The only constant in popular music is that nothing is constant in popular music. Tastes change radically between generations, with new genres appearing and disappearing in a never-ending cycle. Acts appear out of nowhere to become huge, while performers that seem like sure things have one hit and fade.
Fifty years ago this week, The Supremes released their final album with Diana Ross, Cream of the Crop. Conventional wisdom might tell you that Ross went on to her storied solo career while the Supremes disappeared, but they continued to produce hits and 11 more albums over the next seven years. Not coincidentally, The Supremes appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post on July 15, 1967, as part of a piece called “Pop Music: The Most? Or Just a Mess?” In it, music manager and rock journalist Alfred G. Aronowitz considers truths and fabrications about the nature of pop music, and how every generation seems suspicious of the music that the next generation is making, because for as long as there’s been music, there’s been a generational rift over what’s good and what’s garbage.
For someone who was so close to the music scene of the day, Aronowitz seems to have gotten quite a few things wrong. It’s even more curious when you realize that Aronowitz himself was the one that introduced The Beatles to Bob Dylan in person in 1964; he was right in the heart of what was happening. Despite his perch in the music industry, was it possible that Aronowitz suffered from the universal disdain that the older generation carries for each younger generation’s music?
Aronowtiz suggests that the Beatles where nearly over, even though they were on the verge of releasing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and making more immortal music. He mentions the obesity of Pigpen from The Grateful Dead rather than, say, discussing the impact that Dylan’s own Blonde on Blonde or The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds from the previous year were having on musicians. That may be easier to assess in hindsight, but even then it was widely known that Sounds inspired Sgt. Pepper. A lot of his observations seem, well, grumpy, for a writer that was only 39 at the time.
One of the main currents running through the piece is the idea of generational disconnect. That wasn’t new, even in 1967; 1940s parents did not get Frank Sinatra when he drove the bobby soxers crazy. The shift into rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s carried a lot of additional baggage, as parental discontent stemmed not only from a style that they didn’t understand, but also from more suggestive lyrics (in songs like Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock,” the word rock clearly means something else) and the increasing popularity of black musicians among young, white audiences. In 1967, the rift grew wider as the music found its way into a blender that included the Sexual Revolution, drugs, anti-war sentiment, and other political issues. Parents only thought The Beatles had long hair in 1964; by the end of the 1960s, the appearance of youth in general had radically shifted. Not only did they not want the same things as their parents, in many cases, they actively rejected it.
Fragmentation of taste remains an ongoing theme in popular culture, but it became really evident in the 1970s. Country music, already a strong seller, grew in popularity, driven in part by a number of TV shows featuring stars like Johnny Cash; his The Johnny Cash Show ran from 1969 to 1971 and was taped at the Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry itself. Porter Wagoner’s long-running show put Dolly Parton in front of audiences; by the time she left for her solo career in 1974, she’d already placed “Jolene” on the charts and was ready with “I Will Always Love You.” The Lawrence Welk Show played to the easy listening crowd throughout the entire decade. And Soul Train’s 1971 debut galvanized African-American artists and viewers, giving an outlet to R&B, soul, jazz, and funk performers that would find their way to pop stardom.
With the sonically tumultuous ’70s, new styles like disco, hip-hop, and punk were born, while late 1960s additions like heavy metal got a solid boost. The various sounds split the gulf between adults and teens even wider; though the teens of the ’60s rock era were now having children, there was an obvious generational divide between The Stones and The Clash, or between The Temptations and The Sugar Hill Gang. That’s not to say that people didn’t love both; it was just that each generation had increasingly specific signifiers. The segmentation affected radio; it was harder for new sounds to reach middle America, where formats gravitated toward country and classic rock, making it more difficult for bands to break through unless they made a TV appearance or got onto college radio stations.
The next seismic shift happened in 1981 when MTV launched. A new influx of British bands arrived, bolstered by the fact that the video clip format had already been popular in the U.K. for years. The New Romantic and New Wave artists (like Adam Ant, among others) came loaded with a visually appealing bag of tricks well-suited for the channel. It took American artists a bit to get ramped up, but savvy users of the music video like Madonna, Michael Jackson (admittedly, already a star), and Prince exploded. MTV set deep divides between Boomer parents and Gen X kids; suggestive lyrics now played out visually and a variety of cultures and appearances were beamed directly into the home. A few years in, MTV began creating shows styled to different genres, giving hip-hop (1987; Yo! MTV Raps), metal (1987; Headbanger’s Ball), and the wider umbrella of alternative rock (1986; 120 Minutes) regular homes that boosted the signal of acts that had never been seen before on the channel and wouldn’t make the more mainstream programs like American Bandstand.
In a way, MTV’s subdivision gave us a preview of the further fragmentation of culture. As more and more channels got added to cable packages, singly unifying pop culture events began to occur less frequently. Certainly millions would continue to gather in front of the screen for the Super Bowl and show up for huge successes like Friends and ER in the next decade, but it was the the last time broadcast TV would be the prime deliverer of culture. Kids would gravitate to their particular show or format, then go out and find the music that spoke directly to them. Why watch hours of other music if you could get your own concentrated dose in one show or on one station? The parental divisions only continued; just because your dad liked Led Zeppelin, it was not a guarantee that he’d like Slayer, even if they did come from the same branch of the musical tree.
When SoundScan debuted in the early ‘90s, it gave a realistic depiction of what people were actually buying in stores. Gone were the days when music sales totals were delivered by estimate; this was concrete information based on bar codes, and it painted a much more diverse picture of what Americans listened to and bought. In 1991 to 1992, country again surged across all demographics, alternative rock (led by the Seattle contingent) went through the roof, and hip-hop cemented itself as one of the dominant sounds. As counterpoint, regular pop music thrived on the backs of talent like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, with a mid-decade boost delivered by the Spice Girls and the teen pop revival that finished the decade. By this point, the teens and college students of the 1967 Post article were pushing 50 with two full generations (X and the Millennials) coming up behind them, changing the face of what pop could be. While the various genres still existed in a somewhat stratified way, regular mainstream success became sustainable for artists from hip-hop and country and alternative rock, among others; pop was still pop, but pop was a much bigger tent.
Nothing changed music in the 21st Century so much as the advent of digital/satellite radio, file-sharing, and digital delivery. Whereas before consumers had to go to stores and actively seek out the music that they wanted, the internet democratized the process, making nearly all of the music available in the world findable from your keyboard. Today, all of the songs from an album regularly enter the digital charts upon release as fans stream them in the millions. With everything available virtually all at once, listeners aren’t bound by region or radio play or television; they can access music from anywhere at any time. This has enabled the proliferation of Spanish-language artists and Korean boy and girl-bands in the U.S. in the past few years, while also allowing acts like Swedish metal outfit Ghost and iconoclasts like Lana Del Rey to reach new audiences and prosper. Acts like Taylor Swift and Drake still present dominant sales presences, but there’s still a vast selection of music that’s reachable by fans.
What does that mean for pop? 52 years past the Post piece and 50 years after Ross left The Supremes, is it, as the article asked, the most or a mess? It’s certainly the most in terms of available content. The use of a song in a film or trailer can send a decades-old song back into the charts, as happened with Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” when it appeared in Thor: Ragnarok. If it’s a mess, then it’s a beautiful one, as everyone with the internet or a smart phone can connect to an amazing library of music with the touch of a button. And while pockets of fans still adhere fanatically to certain acts that really inspire them, more young people listen to more music across genres than ever before, because it’s easier both financially and socially to try new tunes. It’s hard to say where music goes sonically or technologically in the next decade. The only sure thing will be that a kid will find something new, and their dad will tell them to turn it down.
Featured image: Shutterstock.com.
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