MUSIC For those of you who missed the memo, it all hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for the good people of the ol’ U.S. of A over the last year or so. You don’t have to be Noam Chomsky to realize that if the national unemployment rate is hovering right around 10 percent, that’s not good. If you toss in a confusing war that we are still involved in, the polar icecaps melting faster than Joan Rivers’ face in a boiling torrential downpour, and the small matter of a monster flu pandemic, it’s quite clear: Americans have a right to feel a trifle downcast at the moment.
Yet while we face some strains of a musical slump (screamo, ringtone rap etc.) that is just as woeful as our current financial state, 20th century American history tells us that there may be hope for the future. If you look back through the 1900s, there is a constant byproduct of periods of American crisis. We get some pretty damn awesome music.
Financially speaking, the past year or two has been dominated by scary words like recession and downturn, yet you and I have largely avoided the most bone-chilling term of all. To encounter it, you need to set your DeLorean to the 1930s, where you will find our country in the midst of the most terrifying 10 letters in our economic lexicon depression.
Beginning with some dramatic leaps in 1929, the Great Depression is the benchmark for what happens when things go horribly wrong. In the U.S., unemployment rates reached an unprecedented 25 percent, and the country, not to mention the rest of the planet, was wallowing in the unpleasant waters of the River Styx.
But something curious happened. As folks were dealing with the decade’s bleakest times, Americans were also writing, recording, and performing some of the finest music in the nation’s history. Legendary jazz artists like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday released some of the best material of their careers, while the roots of country music were sowed by musicians like Jimmie Rodgers, Lead Belly, the Carter Family, and Woody Guthrie. Much of the Depression-era work of these artists combines palpable, affecting melancholy with surprising overtones of faith, hope, and celebration. Music served as a window into the pain of the average American, and also as an escape from the real-life problems people were facing.
This phenomenon returned in many ways during the late 1960s. While thousands of Americans were fighting a war that nobody seemed to understand, those left behind faced widespread inflation and high interest rates. America again turned to its musicians to air frustrations and fears. Taking cues from artists like Pete Seeger and Doc Watson (who were still active during the generation), a new generation of protest music exploded. The new folk of singers-songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez gripped the nation. So did the socially-conscious soul of troubadours like Marvin Gaye, Gil-Scott Heron, and Sam Cooke.
Though these are perhaps the two most obvious instances of great music being created during hard times in America, they aren’t the only ones. Deep in the 1980s, as white suburbanites were loving Reaganomics and rocking out to Kajagoogoo and Huey Lewis, residents of inner cities across America were stuck smack-dab in GOP-perpetrated trickle-down hell. Groundbreaking artists such as NWA, Ice-T, and KRS-One sprang out of the cities, further igniting the massive cultural and commercial force that is hip-hop.
Which brings us to the big question can we do it again? While you may call it naiveté, I’m optimistic about the chances of history repeating itself. In just the last year, folk has made quite a resurgence, with Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, the Avett Brothers and others gaining massive followings and selling out venues wherever they play. Also, due to file-sharing, the rise of easily-streamable digital music, and well-run independent labels, artists are able to get their music out to larger audiences without interference from conservative and controlling corporate entities. The rise of independent music is apparent in the lineup of the upcoming Treasure Island Music Festival, widely expected to be one of San Francisco’s biggest concert events this year. Though tickets aren’t cheap, people haven’t minded shelling out for a bill that features only five bands currently signed to a major label.
Not so long ago, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the economy was booming. Things were great for everyone except the American pop music fan, who was subjected to overproduced boy bands, toothless pop rock (Sugar Ray, Smashmouth), nu-metal, and countless other forms of forgettable garbage. So while your pockets may be empty now, it might be a good thing. Hold out a hope that maybe, just maybe, in 30 years, the music of the next decade will be lauded much like the tunes of the 1930s and the 1960s.
Until then, just sit tight and keep praying for the death of auto-tune.