The New Yorker ran an article three years ago that proposed an interesting theory about modern popular music. The piece articulated a creeping fear shared by many music lovers by all but proving why the golden age of pop music was over. Entitled “A Paler Shade of White,” the contention was that the creative range of modern artists is impinged in a way that their counterparts from previous generations were not, for the simple reason that black artists receive more exposure now than they used to. The theory makes sense. We would never have had Led Zeppelin, the Stones, or sixties music in general if white people had not felt comfortable appropriating a black art form, the blues. Americans were not familiar enough with black musicians playing the blues to laugh at a skinny young Mick Jagger trying to be Muddy Waters. Conversely, consider how conspicuously race factored into the first impression you had of Eminem, or better yet Vanilla Ice, who was a joke for this very reason. Nowadays, the lead singer of Interpol, who knows almost all the lyrics of “Straight Outta Compton,” will never rap himself because he knows all his fans know what rap is supposed to sound like. While racial equality is surely the nobler social goal, author Sasha Frere-Jones argued, musical miscegenation suffers. With it goes the Soul—and quality—in pop music.
I used to subscribe to that theory. After attending Labor Day weekend’s North Coast Music Festival in Union Park, I realize how 2007 that sounds.
This festival was the first time I have ever been confident that my age group—twentysomethings and under—share an identity worth giving a generational label to. For three days, one of the best festivals I’ve ever attended gave a hopeful glimpse of where music is going and what the next few years will sound like. The past decade has seen a lot of soul-searching and some really bad music, but out of the depths of despair lamented in the aforementioned article, pop has decisively risen into a grand new phase wherein diversity has indeed produced the strongest offspring. What’s more, the banner of this movement is carried by a generation that finally has a look, a feel, an identity that would recognize itself in the mirror.
My generation likes techno. Hippies asserted their rejection of a warring, electrifying world by adopting folk music. Simple and acoustic. We, however, do not reject mainstream culture. We devour it. We plug in with everyone else, we accept a corporate world, we eat processed food and we swallow processed drugs. It is no deal with the devil, then, to obliterate boredom with the canned ecstasy of computerized music. The realm of electronica is no longer a fringe scene; it’s the place to be. Moreover, synthesized sounds that used to clash with the aesthetics of rock music have been seamlessly made into an expressive, integral facet of its presentation. The best sounds of the weekend came from rock bands utilizing technology once reserved for a mixing deck. The bands of tomorrow will continue this exploration, and if the visionary performances of proggers New Deal and Umphrey’s McGee are any indication, we should be excited.
My generation likes neon. We like the loudest possible clothes in the least possible quantity. We like rolling up our pant legs and not wearing socks. We like those novelty colored-rim sunglasses. We like tight-fitting vibrancy. I am thrilled to finally be able to identify what it looks like to belong to my own generation. Whatever music awaits us this decade, at least we’ve settled on a uniform.
My generation wants hip hop and rock to continue to meld. Both have a lot to offer each other. Local pride Lupe Fiasco delivered Sunday’s best performance (second over the weekend only to Umphrey’s, who briefly brought rapper Kid A onstage) by setting his world-class flow to the tempo and character of a high-energy rock show. Stylistically he darted comfortably between rap and melody. It felt much more vital than the dated De La Soul’s straight, old-school hip hop. In a broader sense, my generation wants hip hop that feels more organic than a drum loop, and while we’re at it, that invigorates the tired backbeat. We want rock that feels hip hop’s urgency to be original or lose relevance. We want our worlds to collide and the best to come of it. These two genres of music are charismatic, fundamentally subversive, and validated by their ability to energize a crowd of people. My generation wants them to unite and conquer.
My generation is animated by indulgence and irony. Indulgence is obvious. The only things we have more copiously available to us than resources are ways to spend them. Irony is the reaction to this. Do you really need to wonder why hipsters—this generation’s anemic best attempt at a countercultural movement—stand for standing for nothing? We are a generation of people whose only defense to an increasingly toxic world is to shrug and drink it in. It is also the only way to accept Mick Jagger when you know damn well who Muddy Waters is. Irony was everywhere at the North Coast festival. A lot of the techno seemed a little too over-the-top to not be self-aware. The most hipster band I caught, the forgettable Holy Ghost!, were committed to disco beats in a way that just made it seem like a joke. But it begs the question: how else could four young white guys play dance pop?
My generation wants ironic disco. We want ironic 80’s music. We want to have fun with what has been previously disparaged. We like that soul singer Mayer Hawthorne is as white as a sand wedge and we love that some of Lupe’s biggest fans loved him. My generation wants to shuffle all even when iTunes segregates by genre. We want our rappers singing and our rock stars striving to be original. We are what happens when you endlessly advertise and pollute and warn—we represent society desensitizing. The good news is that we’re desensitizing to invented divisions, too. This applies to music, but also social classes, racial divides, and all other artifices that cannot survive in a superhighway melting pot.
I have long tried to understand exactly what my generation’s contribution to our society will be. Until now, it looked to be characterized by a fundamental hollow at the core of our collective being. We don’t rally, we aren’t that active, and we embrace superficiality and self-centeredness to unprecedented (unhealthy?) degrees. Worst of all, our music has been too derivative, uninspired, and inauthentic. But I offer kudos to the organizers of the North Coast festival for convincing me that at long last, the disparate styles of music that three years ago seemed would never coalesce into a positive creative trajectory have indeed done so. I am happy to predict that our generation’s most defining anthems are yet to be written, but I am overjoyed that there will be something to define. Our generation has taken shape.