Has music gotten worse?

February 7, 2013
This article was published more than 2 years ago.
Est. Reading Time: 3 minutes

Justin Raudys / The Silhouette

In my experience, the exclamation that “music has gotten worse” is one that polarizes opinion: either it is met with dismissive eye rolling or it inspires enthusiastic agreement.

My own music collection – and most people’s, for that matter – is populated by music from many ages.

Rock and roll from the early ‘60s sits side by side with indie rock from the early 2000s; hip hop from the late 80s sits side by side with blues from the late 50s; Stevie Wonder sits next to Sufjan Stevens, Wilco next to Wu-Tang Clan, Bach next to Bachman Turner Overdrive.

Most of us do not discriminate our sonic tastes to a particular span of time or a particular genre. But even though I own plenty of music from recent times, I can’t help but notice the lingering sensation as I scroll through my collection that music has actually gotten worse. But hear me out before you dismiss me as a pompous ass. Let’s take a small trip back in time.

Let’s rewind to the year 1970, the beginning of a decade often earmarked by people like me (people, that is, who believe that music – and especially Billboard top 100 music – has undergone a decline in quality) as a time of particular musical brilliance.

If you were alive in 1970, you would have heard new albums from — to name a few — The Beatles, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Cat Stevens, Miles Davis, Eric Clapton, Ray Charles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Carlos Santana, The Velvet Underground and Led Zeppelin. All in the same year. This is to say nothing of the profusion of groundbreaking artists that blossomed throughout the rest of the decade. Now, I’m not saying there aren’t any artists of that quality or importance around today (and even that argument, I think, has a case), but I am saying that they are nowhere near as common.

It’s true that the question of aesthetic quality is a tricky one to navigate.

An old friend of mine whose taste in music I find questionable (and who provides a perfect example of this debate as he listens solely to amateur dubstep mashups) argues that the question of musical quality is entirely subjective.

And he has a point. If the list of names I just rung off above has no appeal to you then the debate, in some way – at least on an interpersonal level – is bound to end here: you don’t like that music and that’s your prerogative.

But I actually disagree that the endeavour of assessing the quality of music is forever doomed to be a fruitless one. I think you can, to a point, discriminate whether music is, to put it cheaply, “good” or not – even if it’s not to your taste. The idea that Britney Spears is, as an artist, on some kind of irreducible aesthetic plane that renders her equal to Aretha Franklin is one that I simply can’t accept, nor is it one that I find philosophically viable. I’m not one to put people down for liking Britney. If her music inspires you and makes you feel good, only a jackass could tell you you’re wrong for listening to it. But I’m not saying you’d be wrong for doing so.

My theory is that the billboard used to be a magnet for finding the artists who are most talented and that now it’s become a magnet for finding the “artists” who are most marketable. I’ve been accused of having my tastes coloured by a romanticizing nostalgia à la Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris – that, in other words, the music of the ‘70s only looks – or sounds – better to me through the lens of modernity. That might seem reasonable to me if only I could accept the notion that posterity will rank Minaj, Bieber, Swift, and Spears in the same echelon as Dylan, Lennon, Coltrane, and Hendrix.

“You may say I’m a dreamer / but I’m not the only one / I hope some day you’ll join us / And the world will live as one” sings John Lennon in “Imagine,” an inspiring and truly moving plea for global human harmony, the chart topper back in ’71.

“In time, ink lines, bitches couldn’t get on my incline” sings Nicki Minaj about her own brilliance in the hit song “Beauty and a Beat,” continuing, “World tours, it’s mine, 10 little letters, on a big sign.”

You may say I’m wrong about the top 10. In fact, you may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.

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