There’s a thread on the bass forum I’m woefully addicted to about how Taylor Swift should write new music that actually sounds like new music. The thread, like many before it, is just an excuse for those who don’t like today’s music to complain about it. Others even pin it on the entire generation, though I get the feeling they’re just projecting their own sense of inadequacy. That idea is actually an interesting one but will have to wait for its own post. Now, we’re looking at what comparisons of music from different time periods really mean and why they mean so little.
Obviously, we ought to compare pop music to pop music and, of course, the offering of ye olde pop music to use as a benchmark in the thread was The Beatles. Let’s compare the two: Early in their career, The Beatles were pretty similar, writing formulaic songs for the lowest common denominator. (Yes, I looked up Swift. You owe me, reader.) They weren’t game changers musically yet, beyond writing their own songs. We don’t get to contrast the two until later in The Beatles careers, at which point we see why comparing the two is useless.
It wasn’t just The Beatles that changed, music changed. Culture changed, technology changed, and the world changed (seriously, it was the end of the European Age). I’m going to assume you know a bit about the 60s and skip the history lesson. If you don’t, just Google ”assassinations.”
To the thread’s credit, it was brought up that many artists don’t have the money and support to make records that they used to. One poster used Aja as an example. Aja is a good example as it was made by hiring some of the world’s best musicians and having them spend six hours a day in a studio for about a year. Aja came out in 1976 and was made possible by an audience that valued albums rather than singles. It makes sense in the context of the mid 70s but not so much now, which is really my point.
So what value is a comparison like this? As a musicologist, I can study how music changes over time and what parts of culture affect it. I can comment on the relative talent and skill levels of two or more artists. I can even bemoan a technique fading to obscurity, if I back my bitching up with a reason why the technique is super awesome and still relevant. What I cannot do is say music from one time period is objectively better, even if I do think Baroque music kicks Renaissance music’s metaphorical ass. I do, by the way but that’s a worthless statement. It isn’t until you compare contemporaneous artists that your commentary becomes useful and that’s why I don’t compare today’s music to yesterday’s.
Update: Someone posted in the thread that Swift is a great rhythm guitarist so I tried to listen to one of her songs. I had to turn it off after twenty seconds or so; it was as if someone started cooking mustard gas in my ears. To be fair to her, a lot of it was the mastering engineer’s fault. Sacred feces, though, that was awful.