THE END OF GREAT
music • 08.12.09
When an art-form becomes something anyone can do, when the skills and qualities associated with it have been resolutely identified, analysed and perfected, it no longer provides one of its essential functions to the wider community: uniqueness. And for art to achieve consensus value it has to appear unique. The ones who create it need to be doing something only a few can even if all they do is win a talent show. It is their exceptionalness that gives them legitimacy, their passport to importance. Such conditions are evaporating in the present age.
For that reason I anticipate the end of popular music as a defining cultural reference. This is not of course to proclaim the end of music itself, only new music with broad appeal. More significantly it means an end to the idea of greatness. To be great an artist had to be approved by the mass with its singular platform and its tendency to a singular view. With mass culture becoming infinitely fragmented, fewer artists can rise to the platform because the platform itself is effectively being taken down. Without that platform there is no widely shared recognition of what is approved; there is no consensus. Thus, I think the Age of Great is over. It is over at least for a while to be reinvented perhaps in another era.
Greatness has gone only in the sense that it is no longer possible to be currently great. The celebrated artists of the past aren’t going anywhere. They are preserved for posterity in recorded works. Their cachet will increase with time as their value gets passed down and rediscovered by each coming generation. And these are the defining characteristics of greatness I think: consensus then posterity. With no consensus there can be no posterity, so greatness in the arts with its need for mass acceptance will continue to wane. It may turn out only to have been a passing phenomenon specifically of the industrial age.
All the popular music forms as they have been fashioned so far are now exhausted. The music of the folk traditions, of classical, of jazz, of the multiple genres of the rock era, are now only revisited and homage paid to the masters of antiquity. There are no new movements on the horizon, and even if there were, with the dismantling of the mass platform they would have trouble being heard above the noise of self-expression brought about by the Internet, a platform which allows everything and anything to be in the public domain. To achieve consensus in any large degree is becoming impossible.
It was truly exciting to be born into a great age as I was in 1956. Then Miles Davis was on the cusp of producing his greatest work, Elvis had just happened, and The Beatles were around the corner. The following three decades produced an explosion of musical imagination which rivalled anything that had come before it. Significantly this impressive flowering was cultivated in an elite environment. Only the chosen few from any pool of talent were given a voice. Their exclusive status made their appeal all the more alluring. While others were relegated to obscurity the “stars” shone all the more brightly, as much a consequence of their privileged status as their creative abilities. The rarified world of such elite players in the arts is passing being replaced by something much more devolved.
I don’t say this with foreboding. Music will always have its place. But for a while it is going to be defined by its posterity rather than its currency. This will be difficult for my generation to grasp, a generation brought up to consider greatness in contemporary music a part of the natural order. It was not always so. There were few to match Beethoven and Mozart in classical music throughout the 19th Century and no new towering greats in jazz since Davis and Coltrane. The Beatles are still the benchmark for pop and will probably remain so.
Music might now return to its traditional roots, to a participation activity in which anyone can be involved. Your community is just as likely to be a virtual one, connected through online networks. Artists who choose to follow the muse as a way of life may earn a modest income supported by those who want to hear their voice. But wiser counsel should probably discourage people from pursuing music as vocation because opportunities for success will be fewer in future. Obscurity will be far more typical than ubiquity. It always was despite any appearances to the contrary. And maybe it is no bad thing having greatness diminished over coming decades. For the preservation of art’s integrity there needs to be less of it in any case.
music might return to its traditional roots,
to primarily a participation activity