Once A Fertile Ground for Music Education, "Mainstream Music" No Longer Means What It Used To
The other day my wife was playing the Beatles’ White album. I never really listened to it all the way through. But I realize now that my folks played a lot of those songs—non-stop—when I was too young to understand what it even was. Most of the time, music was the LAST thing my folks were thinking about. And that just goes to show the difference in generations.
Both of my parents had lots of vinyl; my pops, in particular, had a great collection of 45s with Doo Wop. Beyond that, my folks weren't musically inclined AT ALL. However, the passion that they had in their finger tips—as typical mainstream fans in the 1960s and 70s—is more then what's in the whole body of the typical mainstream fan today.
It's as if back then (1960s and 70s), every person in the US had some degree of passion for music, even if they were at the mainstream level. And I think that the reason for this was because of the overall quality of music that they were being regularly fed as a whole. Now when I say “mainstream,” let me be clear: I don't mean the style of music being mainstream. I mean as listeners, my folks weren't "fanatatical" about music, they were just your typical "mainstream" fans. But the definition of a mainstream fan changed dramatically from their era to mine, and from my era (the 1990s) now, this change is even more dramatic.
I think you can always randomly say that "Music isn't what it used to be.” You hear that all the time. From 70s rock fans, from 80s pop fans, to 90s hip hop/rap fans. That sentiment transcends race, age and genre. This isn't really an observance of that fact, albeit true. The point is more it's subversive effect. And the strongest effect is not on the music junkies like myself and everyone that reads a site like BeatTips. The strongest effect is on that mainstream music fan that is turning on the radio right now as you read this. From there it spreads down to their generation and their children.
When I was a little kid, I knew names like The Beatles, Johnny Mathis, The Dells, The Flamingos, The Doors, and many more. That's a healthy mix of music, truly diverse in it's sound and approach. Before I knew what I was being taught by being exposed to that music, I had already learned something. I learned that music is varied and it has a wide assortment of sounds. Furthermore, I learned that music comes from all kinds of different people from all over the world. But when I consider today’s “mainstream,” I wonder, do mainstream fans, particular kids, learn this today?
So let's back track for one second, to support what I'm saying. Review the list of artists that I mentioned earlier. Each of those artists barely scratch the surface of where anyone can go on a musical journey (of any kind). Like I said, my parents are not musicians and are not music enthusiasts. So taking that into context, look again at what they had me listening to as young as 6 years old! That stuff—their mainstream music—at the very least, put my mind in the best place for me to make my own healthy musical journey later on. In fact, looking back, it inspired me and gave me the opportunity to become a musician as well as a music enthusiast.
But in lieu of today’s mainstream, I have serious doubts that the same opportunities are being afforded to today's youth. With regards to mainstream hip hop/rap music, the first issue might perhaps be the major labels continued growth toward a more market-tested commercial sound in the late 90s. This went hand in hand with increased prices for their product. The combination of these two factors (as well as many others) helped to send people—in droves—to the internet to get their music through illegal downloading. And we now live in the shadow of all of these mistakes.
Today, mainstream hip hop/rap music is a shouting contest. Whoever does the most repetitive, ignorant, attention-getting thing can stand out in cyberspace. Since there is perhaps no longer an effective infrastructure to market music (whether it be of quality or not), nor is there a seasoned A & R presence that we saw through the mid 90s, contemporary mainstream hip hop/rap music is stuck in this echo chamber of sensationalism and unoriginality. Most of this music is a shadow of what it even was in 1999 when the TRL generation took hold, and that is saying something. Especially when you consider that a great deal of today’s hip hop/rap music is actually "self destructive.” No doubt these factors have degraded our music and culture.
Nevertheless, I'm extremely encouraged by the potential that the internet has to give people access to quality music. There is more then enough of it out there in every genre imaginable. That being said, it's now up to us (music enthusiasts and would-be mainstream fans alike) more then ever.
As music enthusiasts and knowledgeable artists, we have to be aware of what has happened to the mainstream and how it has happened. Furthermore, we have to be aware of who’s most responsible for creating such disparity in between the mainstreams of yesterday and today. If we do so, we can affect the sort of mainstream change that at least assures the youth a better chance at a varied choice of high quality music.
Support your fellow artists, support the music you love. And be sure to buy, play it, and share it (legally) with someone. Because the truth is, the mainstream system is no longer suitable for doing that for us anymore!
Editor's Note: The sentiment of Nasa's editorial resonates a lot with a piece that I wrote earlier this year entitled, "Musical Nourishment Marks Generations." It's worth a look, as I suspect that Nasa and I both will be revisiting this topic in the future.