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The Death of Classics
It’s friday night. You’re in bar. Any bar. Montreal, New York, Barcelona, Bangkok… Even though it’s crowded, the vibe is kind of dull. When you’re about to order a drink, the DJ blasts Sweet Child O’ Mine in the speakers. Suddenly, you hear a couple of people, boys and girls, shouting some “woohooo”s, pointing at the DJ and nodding their head. For an unexplainable reason, the bar’s vibe kicks up a notch. The oldest among the crowd seem to remember their first high school parties. The younger recall a game of Guitar Hero in their friend’s tiny apartment, with the neighbour complaining twice in the evening about the overly-annoying screams echoing through the walls.
You take a second to reflect on what just happened. How can a single song stand the test of time like this, from 1988 to today? And not any song; a ROCK song. A song from a genre that is considered on the verge of total extinction in our present days, is able to fill people with an uplifting feeling of musical nostalgia.
To be honest, I think nostalgia kind of sucks. It basically means you’re admitting that the past is better than your current reality. But still, it’s undeniable that through the years, less and less songs are having this timeless gathering, crowd-lifting ability. So if this Guns ‘N Roses single makes nostalgia resurface in people, then maybe this situation should be seen as a wake-up call for all of us about the current state of music.
Now, what is so special about Sweet Child O’ Mine? Basically, not that much. It has a great riff, decent love-related lyrics, and an overall good melody. What is completely overwhelming though, is that back in the time when it came out, it was considered a popular song. Today, “good” and “popular” cannot be siblings in a sentence when we’re talking about music. Good music, for critics and music enthusiasts, is underground and limited in release.
There’s no single true explanation for this phenomenon. The first one that comes to mind is mass production. The easy scapegoats here are Napster, Sean Parker and company, who caused such a cataclysm in the recording industry, that its annual revenues fell down from $14.6 billion to $6.3 billion in less than 10 years. Album sales have reached all-time lows. Top-selling albums used to be in the range of 10 million units sold. Today, producers will be popping very expensive champagne if an album manages to sell 2 million copies. So, mathematically, the easy equation for record labels is this: if we can’t produce a 10-million-copies album, then let’s produce five 2-million-copies albums. Which at first doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. It’s only after a while that you realize how little you can do when you split your top producers, engineers and A&Rs into five different avenues, instead of having them focus on a single, top-quality project.
Enter the era of the easy-catchy-electro-pop hit. The dumbing down of the music fan. The birth of factory-quantity song-producing artists like T-Pain, One Direction, Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry. The success of these artists does not rely on the quality of their music, but on their ability to release a chart-topping single so fast that it will replace their last one as soon as its 3-week-long reign is over. Or simply put, keep the cash flow running perpetually. Rihanna, 7 albums in 7 years. Enough said.
Now that doesn’t mean that there’s no good music being made anymore. Flashback to 2010. The Black Keys released Brothers. Arcade Fire released The Suburbs. Kanye West released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Three exceptionally creative, influential and critically-acclaimed albums. I could write a whole essay about these three masterpieces. But I can sum up in one sentence that the total sales of the three of them together did not even match Justin Bieber’s My World 2.0 sales. It’s not that there’s no good music being made anymore. It’s just that people don’t care.
We’re all to blame in this. Our unquenchable thirst for novelty has got us caught in this vicious circle of mediocrity. We hear a song 10 times in a week on the radio, and we’re already complaining about how much we can’t stand it anymore. Good songs no longer stand the test of time simply because we don’t allow them to live long enough. And longevity is the number one attribute of a “classic”.
So in the end, what am I complaining about? Clearly not about the quality of today’s music, because there are still musical wonders created every year. I just wish that this music would reach the number of people it deserves to, and that it did not get submerged under the gigantic waves of shitty pop music. Coming back to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, most experts say that its sales were low because it was not an accessible album for the everyday listener. Dark Side Of The Moon is also not an easy-to-listen-to album, and it still managed to move out 50 million copies and stay in the Billboard charts for 741 weeks. It just belonged in an era where radio stations knew what to play, and record labels knew which artists to put at the forefront of the industry. That era is over.
People are not born with bad taste. People develop bad taste when you constantly feed them with bad shit.