Pop Music isn’t what it used to be

 My daughter received a three disk CD of the complete works of Raffi for Christmas– hours and hours of happy, multi-cultural sing-along-songs. She puts them in the CD player and pulls a chair up to the speakers, gazing into the digital clock-face of the machine, waiting for the next Raffi song to come out.


She sings along: “I have a little dreidel, I made it out of clay…and when it’s dry and ready, my dreidel I will play.” She listens to “Willoughby, wallaby wanya… an elephant sat on Tanya!” And “Peanut-butter-sandwich made with Jam, one for me and one for David-am-ram” (whoever that is).


Occasionally, she skips a song–”You wake up in the morning, it’s a quarter to one, and you want-to-have a little fun…Brush your teeth, ch-ch-CH-ch, cha-CH, cha-CH.”


She doesn’t want to hear it. She doesn’t want to brush her teeth either. There’s no time, day or night, in which she can conceive of tooth-brushing as a fun thing to do. In fact, I promised her that if she could brush her teeth for 365 days straight without being asked, I’d let her get her ears pierced–but she didn’t bite.


Nevertheless, most of the songs she adores, and for the first twenty or so hours of Raffi redux, I felt the calming winds of nostalgia blowing through our home. Nothing tweaks the memory like a song, and I, too, was once a young Catholic girl, sitting at the speakers in the dark paneled den of my childhood home, singing about a dreidel, while never once questioning what a dreidel might be.


No other singer (with the possible exceptions of Barbara Streisand, Neil Diamond, and Tina Turner) evokes my childhood like Raffi.


Actually, scratch that.


Raffi was just one of many first loves. The totem of my childhood environment was the stereo itself, stacked up in the corner, waist-high behind its magnetized glass door, three stories of black boxes with red and green eyes flashing its varying degrees of alertness and volume.


My dad brought it home as a “family” present for Christmas. My parents had started a tradition of getting one big thing for all of us, which had ranged over the years from a new puppy to the Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary that (aside from a few forays into looking up dirty words) became the family spoilsport, as our parents thenceforth answered our every inquiry into the meaning of a word with a disinterested, “look it up.”


In any case, the stereo came home slightly before Christmas one year, and my dad and my brother spent a long afternoon laying out all the screws and parts to the stereo cabinet that would be its home, alongside the many cords and plugs that attached the turn table to the dual cassette player, to the radio, to the control center. By the time it was all assembled, it was dark outside, and my sister and I put on leotards, and pranced on tip-toes in front of our reflections in the sliding glass door to Swan Lake.


Our lives would never be the same, because shortly after the arrival of the stereo, came a stack of old albums that my parents must have been keeping up in the attic: Jimi Hendrix, which sounded like slush to me, and Paul McCartney, which I enjoyed more for the opportunity to study the family pictures of the younger McCartneys on the inside sleeve of the album cover. My mom started purchasing new music too, so “Hello, My Name is Barbara” was soon joined by the Barbara Streisand and Barry Gibb  duet album, “Guilty.” Linda Ronstadt showed up, and eventually, that scandalous Tina Turner album, “Private Dancer.”


I told my husband the other day that I have no memories of watching TV or listening to anything other than classical music until I was about six years old. But after that, pop culture became a pretty regular fixture in our house. Once pop music was out of the box, we never contained it again. My older brother grew into Heavy Metal, which could be heard emanating from his room any time he was home. My sister slipped into her moody phase eventually, wearing black clothes and listening to emo bands like the Cocteau Twins. And I tried to follow her, once the allure of Raffi had worn off, but I was still slightly more interested in Boy George and Cyndi Lauper.


I’ve wondered, at times if I’ve now grown out of the age of passionate music listening, or if some of that cultural era has come to a close. When I turn on the local radio stations, they’re playing the same songs I listened to in high school and college, without irony or an “oldies” slant. The “new” music stations don’t sound unique or engaging. VH1 and MTV, the last time I checked, were showing reality shows rather than music videos–and anyway, we got rid of our TV. I’ve heard one can find new music through Pandora, but the prospect of Pandora pointing you towards something totally new feels a little sterile, since you know it will be something in the same genus and species of the music you already like.


My kids are in public school, but aside from the latest youtube craze (“Gangnam Style” being the most recent), we don’t hear about pop music as the cultural status symbol it used to be. It’s true that my kids are probably not the best indicators of what’s hot in the cultural mainstream, but even my older kids have already surpassed the age at which I had thoroughly identified myself as “one who loves Michael Jackson with a crazy passionate love that includes kissing posters of him”–and there has not been a single mention of a single pop-star whom they admire or want to listen to.


All this is to say, my husband just purchased a new stereo as a family present for us this Christmas, and rather than being a portal to the great wide world, it seems like our new stereo is another of the many protective measures we’ve installed against unwanted cultural infiltration. Now that Ipods have replaced albums, my husband and I curate the music that makes it into our house on a singular device. The Raffi CD is the only one in the house that hasn’t yet been uploaded to the Ipod through my laptop, so it’s the only one that’s actually in the hands of the kids.


We’ve downloaded a couple of radio stations to the Ipod, but these also were carefully vetted and selected because of their family friendliness. I suppose the kids could still get on the local radio stations, but at least a couple of them don’t realize that music exists outside of the Ipod. And as previously mentioned, the cackling voices and prefab pop beats, for whatever reason, hold little allure thus far for my particular kids.


Sometimes I feel nervous about the ways culture has changed–about how available EVERYTHING is online, and how easy it is to fall down the wrong rabbit hole. At the same time, having all the portals on one device makes a certain stage of parenting pretty easy. I don’t have to worry about a window opening when I shut the door. The TV and the radio are not the independent threats they used to be. Everything is now filtered through the computer, and when it’s off, it’s off.


Of course, I’m sure that when the next stage of parenting takes off, the one in which I have to allow my kids a certain degree of freedom online, things will become much more complicated. To which, I say–and this may be the only time I say it– thank God we have a small house with few dark corners.


What say you? Am I just missing it? Is pop music still alive and well somewhere?

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About Elizabeth Duffy
  • Christopher Lake

    It depends on what you mean by “pop music.” Of singer/songwriters and bands formed in the last twenty or so years, I love: The Innocence Mission, Trashcan Sinatras, Camera Obscura, Alabama Shakes, Janelle Monae, the Avett Brothers, Iris Dement, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, The Head and the Heart, Michael Kiwanuka, mewithoutYou, Passion Pit, Van Hunt, Bill Mallonee and the Vigilantes of Love, and many others whose names escape me at the moment! A great place to find out about good new (and older, often unheard) music is Arts and Faith: http://www.artsandfaith.com/ Happy listening!

  • Elizabeth Duffy

    THanks for the tip!

    I, personally, am more a fan of the singer songwriter genre (love Iris Dement), but I guess I was thinking more of “the artist” of a pivotal cultural moment–the names that define a generation. My sister points me to Taylor Swift and Beyonce. I guess it just takes time to see if they stick.

  • Christopher Lake

    You’re very welcome, Elizabeth! About the singer/songwriter genre (I love the 1960s and ’70s artists in that genre!), most of the bands that I listed are dominated by one or two persons who are basically singer/songwriters, especially The Innocence Mission, Bill Mallonee and the Vigilantes of Love (Bill has many solo albums too– you can find him on Facebook), Camera Obscura, the Avett Brothers, Michael Kiwanuka, and Van Hunt. Oh, and I forgot to mention Laura Marling too (she’s similar to Joni Mitchell in some ways)! :-)

    About the good question of “the artists who define a generation,” I think that we are actually living in one of the most vapid times for popular music in modern history– at least, in terms of music that is popular on a *massive level*. So much of the music that is widely visible, and that is given a big music industry “push,” is quite vapid and lacking in substance. I rarely watch television (other than good shows that I can find on Netflix), and I have virtually given up listening to pop music on the radio, simply because most of it is so terribly bad, compared to… well, almost any previous era of pop music!

    Given that you are an Iris Dement fan, I think that you will really like at least *some* of the artists I listed. :-) The Innocence Mission were formed in the ’80s and have always flown just “under the radar” of most people, for some reason– but they are my favorite band of the last twenty years. Bill Mallonee has been making music since the early ’90s, with the Vigilantes of Love, and on his own, but he has also been sadly overlooked. The Avett Brothers are *finally* starting to get mass recognition, and it is long overdue. Michael Kiwanuka is very popular in the UK, but most people in the U.S. (where I live) have not yet heard of him. All of these artists have two things in common– intelligent, poetic lyrics, and a thoughtful feel to their music, even when it is more “rockin’,” hehe. (Bill rocks out sometimes, but he also has many quiet, pretty songs too.)

    Sorry for writing a mini-dissertation here– I’m a big music fan, although not of most of the artists that are widely popular today. Taylor Swift does have some good songs, but she is an exception to most popular artists today, I think.

  • Aura Lee Emsweller

    I want to thank you for your thoughtful reflections on the evolution of music decade to decade. But most of all may I have the pleasure of making sure you know who the amazing one-of-a-kind DAVID AMRAM is. Much has bee written about his extraordinary musical talent and originality, and there is even a documentary about him..”The First 80 Years” PLEASE before you take another breath google him and you will be astounded and delighted..classical, jazz, folk ,movie scores and more. A favorite performance of mine would have to be with David Broza, Linda Lowe and the late, great Townes Van Zandt in Houston Texas in the 70′s, a Linda Lowe’s Writers in the Round Concert. HAPPY LISTENING….. In Harmony, Aura Lee

    • Elizabeth Duffy

      Well, this would be an example of someone (me) listening to a song for many years and never really absorbing the lyrics. I always thought Raffi was just making up a name to rhyme with jam.

      Thank you, Aura Lee! I now have twenty new windows open on my laptop, and my night’s activities mapped out for me.

  • http://www.duniaduara.com Justyn

    We are new music finding fanatics. Favorite source : http://www.blogotheque.net/serie/concert-a-emporter/ It has turned into a Saturday night past time for Matti and I – browsing the new additions.
    I was just saying to Matti how sad I was that my father no longer had his record collection because I have so many memories of Eric Clapton, David Bowie and Johnny Cash – among many, many others. Those sensory memories are among my clearest of childhood and are linked, inextricably, with thoughts of my father. While we were talking he asked that I make a list of what I remember and he decided to reconstruct it, find a used turntable, and then add our ownfavorites. The family, listening to the same music from one central stereo, was just too sweet a memory to let go gently into night.

  • Grady

    There isn’t any common-connection pop music anymore, the markets are fragmented and specialized. Its cheap to make music now and distribute it, so everyone’s doing it, and many of them are successful without having to appeal to a broad demographic. Pre-internet a couple TV shows and a few local radio stations were the gatekeepers. Now most anything in the world is accessible anytime.
    So what do we do with this state of affairs? For me I keep abreast of the music people I know are listening to (if I can stomach it), because music can provide an important cultural connection. Beyond that I listen to whatever I find appealing from around the world, which I mainly find via streaming online stations.

    There isn’t a national shared music experience any more, but we can still connect with the people in our lives.