With rock greats like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones dominating lists of the best musicians of the past century, I’ve often come to wonder who will remain relevant in the decades from now. The other day, I read an old article written by journalist and author Chuck Klosterman about comedian and late night TV legend Johnny Carson after the celebrity’s death. He said that Carson was a funny person, but his true significance and importance lies in the fact that he was basically the last great cultural icon.
The connection between these two ideas may seem far-fetched, but trust me, they are more related than you’d think. I think what Klosterman was getting at is that there was once this sense of a shared, collective culture and a perceived consensus, probably because of limited media sources. As he said, “There will never again be cultural knowledge that everybody shares, mostly because there is just too much culture.”
Back in the ‘60s, we are led to believe that everyone in America was watching when the Beatles performed “I Want To Hold Your Hand” on the Ed Sullivan Show. This is probably somewhat likely. Back in the days of limited television channels and definitely no internet in sight, the outlets through which popular music was transmitted were limited, at least compared to today. Magazines such as Rolling Stone would put rock stars like Jim Morrison on its cover and tell us that he was worth caring about. The majority seems to have listened.
Today, we have an infinite number of choices, which is an idea that Klosterman also draws on. With blogs, social media sites and the like telling us about this band and that band, this obscure singer and that under-the-radar rapper, it’s hard to keep up. I’m not saying that there aren’t cultural figures that many of us seem to know and agree on and that there were in the past. After all, I think that the passage of time definitely explains why many of us can stand back and say that Jimi Hendrix was an amazing guitarist or that Led Zeppelin led the way for many metal bands that were to follow.
I think, however, that the idea of a consensus is harder to believe when two-way communication dominates our interactions with the media. Today, there are millions of blogs and sites like Pitchfork or Live Music Guide devoted solely to music and reviews – individual listeners can argue back against mainstream expressions. So what if many magazines named Kanye West’s recent album the best of 2010? We don’t have to listen. With a click of the mouse and flickering of our fingers across the keyboard, we can tell the world that we disagree or agree or are completely confused or that, frankly, we could care less. The media is still telling us what to believe, but we can just as easily drown their messages out with our own opinions and voices. Now, we are the media.
It’s hard to compare the current cultural and music environment of our time to that of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It can be argued that rock ‘n’ roll basically dominated much of those decades, basking in its newness and unfamiliarity. Today, the assortment of genres and subgenres that receive radio airplay have vastly increased – hip hop and pop are more likely to reach number one on top 40 charts than rock. In that vein, however, we don’t even need to listen to the radio. We have Pandora, GrooveShark, etc. We can choose what we want to listen to and when we want to listen to it.
Perhaps these are some reasons why the idea of the “greats of yesteryear” seems unattainable for our generation. To some extent I have always believed there was somewhat of a consensus about great musicians of all time, even if I personally disagreed with the choices. For example, even if I used to be a little less than crazy about Queen (don’t worry – I have since reformed), I feel like I understood their place in rock cultural history. I knew better than to expect that every single person liked every single popular band, but still. So, here’s the question: years from now will a list of the great rockers of right now (the future past, if you know what I mean) develop? Or is our cultural identity becoming less and less homogeneous by the day, to the extent that a consensus will be as ancient as cassette players? It may be a little clichéd, but only time will tell.