“Music was better in the old days” is a common refrain. This is due to several reasons. Music subcultures like metal are often territorial. Old-timers are suspicious of newcomers. In metal, one must earn one’s stripes. People compete to be “old school.” Also, nostalgia is a powerful force. Every generation laments the music of the next. People inevitably fall back on the music of their youth.
I am well aware of these forces. Many of my colleagues’ reference points calcified long ago. When they talk about punk, they start with The Clash and end with Green Day. They have no idea about hardcore punk and its rich history since the ’80s. I don’t want to be like that. So I sometimes check out what the kids are listening to. I don’t have to like it, but I feel like I should know about it. After all, much of the music that I like, especially aggressive kinds, stems from youth. The first album is always the best, right?
But I may have reached the point where I don’t understand kids anymore. Emo, the Victorycore kind, I could get. It was basically pop punk with metal influences. Metalcore, the good cop/bad cop kind, was a heavier version of emo. But deathcore and screamo crunkcore from the last two years — I don’t get it. Sure, some bands actually do deathcore well, as in combine death metal and hardcore.
This newer stuff, though, with symphonic keyboards, auto-tuned vocals, and hip-hop affectations is neither death metal nor hardcore. It is abysmal. Winds of Plague (pictured up top) may be the worst band I have ever heard. They arrange keyboards, breakdowns, and riffs so randomly, they unknowingly reference Burroughs’ cut-up technique. On an art project level, their album Decimate the Weak is hilarious. I have not laughed at music so hard in a while. But it’s depressing that it will be the “old school” for today’s kids.
Has youth music ever been this bad? Most of the music that I liked as a kid still holds up. Some hair metal doesn’t (Poison), but some does (Mötley Crüe). The thrash and death metal of my teen years all remain classic. Hip-hop fetishizes the early ’90s as much as death metal does. (Ice Cube and Ice-T would eat Soulja Boy alive.) Even the pop music that I loved — Janet Jackson, Young MC, early Guns ‘n’ Roses, to name a few acts — most of it does not embarrass me. (Technotronic does.) My biggest youthful misjudgments were industrial metal and ska. Those have not aged well.
Perhaps one explananation for the awfulness of youth music is the long tail phenomenon. Chris Anderson explains it in The Long Tail, a book I highly recommend. If a supply and demand curve is high on the left and low on the right, the long tail is the part on the right as the curve moves from popular items to obscurities. The Internet enables the long tail. Before the Internet, people got information through the same media: TV, radio, print publications. Now that people have myriad sources of information, they can customize their intake according to their tastes. Thus niches and sub-sub-genres like screamo crunkcore can find audiences.
The long tail might explain why kids flock en masse to bad music. When I grew up, culture was more mediated. It was easy to like music because it had gone through much filtering, albeit from corporate sources. Now anyone with Pro Tools or GarageBand can put music on MySpace or YouTube. Much more information clogs the cultural bandwidth now. Kids spend a lot of time on MySpace, music’s biggest long tail aggregator, so MySpace drives their tastes. It makes things easier to go viral (and for things like screamo, low-grade hip-hop, and toilet-grade -core to mate). Before, communicating with other fans of something required writing letters or joining a fan club. Now all that takes place instantly on MySpace.
So kids perhaps unwittingly collude in debasing their tastes. Labels prey on this. They fund knock-offs of knock-offs, milking trends dry before moving on the next one. Do Century Media execs actually listen to Iwrestledabearonce or Blessed by a Broken Heart (pictured above)? Can Metal Blade tell their deathcore bands apart? The main point of business is making money. In that respect, today’s Twitter and Facebook-savvy labels are brilliant. (Well, maybe not, given downloading. The word “sieve” comes to mind.) They have the kids squarely in their sights. Kids may have bad taste. But blaming kids who don’t know better is unproductive. Someone has to manufacture the objects of such taste. Filling the world with crap is one way to make money, I suppose.