January 6th of this year, 2015, marked the sixth anniversary of Animal Collective’s groundbreaking Merriweather Post Pavilion. It’s an incredible record, worth checking out if you don’t know it, but this write-up is less about the record and more about how we interact with music in the digital era.
I was in middle school at the time of the album’s release, and was only beginning to have the vaguest awareness of the existence of an underground music scene at the time. There was classical and Top 40 and I knew I hated the latter so I listened exclusively to classical. Merriweather Post Pavilion and its hype machine (and subsequent acclaim) passed on by in 2009 without me.
A lot of the music in my life has been this way. While habitually belittled, the YouTube trope of the angsty teen lamenting being born too late, or in the wrong generation, reflects a common sentiment of having ‘missed’ big musical moments. It’s how I feel not just about Post Pavilion but also, for example, Radiohead's radical paradigm shift with the release of Kid A, Arcade Fire’s bursting onto headlining slots in 2004, or perhaps most dramatically, The Beatles’ last full show at Candlestick Park. I can still watch Radiohead play "Idioteque" in an encore, and Paul McCartney is touring and churning out full-lengths as steadily as ever, but the culture that created and surrounded these moments, as well as the cultural transformations that these moments in turn created, is something for me reserved to reading about in archived online album reviews, photo retrospects, and think-pieces.
These may have all been fairly important cultural moments in certain scenes, but I can't help but feel that the ubiquitous cultural moment has sort of ended, or at least become... less ubiquitous. I feel like the music scene, like anything in this day and age, has become a not-so-cohesive sum of such a plethora of niches that this kind of moment is difficult if not impossible. And the internet both dually makes these amazing niches possible and also undermines their cultural currency in your life. It's absolutely amazing that someone's favorite genre can be Nigerian psychedelic rock music, but being a fan of Nigerian psych-rock is also a lonely existence. Not many (any) of your friends are likely to share the same music loves as you, or even know what you're talking about when you can't shut up about how your favorite band is dropping a new record in a month. My Beautiul Dark Twisted Fantasy was an album I was around to see hyped, released, and acclaimed, and yet at the time it felt like not much more than a blip. None of my friends liked the album - most hated it, would rather listen to College Dropout and West's older, "less weird" stuff - and sure, my small hometown didn't lend themselves to a rich music scene, and perhaps all your friends were really excited about that record and it was incredibly important musical moment for you - great. But in my world, I knew Pitchfork had given it a perfect 10, there was a thread about it on a forum I browsed at the time, and the album filled up a lot of my listening time for six months. So did it feel culturally ubiquitous? Not really. It came in strong, and gradually faded, but it all happened on the internet for me, in communities not nearly as important to my life as my real ones. (Sidenote: this wasn't always the case for me, and won't hold true with anyone who has an important social circle based on the internet.)
A big cultural moment, to me, was when I walked to another floor’s dorm room to see my friend sitting in the hall sobbing after finding out Lou Reed had passed away. A big cultural moment, to me, was the explosion of Burger Records and the LA garage rock/cassette scene just a few hours south of my hometown, and what that meant to me and my small group of now more music-savvy friends. These are big cultural moments to a fair amount of people, and I might even hesitantly argue that Lou Reed's passing was one of the few big cultural moments of the 2013 that a lot of people paid attention to and were aware of and impacted by - I had a conversation with my uncles, who used to live in the city before moving to Poughkeepsie, NY, about it, and it felt like a big deal then. But just as big of moments for me personally these past couple years were Gap Dream's new record and unbelievable Brooklyn show, and the discovery of todayshits, because these were all moments I shared with someone else close to me, moments that really engulfed my world, if not many other people's worlds.
And so what's bizarre about this day and age, compared to the semi-monoculture of the 50s and 60s, is that I can read about what a big cultural deal an album or band is without actually ever having heard one of its songs before. The internet is a more choice-based provider of entertainments: you can choose what to subscribe to, and you can choose what to click on, which is what creates these amazing niches as opposed to fifty years ago, when you had to accept what was programmed on the radio or on television. I overheard a couple in a Green Point coffee shop talking about Lorde, and I saw the posts all over a few of the blogs I followed, but I was never that interested and never even bothered clicking play on an embedded YouTube video that popped up in my news feed. Lorde was a zero-moment to me, essentially non-existent. One of the biggest cross-over acts of the past decade meant nothing to me, had zero impact on my life, might have well not existed.
What I wonder then, given the ever-diminishing breadth (though certainly not depth; it would be absurd to posit that people today care less about music when all current consumption and production trends point to the opposite) of impact that records are having upon release, is whether the influence of these records within the future collective memory will be similarly diminished, and whether, subsequently, the coming decades will be increasingly hard to define by the artistic works they gave birth to. We haven’t yet fully moved into a time where generation-defining acts, moments, and scenes are non-existent - I confidently believe that Gaga and Timberlake, among others, will fifty years from now stand as defining sounds of the 2000s. But it does seem like we’re moving towards such a point, and as with most shifts in cultural landscapes, that progression will certainly be bittersweet and nostalgia-laced for many. And while the price may be steep - all bets are off on reminiscing the sounds of your youth with retirement home cohabitants - the pay-offs should be even sweeter. But that doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes yearn for a time where things meant just a little bit more, to more people - even if that time only exists in my head.