America is in decline and so pop music is going to have to implode, or at least change forever. Now I know that’s a pretty weird and crazy way to start an article so I want to justify it. I know that as a general rule the quality of life in the US is higher than it ever was before and that we have the most civil liberties we have ever had, and these are good things. However these number are skewed by cities, cities who, as our recent election showed us, really have no clue what life is like outside of cities. I’m writing this article while riding a bus through New Jersey to visit my mother on her birthday and I see heroin country. I see storefronts falling apart and buildings growing old and looking grody. Families shopping at the dollar store because they can’t afford anything else and a nation of innocents falling victim to a pharmaceutical industry that is frankly evil. So why would we ever want to have a fucking positive pop record? As luck would have it – we don’t.
This isn’t an article about how pop is in decline because of the growing prominence of streaming and the subgenrefication of the music industry. That’s certainly a part of it but here I’m really talking more about the frankly terrifying state of the world and what it’s going to mean for how popular music feels. It was not so long ago that Pharrel Williams dominated the charts with his track “Happy” now as we look at formerly party hearty bands like Foridia Georgia Line putting out a record of retrospective ballads it seems increasingly clear that we need something very different in modern America if we want there to even be a prevailing zeitgeist in the popular music that defines our culture (Whether or not that’s a good thing is a conversation for a different day) then we need to be very careful and watch out for some jarring changes coming up very soon . The question remains, are the days of lighthearted happy pop music done for?
If you just look at some of the biggest pop stars of our generation they seem to be going towards darker music. Not only does this explain the prolonged success of artists like Lorde and Lana Del Rey, but also the bitter shifts in the music of party girls like Katy Perry and Kesha. The lead singles from both young womens new records suggest a much darker and more world weary twist in their music, to say nothing of the sorrowful vibes brought on by the new material from artists like Lady Gaga. Despite what we might wish, these artists have come to reflect the popular opinion, and though we may have these big beautiful cities, the heart of America is very sick and isn’t ready for these sorts of changes. It’s a heart that can’t help but to suffer and which has been drowning under the suicides, drug addictions and economic downturns that have torn it apart. It can feel like there is no hope in modern America and this shift in pop music proves it.
Of course we also see this on the underground. In recent years it has regularly been the doom metal bands who dominate the ‘Best Of’ lists in metal, and in indie scenes its the sorrowful emo pop punk brooding of acts like Modern Baseball that has dominated the scene. People aren’t happy and they want something more visceral to latch on to There’s a reason that pop artists seem to represent their happiness as a sort of deluded fantasy. It’s not the sort of thing we are supposed to easily latch on to. Rather, happiness is like a pipe dream – which is exactly why Khemmis is on top of Decibels top 40 for 2016 and not say… Valient Thorr. It feels like as a culture we have reached the end of the good times and now we need to buckle in for what appears to be at least four years of fucking human suffering under trickle down racism and fucked up neo liberal financial structures.
I’m not trying to be a Debbie downer here, I’m just a journalist trying to be a sort of conduit of the American experience from reality to paper. Like you I worry about money and stress about where things could end up in a few years. I just think that pop music has irrevocably changed because of our nationwide depression. While this is certainly a good thing for my beloved heavy metal I’m not sure if it’s good for the rest of the world. For pop music though it could lead to changes, and as I see there are two paths. Either we plunge down deeper into the world of fantasy and pop music becomes this weird unreal portrait, a sort of decadent progression on Norman Rockwell – we’ve seen this already in the Reagan dominated glam era of the 80s. Alternatively we could just see a rise in dark music – but again, we saw this in the Reagan era with the rise of extreme music. This suggests to me that music is going to split off ,there will be no middle ground because we have seen the death of normal and we have no choice but to carry on.
In the end this means that we need to continue propping each other up. There never was any love for the DIY scene anyway and we just have to fight as we always have in order to find a space in which we might not be perpetually suffering. But now art is going to have to be more extreme than ever before. In the words of Rage Against The Machine it is time to take the power back and despite what you might think there still is a way forward. As the 80s showed us DIY music is very much that path. Now we have to be creative, think outside the box and figure out if independent music will fight or fall. It’s not up to any one of us but the collective attitude, and I’m no doctor, but in a scene increasingly worried about personal politics the prognosis looks grim.