A maroon T-shirt with led zeppelin and 1973 tour printed in yellow on the front is going on the block at Christie's in New York on Saturday. It's one of just a handful made for the band's road crew, and it's expected to go for $1,500. When I think about that shirt—probably saved from ending up as a shop rag only by luck, and now treated as an object of veneration—I'm reminded of everything that's terrible about the rock 'n' roll establishment.
If 30 is the new 20, the new 30 must be somewhere between 45 and 70, considering how many people in that age bracket seem afflicted with a 30-year-old's anxiety about becoming unhip. Pop is about destruction, about making something new and fun out of the bits and pieces of the past, but these self-serious boomers are fighting tooth and nail to keep the youth culture of the 60s and 70s alive—inflating its myth and exalting it so aggressively you'd think they've taken every musical development since 1983 as a personal affront. But despite their best efforts, and despite the presence of huge conglomerates in the industry—the Big Four, Clear Channel, Live Nation—music culture in the new century is less monolithic today than it was back then. It's more fractured and less centralized, and it's changing constantly at a rate that confounds most people who weren't raised in the rapid-fire media environment of the past 25 years.
The old guard's response is to bombard us with nostalgia: reunion shows from every rock band to go platinum during the era of the longhairs, the yearlong party Rolling Stone just threw itself for its 40th birthday, the ceaseless proclamations that the 60s were the golden age of pop music. It'd be oppressive even if it weren't fraudulent. Even longtime industry commentator/curmudgeon Bob Lefsetz, no stranger to outsize nostalgia himself, is getting sick of it—which puts me in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with him. In a November 16 blog post about Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood's $250-a-ticket sort-of Blind Faith reunion, he asks, "What's next? Reunions of bands that didn't exist in the first place? Is Eric Clapton going to go out with David Gilmour? Is Ozzy going to tour with Alice Cooper as part of the same band? We are really scraping the barrel here." The motive for all these reunions, he says, is all too obvious. "Everybody's cleaned up. And now cleaning up. That old soul, that's gone, been long eviscerated, and the only people who won't admit this is those on the take."
The parts of the industry that perpetuate this platinum-card nostalgia do it for more than just money, though. Rock stars decades past their prime get propped up by their media contemporaries because they're artifacts from a time when rock stars really mattered, before they got crowded out of the pop landscape by swarms of smaller acts playing to smaller crowds—acts that don't need music-industry supermoguls to distribute their records or caravans of tour buses to play their shows. The Led Zeppelin reunion is a Potemkin village built by and for Jann Wenner types who can't get their minds right with the way the business works now.
New York Times columnist and B-list neocon David Brooks is one of those people who still believes in the rock star—which shouldn't surprise anybody, given that disconnection from reality is a prerequisite for neocon credentials. In a November 20 op-ed called "The Segmented Society" he mourns the passing of a fictitious pop monoculture, imagining it as a nation of fans united across social, class, and ethnic lines by a few acts that inherited the "long conversation" of American music and integrated rock, blues, country, and soul—utopia as embodied by the E Street Band, essentially. Of course, talking this way in 2007 leaves out everybody whose musical taste was forever changed by the mainstreaming of hip-hop—to say nothing of American artists influenced by bhangra, Afrobeat, or Balkan brass bands. In reality monoculture is never good for society: it was people united by the music Brooks worships who beat up punks, burned disco records, and made the Top 40 an artistic wasteland for the better part of two decades.
"It seems that whatever story I cover," Brooks writes, "people are anxious about fragmentation and longing for cohesion. This is the driving fear behind the inequality and immigration debates, behind worries of polarization and behind the entire Obama candidacy." But it's not so much fragmentation that Brooks and his ilk seem bothered by—it often sounds like they resent plain old individualism. "People who have built up cultural capital and pride themselves on their superior discernment," he explains, "are naturally going to cultivate ever more obscure musical tastes. I'm not sure they enjoy music more than the throngs who sat around listening to Led Zeppelin, but they can certainly feel more individualistic and special." Apparently arriving at your tastes through search and discovery—as opposed to just going along with what everybody else likes—is indicative of some sort of character flaw.
The fact of the matter is that a fractured music culture is strong music culture. Of course there are drawbacks to the 24-7 total-spectrum overload of the current marketplace—more music probably does mean more bad music—but for the artists and fans who are adapting to it, the mind-blowing quantity and diversity of output has weakened if not collapsed the barriers between genres and scenes. Heterogeneity in listening habits is quickly becoming the rule. Musicians working outside the mainstream no longer need resign themselves to total obscurity, and listeners whose tastes aren't reflected in the charts don't have to struggle to find entertainment that suits them. Artists are pulling together styles, like indie rock and mainstream hip-hop, that used to be separated by seemingly insurmountable social obstacles—the Postal Service takes cues from Timbaland, Timbaland collaborates with the Hives. And increased exposure for formerly ghettoized subcultures makes it hard to imagine anyone these days getting his ass kicked just for having green hair. It's not like all these developments have robbed the world of the kind of transcendent songs that work their way into the heart of every single person with actual ears, either. Did David Brooks miss out on "Umbrella"?
So what if the rock star is obsolete? He only really mattered for as long as the boomers were in charge, which is to say long enough. There's no new Rolling Stones on the way, and that's fine. Our culture may be fractured, but that just means this generation's musical legacy will look more like an intricate mosaic than like a few monoliths. If nobody's desperate enough to spend $1,500 for a used band T-shirt 30 years from now, the world will be a better place.v
For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.