancy & Lee from 1968: for ʽSome Velvet Morningʼ alone I would happily trade ten entire careers of Lana Del Rey). Itʼs just that somehow, somewhere along the line his odes to broken hearts, grieved fortunes, and alienation took on a nature much more symbolic and formal than truly emotional / sentimental. I could try to sympathize and identify with him on an intellectual level, not on an intuitive one. And as it turns out, memory of the heart is usually much stronger than memory of the mind.

One indirect piece of support for this general theory — which could crudely boil down to "the better we live, the weaker art we create" — might unexpectedly come from the one music genre that I still tend to avoid, but which has really done its best in recent years to win me over: hip hop. Remember the observations on how few albums from after 2000 make it into the top 100 on RYM? Some people have objected to this saying that "the majority simply hasnʼt yet settled on a consensus", but something tells me it never will settle on any consensus; at the same time, however, the majority did clearly settle on a consensus for hip hop — apparently, Kanye and Kendrick at least have already been immortalized; not so sure about Danny Brown (this will probably depend on the way his subsequent career turns out), but in addition to these, we now also have acts like Death Grips, Run the Jewels, Brockhampton, and quite a few other who, as it seems even to people who are not the biggest fans of hip hop (like me), are way farther ahead on the cutting edge these days than any­body from the "rock" or "pop" sides of the tracks.

Indeed, given this enthusiastic reply, it is almost as if the late 2000s — early 2010s is going to enter history as the real period when hip hop finally reached its mature stage, despite all the long-standing praise in the musical community for classic hip hop acts from the Eighties and Nineties. Simply because it took the genre that long to properly break through the niche walls and begin reaching the general listener, black and white alike. Without a doubt, this had first and foremost to do with the expanding horizons of the artists themselves, as they grow both lyrically (now embracing subjects that massively appeal to consumers outside ghetto areas) and musically (increasing the sample base to include just about everything — I wonʼt lie, it was Kanyeʼs absolutely masterful incor­poration of ʽ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ into ʽPowerʼ that finally made me join the fanbase of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). But it also had to do with the fact that hip hop, even in this relatively safe and cuddly era, still retains the essential bite of the underdog — never mind that Kanye and Kendrick were already well-to-do superstars by the time they recorded their masterpieces, never mind that Kanye himself, to the best of my knowledge, was a strictly middle class kid all the way rather than a slum / ghetto kid, I can still give him the benefit of representing a much more pissed-off, desperate, frustrated, fiery part of the nation than... uhh... well, at least somebody like Justin Vernon. In all honesty, ʽPowerʼ gets my tired old blood flowing faster than any single "angry" rocker from any single white boy since the days of Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley. (And no, the early 2000s garage-rock revival does not cut it: the Strokes / Hives / Vines crowd already suffered from all the problems I mentioned).

Whether the genre still has a glorious future in store for it, or whether we are now witnessing the absolute peak of a movement that will soon be reduced to feeble self-parody by the combined forces of the Overload of Opportunity and Corporate Calculation (and We Have It Easy, if the social conditions that supply so much fuel to this particular fire ever start improving to the same levels that they have improved for the white middle class) — this is not for me to say. For now, the main problem is that, despite major progress in this area, hip hop still has some way to go to completely transcend its niche status — partly because we have just entered the peak era of niches and nich-isms, and partly because the combination of sampling and rapping is still conservatively seen by many people as "not music" (I think now that this debate is largely a matter of terminology, but I still admit myself that it is much easier for me to deal with music played with real musical instruments), and also partly because, unlike blues, soul, and rockʼnʼroll, hip hop has proven much harder to adopt and adapt for Eurocentric musical culture. Still, the very fact that I was able to easily get into Kanye and Kendrick (and feel myself old when trying to get into Death Grips) after consecutively feeling nothing but indifference towards Run DMC, Public Enemy, N.W.A., Wu-Tang Clan.... that has got to count for something.

All that has been said here is sure to raise certain uncomfortable questions, such as: "Imagine that ʽImagineʼ has come to pass, and everybody is living in total peace and happiness; would art, and musical art in particular, be incapable of acute emotional resonance in such a society?" The thing is, such a question actually makes no sense, since our emotional resonance itself is shaped by the surrounding circumstances: in a society where the worst thing that could ever happen to you was a mosquito bite, weʼd have music inspired by weak mosquito bites (emo), strong mosquito bites (doom metal), and a lack of mosquito bites (twee pop), and our gamma of feelings would still run all the way from terrified to rapturous. So far, however, we still live in a society that has only recently began to learn how not to exterminate each other in world wars, how not to let a major part of its population live under normal conditions of everyday starvation, how not to resort to violence and cruelty on a casual basis — and still has a long way to go to ensure that these new values are not reversed. It is important to remember that most, if not all of the great art of the 20th century is inextricably linked to the unimaginable cruelties and hardships of that century — and from that point of view, we would certainly rather have a 21st century completely devoid of great art than have to go through World War III to raise a new generation of Lennons and McCartneys. Itʼs better to fade away than to burn out, and I hope that I donʼt die before I get old — just what Neil and Pete taught us to do based on their own lives, in the end.

In conclusion of this section, Iʼd like to briefly pass on this observation on the most recent teen fad — the phenomenon of Billie Eilish, whose success story right now is hotter than anything else on the planetʼs surface. Out of curiosity and general culturological interest, I have listened to a few of her songs and watched a few live performances, and the easiest explanation for this success, I think, is how she manages to personalize, for this generation of kids, everything that could piss off their hip parents and grandparents. All the aspects of her production are the epitome of mediocrity — she is a clumsy mover, a barely competent singer, a transparently untalented songwriter, a collector of lyrical and visual clichés — but she combines all of them in an act of generational defiance, imbibing that aggregated mediocrity with a tragic flair. Her entire show is like a Dumbfuck Rite of Spring, an act of self-immolation in the face of the fact that she, and the entire generation that she represents, canʼt really do much of anything — not with this world weʼre living in, not with themselves, not with anybody else. Itʼs actually quite creepy: watching her engage in this ritual with her audience gives a bit of an Island of Doctor Moreau feel, if you know what I mean. And it only further confirms my suspicion that those waves of depression which, according to both personal observations and confirmed reports, have engulfed our latest generations, go way deeper than politics, reactionism, right wing triumphs, or having to emotionally and intellectually cope with a Godless universe. But how deeper? To answer that, we have to discuss our fourth, and arguably biggest, problem.

Problem 4: The Mind Has Its Limits.

There are many here among us
Who feel that life is but a joke.

We now come to the point with which I have been obsessed for the longest time — in fact, if I remember correctly, it had already provided the main focus for my earlier essay. Briefly, what I tried to articulate twenty years ago was that we may have reached a point where humankindʼs capacity for making fresh, exciting, innovative musical patterns and textures has approached, or even reached, its limits, and that soon enough, in order to have your mind greatly amazed and expanded by a new piece of music, you would have no other choice than to erase, forget, and/or rewrite the entire history of art.

Back in 1999, as I was still sitting atop my select pile of CDs, this idea could not have been anything other than a hunch — without the factor of Total Availability at your disposal, there was no way it could be confirmed (or disproved). Once, however, we did move into this new age where art and other forms of intellectual property can, as a rule, become available with one click of the fingers, I started catching myself, more and more often, in a state of constant déjà vu, of which music was only a part — books, movies, visual arts, you name it, followed the same pattern: "nice album / book / movie / installation, but didnʼt artist / writer / director / artist so-and-so realize more or less the same ideas earlier, and better?" Well, scratch ʽbetterʼ; we actually covered ʽbetterʼ under We Have It Easy. The more important word here is "earlier".

In that early text, I had outlined the overall history of music in a roughly linear fashion — actually, precisely the way it is usually presented in most popular accounts of music history; nothing original, and nothing particularly wrong in seeing the major line of development going through various phases of classical / academic music, then transitioning to jazz as the leading force, then to rock, then to various forms of post-rock (in the large sense — including electronica and hip hop). Each stage of this development was fairly complex, and no single time period could be completely reduced to one single dominant form, but you could put down a general history of music divided by periods where certain forms would be deemed old-fashioned or obsolete and certain other forms as fresh and innovative.

Thinking about the nearly twenty years of this century, I cannot come up with any single musical form, or even any set number of musical forms that would be clearly dominant over others — let alone "innovatively dominant". Rock? People are sick and tired of it, and other than cleaner production and modernized lyrics, rock hasnʼt had a breakthrough in years; papers that bury rock for good now come out in pop culture magazines like fly swatters against occasionally cropping up pests such as Greta Van Fleet. Pop? Yes, some people actually say that pop is the dominant force now — but pop in its many forms has been around for decades, and the breaking of the barrier between mainstream and indie can hardly count as an innovative musical develop­ment. Hip hop? Maybe the best candidate so far (if only because hip hop is the only genre that has progressed very significantly compared to its 20th century days), but still tied down by its niche status, still having a hard time overcoming its formulaic limitations, still way too often serving as a "meta-genre" that reinterprets past achievements rather than boldly pointing the way into the future. The electronic scene? Yet another niche, and one that has not really produced a truly legendary representative since the days of Aphex Twin and Autechre (no wonder the entire world still waits with bated breath for each next creation from either of the two).

Paradoxically, it is only when I completely and utterly refute the desire to search for this "next chapter" in the overall evolution of music that the 21st century begins to become somewhat appealing, or to simply make sense. If anything, its major innovative principle is "let a thousand flowers bloom" — a near-complete equality and welcome policy for everything you could ever imagine. Poke around and you will see people making new classical music, new jazz, new folk, new blues, new country, new progressive rock, new hardcore, new electronica, new world music in any variety you could ever think of — Overload of Opportunity at your service. No single genre of music may be formally declared "dead" as long as it continues to be appealing to even the tiniest slice of population and as long as somebody is still willing to work within its confines, and most musical genres still satisfy those requirements. Throw in the important aspect of constantly rediscovering "lost classics" — everything from obscure 17th century baroque composers to third- and fourth-tier 1970s prog bands — and your acquaintance with the world of music today is the audio-selective equivalent of Willy Wonkaʼs.

As great as it sounds from one point of view, it also means that from another point of view, music has essentially / roughly come to an end — perhaps temporary, but nothing out there proves that it could not be final, either. Now that I have had the opportunity to immerse myself into a long and detailed comparative experience of everything from 1920 to 2019, I can say for certain that the 2000s (at least the mid-to-late 2000s) and the 2010s are the first period in a long time to lack a distinctive "musical face" of their own. Most of the big differences have been functional and technical — the rise of YouTube, streaming, etc. — but stylistically, it is hard for me to tell 2009 from 2019, simply because there is no specific thing that would make me go "oh, this is so 2009 and so not 2019" or "this is so 2019 and so not 2009". Itʼs all the more astonishing when you look at the sheer numbers of "new musical genres" allegedly invented over the past 20 years — from jazztronica to vaporwave to glo-fi to chiptune to kawaii future bass to trans-Andean neo-goth-folkstep — not a single one of which can be said to have had any serious effect outside small circles of fans and critics.

Not too astonishing, though, once you realize that the majority of these genres are essentially "musical cocktails" — results of complicated syntheses of disparate entities that, like most cocktails, particularly appeal to small separate groups of discriminating connaisseurs, while the majority of consumers stays perfectly happy with the base ingredients. Sometimes it works reasonably well, sometimes it doesnʼt, and it makes about as much sense to study and savor all these developments as memorizing detailed lists of various types of proteins and carbohydrates (which is now not even a necessary requirement of your average biochemist, who can easily google them up whenever the need arises). No such synthesis over the past 15–20 years, so it seems to me, has produced a truly new and universally recognizable form of life. (With the possible exception for dubstep, although I think many of us would agree that this one was closer to a Frankenstein monster, and it still sorely needs to be put down for everybodyʼs good).

If I am wrong here, I have yet to see me proven wrong, and this will happen if everybody settles down on a few musical terms that can be quickly and securely associated with the 2010s the same way "psychedelia" is tied to the Sixties, "funk" and "disco" are tied to the Seventies, "hair metal" (yes, it was embarrassing, but it was such a unique trademark) is tied to the Eighties and "grunge" and "Brit-pop" are tied to the Nineties. Or if we settle on a relatively common answer to the question "Who are the Beatles / Stones / Dylans of the 2010s?" (ʽTaylor Swiftʼ and ʽEd Sheeranʼ, being 100% creations of Corporate Calculation, do not count as legitimate answers; ʽKendrick and Kanyeʼ may be closer to the truth, but see above on their niche status). Or, at least, if we all feel secure about deciding which ones are the artists to whose next records we are actively looking forward to — if you are the same age as me or older, a very likely answer is zero (if you say ʽPaul McCartneyʼ or ʽNeil Youngʼ, you really are a hopeless old fart; if you say ʽKing Crim­sonʼ, you are an exquisitely refined kind of old fart, but an old fart nonetheless); if you are younger, a very likely answer is somebody, but it is just as likely that the somebody in question will be completely different for each one of your ten nearest neighbors. (I personally tested this using my Facebook community as a focus group once).

At times, I like to metaphorically think of all the different musical genres as a pack of scattered marathon runners — some getting an early start and then running out of breath midway through and having to limp the rest of the way, some joining the race much later and sprinting like mad for a while, and some taking the time to mate in nearby bushes and then having their offspring join the crowd (yes, itʼs a pretty long marathon). But now it seems to me that the marathon has ended, everybody has crossed the finish line, and what happens now is that all the winners take their time to relax at the pool, sip cocktails, and exchange colorful stories of their best moments during the race: not a terribly exciting finale, but mayhaps a heart-warming one, anyway.

As a matter of fact, the idea that human potential for creating genuinely new forms of (musical) art may be finite is nothing to laugh at — we might be pretentiously giving a little too much credit to ourselves if we keep insisting on the opposite. And music is only part of the big picture here. From a scientific perspective, I have recently been amused by John Horganʼs The End Of Science, a deliberately provocative, but respectably bold statement that the human mind has pretty much ran out of opportunities for groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting discoveries of the Einstein / Darwin type of magnitude. New scientific achievements are still possible and certain to be expected (in fact, we predictably see them every day and will go on seeing them for many generations), but primarily within the limits of already established models and paradigms — anything that goes beyond that may already be outside the scope of understanding of the human mind due to its inherent limitations. (After all, it already takes a way above-average brain to understand the basics of quantum mechanics, let alone string theory).

Likewise, the most radical and challenging forms of music — from Ustvolskaya to Throbbing Gristle to late Autechre, etc. — are "accessible" to such a puny minority of the people that going beyond them would reduce the audience to near zero; more accurately, going beyond them, at present, is simply unimaginable. The drastic expansion of musical horizons in the 20th century was due to the old European tradition bringing in reinforcements — from Africa, from the Middle and the Far East, even from aboriginal traditions of the Americas, the Pacific, and Australia. No more reinforcements are available to us, unless we happen to uncover the mystical secrets of Atlantis or contact distant life forms in some galaxy far, far away. All we can do now is to simply continue cross-breeding the genres in much the same way that they have been cross-bred over the past 20 years — but if that continues at the same rates as it has, we might even find ourselves running out of all possible combinations before the century is out; and most importantly, few, if any, of these combinations will matter anyway.

"Welcome to the new Dark Ages", sang Greg Graffin on Bad Religionʼs aptly titled New Maps Of Hell in 2007. What he and his fellow Brett Gurewitz meant, of course, was the rising threat of obscurantism and neo-conservatism — a perfectly real threat that has become even way more tangible over the past decade. But I like to see this metaphor differently: in some models of history, the real "Dark Ages" were not so much a period of raging cruelty and superstition (of which humanity has always had plenty before and since) as a period of quiet intellectual stability following a major outburst of creative ideas, a period during which society was essentially trying to come to terms with all the previously accumulated knowledge, slowly disseminate it among a much larger group of people than before, and prepare the ground for the next big push. It may well be that we are on the threshold of another such period — and fate only knows, then, for how long it is going to last: a decade, a century, or several millennia. In any case, it is already happening: quietly, one by one, people here and there are beginning to talk about the slowing down of progress, and music is one form of art where this slowing down is particularly well observable, though certainly far from the only one.

Back when I was already suggesting something similar twenty years ago, some of those people who did not call me an idiot and thought the suggestion made sense still objected that the situation might be temporary, and that after a brief lull we would likely see "the next Beatles" achieving the next major breakthrough. I say that if this has not clearly happened over the last twenty years, then there is no reason to expect a miracle in the next twenty. The 20th century, with its many artistic, scientific, and technological wonders achieved through democratization, globalization, and general rationalism, has spoiled us so much that some of us might have truly believed in the endlessly exponential growth of artistic progress, even though common sense should have told us such a thing would be impossible; in reality, the curve simply hits a brick wall at some point — just like you canʼt accelerate past the speed of light; moreover, your body and your mind wonʼt even be able to properly adjust to speeds much slower than the speed of light. Like dear old Pete said way back in 1968, when the situation was nowhere near as dire yet: "We try harder and harder, tryinʼ to get our way / But itʼs a long long wait until Judgement Day / So settle your affairs and take your time / ʼCause everything in the world is yours and mine". And by that last line, he certainly meant Overload of Opportunity, didnʼt he?

Conclusion: Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part 3

But you and I, weʼve been through that
And this is not our fate.

If you have unexplainably made it this far down into the text, then either I am a genius of whining or you have a serious masochistic streak. To recapitulate what we may have implied this far — too much opportunity is a bad thing; careful marketing strategies are a bad thing; millennials and Gen-Z are depressed sissies who lost their parentsʼ ability to suffer and empathize; and, last but not least, we have simply run out of ideas and are now doomed to be forever running in circles like the hamster from Day Of The Tentacle. One solution is to go shoot ourselves right now, or, to save time, ask our illustrious global leaders to detonate their nuclear arsenals and be done with it. But if we do not want to give the cockroaches a chance and find this solution unacceptable, then our only alternative is to retort that all the above statements, even if they were spelled out in a more accurate and less overtly offensive manner, were nonsensical hogwash and whoever made them was simply projecting his personal issues onto the whole world, and whoever agreed with him was a propaganda victim.

Let me tell you this, though. Each of these statements, I think, is at least a reasonable hypothesis, and I would not dare to claim authorship of any of them; I am simply putting them all together here in one basket, which is not something I have seen anybody do so far. Together, they form quite a coherent little theory that will be either vindicated as more years go by, or proven wrong if some unexpected jolt breaks up the kaleidoscopic monotony (yes, that was quite an intentional oxymoron) of the past fifteen years. It may look like a grim, pessimistic, depressing theory that people — particularly young people, whose life experience has only just begun and who do not want to be forced to take Robert Smith as their role model — will want to shun at all costs. (Then again, see notes on Billie Eilish above). In reality, though, it isnʼt all that bad once you take the time to think about it, understand it, and learn how to cope with it.

For my part, I have realized that there is only one thing which is really responsible for all my bad moods and bouts of depression — and it is not the overload of opportunity, or the difference between generations, or corporate greed, or the realization of how limited are options are in the long run. What irks me most of all is the pervasive atmosphere of dishonesty and hypocrisy that has been generated around these issues. Over and over, year after year, pop culture has been getting more and more predictable, repetitive, simplistic, boring, trivialized; and at the same time, year after year, as if to compensate, professional writers have been outdoing each other in quoting words like ʽexcitingʼ, ʽchallengingʼ, ʽinnovativeʼ, ʽrevolutionaryʼ, and (my personal anti-rating leader) ʽamazingʼ at every occasion. Much of this is Corporate Calculation, of course: say ʽamazingʼ once and ten people will believe that it is amazing, say ʽamazingʼ ten times and ten million people will believe that it is amazing. But quite often, it is an involuntary reaction to the status-quo: people need their share of amazement like they need their vitamins, so they have to resort to lowering their standards just to survive.

The truth is, I believe, that we are no longer living in a world that consistently produces amazement, and it may be a long time — maybe never — before this conveyer is reactivated. Once we actually accept this and renounce the need to constantly prove to ourselves that we are making New Major Strides every day of the week, the situation has a chance of becoming more adequate. Importantly, it might also help us override Corporate Calculation, a major part of which is to convince you that it is precisely the Corporate­ly Calculated Artists who are at the cutting edge of progress and innovation at any given moment. Just as importantly, it will aid us to restore some much-needed historical perspective.

Again, it might look here that all Iʼm doing is selfishly and conservatively protecting the "boomer values" (more accurately, "Gen X values") of my generation against the rising "millennial threat", but I really want nothing of the kind. I grew up in the Eighties, and already at that time was fully convinced (and still remain convinced) that, on the average, pop music in the Sixties was inherently superior to pop music of my own generation. The same, obviously, did not apply to video games, which did not exist in the Sixties, were fairly rudimentary in the Eighties, and probably only reached their peak in this century. (I do have a deep nostalgic attachment to Sierra On-Line, but the mere fact that I sank hours and hours into Space Quest 3 around 1989 and that for the young me it may have been a far more immersive experience than playing GTA or The Witcher twenty years later does not change the overall perspective). In some respects, the grass was greener — in others, like TV shows, for instance, it wasnʼt. The problem is that today, every now and then, I come across discussions that worry about the future fate of video games and TV shows even more than they worry about the fate of music; who knows, maybe it is precisely because so many people have already given up on music as a leading progressive force, and placed their trust — temporarily — in video games and TV shows instead. (Incidentally, I have to confess myself that Mass Effect and Westworld made a much bigger impact on me in the past decade than any single musical album Iʼve heard from the same time — perversely enough, even some of their musical themes affected me more than any non-soundtrack music).

The key thing, I think, is to try and concentrate on all the aspects in which we are truly better off these days and not try and fool ourselves about the aspects in which we are not and possibly will never be again (or not for a long time). In a decidedly politically incorrect opinion battle on my FB group one day, irritated by a generic wave of leftist trash talk about "dead white males" and their ongoing hegemony, I once remarked that I preferred music (and art in general) by "dead white males" far more than music by "living black females" — an intentionally provocative remark whose main purpose was to see the kind of people who would misconstrue and twist it. Naturally, what this really meant was that accidentally, humanity as a whole happened to hit its latest creative artistic peak — from, say, the Renaissance until the late 20th century — at a time when white males of European civilizations were the dominant cultural force. Today, the situation is changing and we are happily busy correcting the balance of power, at least to a certain degree; but whether the newly liberated "minorities" (quotes are there because it always feels strange to call women a "minority") will be able to overthrow the Mind Has Its Limits obstacle remains to be seen, and I have my rational doubts about it — as great as you might be, even if you are late to the table because you have been tricked into setting the wrong time on your watch, you still only get scraps. The sad matter of fact is that in certain — many? most? — areas of intellectual activity, we may have already performed most of the possible tasks.

So, provided that some or all of this makes sense, what do we do?

I guess that we do nothing. We can embrace a bit of Taoism and try to understand that, perhaps, sometimes things get easier and more effective if you do not spend all of your time thinking about how to make them easier and more effective. We may embrace a bit of Ecclesiastes and realize that, perhaps, the time to throw stones has now been followed by a time to gather stones — sit down, look back, take things in perspective, be amazed not so much at our brilliant perspectives for the future but rather at the truly amazing paths that we have already traversed. We understand that, at present time, unearthing some forgotten, not too brilliant, but modestly nice pop album from 1965 is an action that is every bit as relevant — not an iota more, not an iota less — than listening to a soon-to-be-forgot­ten, not too brilliant, but modestly nice pop album from 2019.

We might also acknowledge that deriding each other on a generational level is not only impolite, but also counterproductive and intellec­tually meaningless, because individual people are shaped by the times in which they live. We should admit that honesty, sincerity, and a sober historical perspective should be keys to internal, if not necessarily external, peace and happiness. We could agree that music — and many other things — may not necessarily have a future, but it will always have a present, through which it will also be easier to connect with its past.

In less abstract and more practical terms, I am not advocating for any radical change, because it is foolish to advocate for the impossible. If you like somebodyʼs homemade retro-synth-pop ditties popularized by YouTube (yeah, like Billie Eilish), thatʼs OK. If you like Taylor Swift, Rihanna, or Ed Sheeran, thatʼs fine. If you are deeply moved by the likes of Lana Del Rey, itʼs your prerogative. The only problem I have with any of these choices is if they block your view of the artistic timeline. I do not like it when people throw away old movies because they are in black and white or lack sound; refuse to play old video games because they are too pixelated; cringe at old records because they lack modern production values; or fly away in horror from "sexist" or "racist" phrasings by artists who, in their prime, may have actually been the epitome of anti-sexist and anti-racist movements. Open your minds wide enough to embrace the technologically and intellectually conditioned differences, and once your Billie Eilishes and Carly Rae Jepsens no longer exist in a vacuum — or, more accurately, cease to be your focal points of reference — you might begin to discern the proper forest behind the proverbial trees.

As for myself, I can say for certain that I am not at all "done with" modern music. As long as I continue writing about music in general, I will do my best to mention and occasionally review those sporadic tracks and albums that are as close to "amazing" me as it can possibly get; and I promise to keep my eyes open for at least some of those modern artists that succeed at least a little in uniting audiences rather then keeping them all nicely segregated within their niches — as long as these artists arenʼt exclusively manufactured by the algorithms of Corporate Calculation, since these seem to hold a near-complete monopoly on determining these days what is popular and what is not. Among other things, I am definitely going to watch the hip hop scene a bit and see where it goes, though I still have a very hard time writing about the genre. The only thing that Iʼm totally done with is shaming myself for not giving modern music the proper chance that it deserves — I do not know everything about it (who does?), but I have enough reference points to back up all of my personal conclusions. More importantly, I do not even feel like there is a big demand for my writing about modern music — so why bother all that much?

Looking at this from an optimistic angle, we actually live in a pretty good time. Neither Trump, nor Putin, nor Boris Johnson, nor any of the petty wannabe Hitlers springing up all over Europe have deprived us of the Overload of Opportunity, whose main benefit is that each and every one of us boys and girls can essentially shape our living space exactly the way we want it to look and feel. Each of us can have our own little shrine, our own DIY canon, our own set of idols and role models untainted by peer pressure — globalization and digitalization have made it possible to construct your artistic reflection with almost surgical precision. (Mine might just be a mixture of John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Pete Townshend, Aimee Mann, and Win Butler; whatʼs yours?). In the end, it is completely up to you, not to me or anybody else, much less to the corporate industry, to decide who is better capable of rocking your own boat. And if, for instance, you decide that Lana Del Rey rocks your boat better than Kate Bush, or that Phil Elverum rocks it better than Nick Drake, or that Frank Ocean rocks it better than Stevie Wonder, well, the world is not going to stop spinning just because you have made that choice.

The only thing is that it has to be a choice — a choice that you have consciously chosen for yourself, not because you have simply lapped up what has been swept in your lap by the latest trends and fads, but because you have built up your perspective and then placed all the red pins in all the spots where you want them to stick out. I have briefly described to you here my vision of perfection, and I do not want everybody to necessarily share that same vision — but I do want everybody to settle for nothing less than perfection, because if our Overload of Opportunity gives us that chance, it would be foolish not to take it. And trust me, there is already enough perfection out there to last you a lifetime even if you want to be very, very greedy about it.