Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Tom Ewing posed an interesting question over on the Poptimists LiveJournal board--it’s actually three questions:

1. What moment, or trend or era in music have you felt was most important while it was happening?

2. Have there been any moments you felt at the time were important, which don't seem as important with hindsight.

3. When you first became aware of pop music as something which had a history, what seemed to you the most important things in the previous ten years?

Here are my answers.

1. Four things come to mind here. The mid-’80s chart explosion, Michael Jackson and Prince specifically. MJ was the biggest thing on earth, but Prince struck closer to home, for obvious hometown reasons.

The alt-rock takeover of the early ’90s was absolutely significant. It’s easy to mock Gina Arnold’s infamous “It means we won” comment about Nirvana going to No. 1 but what’s hard to get across to people who weren’t paying attention is how genuinely bizarre, unsettling, it was when it happened. Music like this wormed its way into the Top 10 after years of touring and building an audience, and nearly always as the result of a universally popular lullaby I mean ballad. Nevermind’s muscle-move felt seismic in that regard. I’d love to see a “weird scenes inside the gold mine” book on the fallout of that period.

Rave, which as a Yank happened to me a couple years later than it did to the U.K., definitely had the most personal impact, felt potentially world-changing in a way that ended up not really happening. I’m talking specifically 1992-95, when I was going to parties and paying as close attention as I could without buying 12-inches or DJing. (And while I was listening to lots of other music as well.)

And finally, NYC 2001-03, when I lived there the first time--even though I was skeptical about a lot of it, it’s kind of great to have been around while it was happening, and to have seen some of those bands in the city.

2. Rave in the U.S., certainly. Trip-hop specifically; I’ve long toyed with putting together a compilation (Entropy: Downtempo For Sluggards I’d call it) and calling it a day on that stuff, but the funny thing is that so much of the better stuff in this vein came post-heyday (’96, right? the Headz 2 comps as twin tombstones or whatever). And seriously, much as I love it: jungle. It’s become a kind of staple, sure, and without it it’s hard to imagine certain of Timbaland’s work (e.g. “Get Ur Freak On”). But in hindsight, it’s probably the style of music that burned brightest and boldest for an appreciable time that has had almost zero subsequent impact.

3. I became aware of pop history pretty early; its parameters were fuzzy, but even before music became a consuming interest I was interested in what music and movies were popular at different times back to the 1920s. I remember this idea forming itself when I was nine or ten, and became intrigued by the ’20s as an epoch thanks to a series of Time-Life books my school library had. That’s where I learned that Louis Armstrong had been in a group called King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and had revolutionized jazz. I think conceiving of the ’20s as the beginning of the modern era broadened my musical interests but focused how I conceived of it in terms of timeline.

Rock history proper came when I was 12 or so, when I discovered the Beatles and began finding my way through albums, then singles, then remnants of scenes. At that point I was heavily interested in the ’60s, and didn’t know that much about punk till a bit later. My viewpoint was so Beatles-focused and ’60s-worshipful that at the time I might have thought the most significant moment of the decade before was John Lennon’s death. I remember that pretty distinctly, actually: it was on TV, my mom talking about it in the living room with her family on the phone, a sense of surprise pervading the air. There was a sense of urgency about a lot of things like that back then. We didn’t play anything in tribute, though; Mom had owned Sgt. Pepper when I was very little but had left it behind at the apartment where we’d lived in South Minneapolis before heading to Richfield so I could go to school and not get beaten up.

(I recall the day Ronald Reagan was shot pretty well also. We’d been told in school, told to stay calm; as I remember it the teachers were pretty cool about the whole thing, explaining the situation and answering questions, being open and handling it smartly. We definitely got the message that we were supposed to feel bad for him. Then I came home and said something like, “It’s a sad day today.” “Yeah,” she replied. “The fucker’s still alive.”)