The Age of Mediocrity

I’m beginning to sound like our parents. Mine never really complained about what I was listening to, but it was often apparent that – despite being open-minded about everything I tormented their ears with – they thought I had gone off my rocker when I was blasting Led Zeppelin, Judas Priest, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and other (to their ears) loud and obnoxious music out the speakers (at full volume, naturally).

Because of my upbringing in a family that listened to the broadest musical range possible, I was always willing to give just about everything a chance, and I’ve followed many a fad and have heard the oddest music available at any given time, but these last years, if not this last decade and longer, I noticed that I have basically gotten sick and tired of about 99% of the music being published. You just have to have a look at my collection that seems caught in a time warp, in permanent lock-down, to actually see the effect.

I can’t really pin-point the time when I basically stopped buying new music or keeping new music I had bought, or the day I basically threw my radio out the window, shut the various music video channels down permamently and stopped reading the more widely-circulated music mags, but it did happen, and it happened for a reason.

At some point I started noticing that what I had always considered an essential ingredient of music, ability, was becoming secondary, if not redundant.

I’ve also been a teacher for a decade and a half and the tendency that is becoming apparent in a lot of the music is also something I have been able to see in consecutive generations passing through my classrooms: Having the ability to do something worthwhile and concentrating on developing skills has been pushed to the background by an ever-increasing and seemingly unstoppable desire to take the easy way out, to “make it (big)” with the least amount of effort possible and to basically become rich and famous without having the faculties. Screw ability. I can because I am. I copy, therefore I am. That kind of philosophy. Just look at all the Web 2.0 hype, perpetuated by a bunch of college students trying to make a million by the age of 24 (“Bought out by Google? Way cool, man!”), throwing out endless streams of hyped and utterly useless products that sink faster than they were put live. Listen to their invective when confronted by people with a bit more life experience, simply telling them that success is not necessarily the result of perceived grandeur. I’ve taken part in a few of those discussions and have simply given up. Delusional people who have tuned into the concept of marketing as opposed to ability and perseverance easily get mightyly frustrated and verbally aggressive when they are confronted with a simple question as to the intrinsic value of their product. And then they churn out the next one.

Yes, there have always been artists and people who turned their inability into success and, yes, I was a fan of some of them. I went to see the Sex Pistols live, several times, and was bowled over by the sheer energy being blasted off the stage to be soaked up by an explosive audience with incredible amounts of bottled-up raw energy, frustration and anger. I have often wondered what excited me about that music back then. I think it came at a time in which mediocrity had already gained a solid foothold, albeit not to the extent we see it permeating our society today. The disco wave was ebbing, with its endless stream of mediocre to downright bad clones, and whoever else was making music that day seemed to have subscribed to a safe formula, trying to keep innovation out and steady airplay in. So, to me the Sex Pistols made sense, as a reaction to formulaic music that was polluting the environment. It was “cool” to see a bunch of guys without any ability whatsoever making it big, showing the industry and their peers – actually everyone – the finger. It felt right and was enjoyable – for a time.

But then the trend continued. New wave synthetic pop hit the scene and the 80s were swamped by musicians who thought that programming a Linn drum and regurgitating the latest synthesizer sounds of the day (Yamaha DX7, anyone?) constituted musical ability. I don’t know if it was at that time that engineers and want-to-be home recording fiddlers took over, but they were beginning to get a foot in the door. Gosh, I remember the “Neue Deutsche Welle” here in Germany, with its asinine lyrics, rudimentary simplistic melodies and synthesized beats (one of the biggest hits of the day, “Da-Da-Da”, by a “band” named Trio, rested squarely on a pre-programmed and widely available extremely cheap Casio beat), its monotonous beeping and pulsing and all the other new wave or whatever you want to call it stuff that was hitting the airwaves and video channels faster than you could say “spare me”.

Rock and hard rock were hit by generic hair bands and I still remember thinking that David Coverdale must have blow-dried himself to death when he temporarily vanished from the scene. Popular music in general was getting more and more generic. Tried and proven construction principles – solid beat, catchy melody and most simplistic lyrics – became a fad and never really disappeared.

Then, at some point, probably around the time Nirvana killed rock music, inability became an essential ingredient to the above tried-and-tested mix. Teenage angst could seemingly only be verbalized by people who couldn’t sing, couldn’t play their instruments and basically didn’t know anything but themselves. I read Kurt Cobain’s verbal diarrhea and was astonished that anyone could and would take the guy seriously. As you all know, it only took a second for the music industry to jump on board and literally throw a million clones on the market, accompanied by target audience hype to boot, and everything went downhill from there.

Mind you, fads, incest and cloning have always been a central aspect of the music business, but there’s one thing that bothers me to no end, and that is the modern-day insistence that in order to make music, you don’t need to know squat about it. What you do need to know is how to rip off other people’s stuff, how to overcome your own inability by remixing other people’s art into your own artificial new product and how to prostitute yourself in the most effective way possible, perhaps throwing a clothing line and a few perfumes into the marketing machinery for good measure. Garnish that with an elaborate philosophy explaining and defending your inability by saying that it has worth as a form of pushing the boundaries of antiquated formulaic music, and what you have is a commodity, not music. You have the “coolness” factor. That’s enough. Gotta be cool.

The epitome of this came one day on, as far as I recall, an MTV Cribs segment in which a known artist showed off his Steinway Grand in the living room, playing a simplistic melody with one finger and getting even that wrong. He laughed it off and took the crew into his million-dollar studio in the basement – with missing sound booth and an array of samplers and master keyboards plugged into an assortment of digital soundboards. On the screen, visible in the background, ProTools was raising its ugly head, that programme for musical illiterates who don’t even have the ability and perseverance to get a puzzle done properly.

In “preparation” for this post, I forced myself to watch one full hour of German MTV, something I haven’t done for ages, and what I heard and saw was that nobody (besides the sampled Whitney Houston voice in some odd football world championship “song” that’s being played to death at the moment) actually sang, there wasn’t one single instrument (not one) visible in any one of the videos that hour, probably because none was really audible either, and I had the impression that everything sounded the same.

I am aware that music has always been a way of liberating yourself from the influence of your elders, of sometimes even revolting against their perceived oppression and old-fashioned taste(s), but I do believe that what we are seeing today goes far beyond that.

Music has become democratized. It has been opened to every buffoon on the corner able to turn a dial, to every illiterate able to flaunt his stuff and to every mediocre talent savvy enough to put the power of marketing behind him- or herself. The playing field has been leveled. Know what a ball is? Then you have all it takes to win the championship. This is the age in which nobody would be surprised if George Bush took up singing. He’s potential hit (and dial tone) material.

Yes, I’m aware of Indie bands and alternative markets, and I’m aware of many musicians out there struggling against these tendencies, but when I turn on the radio, switch on the television or tune into the stuff blaring at me through badly-isolated iPod headphones from the seat next to me on my train ride into town, I don’t hear and see any of that. I hear and see mediocrity everywhere I go and it’s tiring. So, in refusing to be dumbed-down by the concept of music as a throw-away commodity, I have decided to abstain, to wallow in memories and old recordings, only sparsely interrupted by a new artist that gets me to prick up my ears because I hear him or her actually using an instrument, a voice or musical knowledge to bring forth something worthwhile. Man, that has become such a rare occurence.

At the end, I find myself suddenly liking music I once shunned, liking it for the single fact that someone actually played a sharpened subdominant with added diminished seventh chord by himself. These people are becoming a rare breed in commercialized music. Hey, call me elitist.

In summation, you can say I have arrived.
I have become old and nagging.
Fine with me.

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and deus62.com is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

  1. Nah, you just need to learn to ignore the crap out there. Believe me, there is enough music for everybody out there but you must make an efford to actually get it. Not everything out there is produced “HOT” and squashed to a dynamic range death. Nice source to get inspired nowadays is streaming radio but nothing beats seeing a live performance and the nice thing about that is that live performance filters out the inable crowd from participating. That is if live performance is something different than a house party… lol…

    Nice nag by the way, my only advise against this mediocrisy is to keep listening to the music you love. It is what I do, my collection spans from 1929 to this year and has work from all over the world. And most of the oldest stuff I have sounds better than what you hear on radio, both technicly and artisticly.

    Enjoy!!

    🙂

    Reply

  2. I think our collections might be very similar. 😉

    Yes, everyone must make an effort, but do people really? We older farts might, because we miss quality material and actively seek it out, but what about the newer generation(s) that is (are) growing up in this mediocrity?

    Won’t something get lost in the process for them?

    Won’t music lose out in the long run?

    Reply

  3. No, music is the reflection of our soul that shaped at least 30.000 years, a few dacades of what we percieve as rubbish does not cause music as system to fail. Music contains all the things we want to say but have no words for it to place things in the proper context, this means that we will need music to be around for at least another 30.000 years.

    If you look at the essence of things then bad music simply does not exsist as long as it touches or moves the listner. Music in general will never grow better or worse, it will just change after a while, 50 years is common for the dominant musical stream. Last 50 years it was rock in various forms that dominated and before that it was jazz and swing, the next 50 years we will have to see, it is too early to say.

    Now for MTV et al. These broadcasting are not meant for you and myself and a lot of other people in this world. These are meant to serve 12 – 18 year old girls mainly and are mostly nursing rhyme style of songs and simple music. Sofistication in music comes with years, we also listened to crap when we had that age, you said so yourself in the article, of course we listened to good stuff too, but young people still do and often we need to help inspire them.

    In the end I would not worry about loosing music if I were you, it only stops when the last heart beat stops beating out there, till then we have music and some of it we will like and most of it not.

    Skavoovee!!

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  4. I of course have a prediction of what will happen next 50 years, it may not happen of course, I am not nostradamus for that matter. I think a new tonal system will emerge sooner or later. The reason for that is boredome, we are not far from having explored most if not all posibilities of the current common musical rules in the west. Also domination of Indian and Chinese culture will cause changes as they use different musical rules which cause their destinctive sounds. They will mix into western music and new musical rules that come from the process will deattach it self from the process after the fact.

    Exciting times…

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  5. If I had given up on music, I surely wouldn’t be posting here regularly. 😉

    For the sake of argument though, I think the changes we’ve been seeing these past 10 years or so are much more fundamental than short-lived fads of the past.  Of course music will survive, but I think it will survive in a fundamentally changed form. The difference might well be much bigger then, say, between a Mozart Requiem and BeBop jazz of the early 60s.

    The other day I had a fascinating discussion with one of my students who produced a breathtaking work of spliced material, sampled bits and bytes and overlayed tracks of historical (speech) recordings. Mesmerizing, to say the least. And oodles of talent.

    When we discussed basically what you wrote above, the importance of music and its abilty to convey complex and difficult emotions, at the same time possibly stirring the same in the listener, we started talking about musical theory. It became quickly apparent that his music was the result of experiment and not of any conscious deliberation process.

    Fine with me, don’t get me wrong on that, especially since I’ve done enough experimenting on my own as a musician, but the total lack of (verbalized) understanding and thought took me by surprise. As the student said, musical theory “was on its way out” to be replaced by what he was doing. Also fine with me, as I doubt that African tribal music was based on elaborate musical theory (although based on tradition and handed-down patterns which might well equal that), but I do think that music as we have understood it the past several hundred years is taking a hit, to be replaced by an alternative way of creating it that might or might not be equivalent.

    Secondly, and I’m ramblin’ a bit here, I saved this snippet from an article from the Charlotte Observer the other day, discussing new and different ways of collecting in the digital age: “‘As a culture, we romanticize objects, give them meaning and value,’ observes Sylvain Boies, a psychologist who treats online addictions. ‘These new collectors just do it differently: There’s no fear of `What happens if I lose it?’ If you lose it, you download another.’” And I’ll add: “If it’s still available”. That turns it into an easily forgotten and ultimately short-lived commodity.

    Yes, there will always be music around. I remember the bar band in the first Star Wars film which at the time sounded oddly skewed and today sounds merely old-fashioned. 😉 But the music that will be around will be fundamentally different from what music was like and has been based-on these past several hundred years. And it will be fast-lived music with a considerably reduced half-life.

    Just some thoughts, which might well need a few more years to jell.

    Thanks for stopping by, Yaa 101. I enjoy bouncing thoughts around.

    Don’t be a stranger in the future 😉

    Reply

  6. Couldn’t have said it better myself. It HAS become a “be cool contest”, it is all about the cars, the bit**es and the money. even the lyrics are hopeless; im a rocker so will point you to The Cult’s Wild Flower, now thats a love song (not in the “normal” sense though, its pure rock and roll!!).

    i try not to listen to mainstream too much, avoidng it whenever i can, but sometimes (like at my workplace) i cant get away….

    “prostitute yourself in the most effective way possible” – very much true.

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  7. Mainstream music does nothing for me……it’s all become a product put in a generic, safe package and spoon-fed to the masses. I agree, mostly to teenage girls.

    In the Metal scene, I’ve found many worthwhile bands by doing serious digging but the new band discoveries are very few. I find myself going back in time and discovering bands I never knew back in the old days. I’m of the mindset that if I haven’t heard it, it’s new music to me, even if it’s 20+ yrs old.

    The problem I see with this “safe music package” is that most people don’t care. They want to be told what to listen to in order to keep up with the rest of society. Music has become background noise, something that people listen to out of habit. What’s the first thing most people do when they get in the car? Turn on the radio. But do they listen? Or is it on for the sake of being on? Same goes for inter-office radio, are people listening or is it just a means to make 8 hours a day seem not so bad?

    There seems to be no serious emotional connection with the younger generation and the current music scene. Rather than tell you what their favorite album or song is, most kids I know would rather play their ringtones.

    Reply

  8. Steve, funnily enough, the last comment you made regarding the lack of any serious emotional connection is something I just stumbled over today. In a class (25 students) we talked about both the importance of music and important music today. When I asked students (age 16/17) for their favorite CDs, very few of them could name any and when I asked them why they liked the recordings they had chosen, the silence was deafening. And this is usually a very talkative class which loves to get into discussions and debates.

    In the end, only very few of them could actually talk about music as opposed to rattling off some tunes and being totally blank thereafter.

    Strange.

    Reply

  9. Six years later now, in 2012, this post still rings true!
    I have retreated more to older albums and stalwart artists who I know I can enjoy and trust. Chasing after the new “indie” band or release got old for me after awhile. A lot of what I like now is listening to the older stuff with new ears, realizing I didn’t really listen to it that much when I had bought the album (or made a CD-R copy of) originally, sometimes years ago. I still like buying a CD, rather than a download and love getting them used. I live near St. Louis which still has a few legitimate “record shops” with actual vinyl, along with new and used CD’s. I hope they are able to stay in business, but who knows how much longer they will last. A classical & Jazz record shop just closed for good here in January, after 60 years in business. I never frequented that one, but still sad to see it go.

    Reply

    1. Cat,
      a sign of the times, really.

      Looking at the CDs I bought since this post, it turns out I bought mostly old(er) stuff or filled holes in my collection … of which there still are many. It also helps that with all these repackaged artists collections flooding the market, one can buy into stuff cheaply that one might have bypassed years earlier because of the prohibitive pricing. Also classical music is (re-)thrown on the market at prices that put the former ones to shame. It’s almost as if the music industry’s physical (CD-) format is in its death throws. The only depressing thing is that today I can find stuff I paid horrendous sums for years ago at such cheap prices that one has to consider re-buying it just to not miss out on the dirt-cheap offers. 😉

      Most shops in my area have either closed or have so little inventory that online purchasing is really the only avenue left. In that sense, things have worsened considerably since I wrote this post.

      P.S.: Thanks for stopping buy and leaving a comment on this age-old post. 🙂

      Reply

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