Heartbreak Beat: the lonely state of rock music

Last week, Apple sold its millionth iPhone. Two weeks before that, it was announced that Apple and Starbucks were teaming up, making it possible to purchase the now-playing tune in certain Starbucks locations wirelessly through your iPhone. Apple, the company that popularised the image of the hipster wandering around in his or her own, private sonic bubble, is now spreading that isolation to the business person, the car-pooler, and everyone else who uses a cell phone. And the music that people can buy on iTunes is getting more and more lonesome.

Not that the field is shrinking, however. As more and more people buy music through the internet instead of through big box stores, more and more bands—who just couldn’t be crammed onto the shelves at brick-and-mortar stores—are gaining more and more listeners. At the same time, the decline of CD sales in stores is shrinking the music departments in those stores. The mainstream, as represented by those CD sections, is shrinking, even while the music field is opening up to more and more independent artists. Music, both in its production and its consumption, is becoming more and more individualistic.

Today’s songs are the product of a society that’s been splintering ever
since the invention of the nuclear family. They enforce the notion that
meaning and fulfilment are ultimately personal and subjective quests.
They are evidence of rampant relativism.

Musical taste has often been used as a sign of personal identity. Punks, gangstas, Goths, cowboys, etc., all have their own genres of music to go with their senses of personal expression. But with the rise of the internet as a musical search tool, the sense of community that once fostered the growth of such subcultures is fading away or being replaced by virtual communities. Music is becoming less and less a group phenomenon and more an element of the personal quest for meaning and definition.

Don’t believe me? Try listening to some of the up-and-coming rock bands that have released CDs recently.

Individual quests

Some of these bands—like the Arctic Monkeys or Arcade Fire—are the hot new things, still early in their careers. Some—like the Decemberists and Belle & Sebastian—have been around the indie circuit for years. It’s only recently that they’ve gotten big-label recording contracts as the music industry tries to capture more of a market that’s slipping away. And one—Nine Inch Nails—has had a big label contract for a decade, but has only been heard on the radio in the last couple of years. It’s an outsider band moving in, something that’s always been a feature of rock music. And all of these bands play rock of one stripe or another; rock is the most fluid and broadest genre, and changes in its scene are indications not only of the state of music today, but also of the state of the audience.

That state is most clearly gauged by the lyrics. Like the market that sells them, those lyrics are shifting away from discussions of abstract or social phenomenon (love songs and protest songs, in other words) and focusing more on the individual’s search for meaning in the modern world. The transition has not always been smooth; a couple of social-commentary concept albums have come out recently. But the individual quest gets in the way of the social one.

Staring into the abyss

Take Trent Reznor, for example, who records under the name Nine Inch Nails. He’s always written deeply personal lyrics and used to be the voice of the heroin-addicted, anti-establishment outsider. His introspection was the aural equivalent of staring into the abyss and having it stare back at you.

But Reznor sobered up and started writing political albums, and even long-time fans of his innovative industrial style were sorely disappointed in his latest effort, Year Zero. The album depicts a world at war, one whose subjects are ready to rebel against an elected leader who "signs his name with a capital G." (It’s not meant to be subtle.) The first-hand accounts on Year Zero come from the point of view of a soldier fifteen years in the future. Some of the images and emotions in these songs are compelling in brief flashes, but Reznor is too far removed from his subject matter to make it really gripping. He’s trying to impose his political opinions on a different character, one who’s lost in a chaotic world.

Reznor’s confidence in his own opinion and the soldier’s loss of self clash awkwardly and make for some downright boring songs. The album is meant to spur political resistance to the Bush administration, but one man does not a movement make. Without a crowd—without a society to speak for, as well as one to speak against—his social commentary is trite and ineffectual. Individualism here cripples an attempt at painting with a broader brush.

The same problem dogs Arcade Fire’s much-lauded sophomore effort, Neon Bible. The music is mellow for rock, but hard rockin’ for the orchestra and pipe organ that create a densely layered sound behind the vocals. For most of the album, a lone voice struggles to rise over an ocean of noise—the title of one of the best songs, in fact. But several of the songs, in spite of their complex structures and orchestration, suffer like Year Zero from too-vague lyrics of generic social complaint. The mid-album ballad "(Antichrist Television Blues)" is a 14-verse collection of caricatures: a fundamentalist Christian father fears planes will "keep crashing two by two" into the "buildings downtown," and he prays to God to make his little girl a star while he JonBenet’s her on TV.

But the songs about personal nightmares and the loss of faith—or just of direction—are poignant. I doubt Arcade Fire have met real fundamentalists—again, personal opinion clashes with art—but I believe they have, at some point, felt lost in the postmodern world. That’s a malaise that the lone DJ, surfing an ocean of information without much in the way of a reliable guide, can identify with.

Character delineation

The individual story and the one-on-one encounter are taking over the genre once defined by events like Woodstock. England’s Arctic Monkeys, one of the biggest breakout acts of 2006, create sharp portraits of blokes and birds who are vividly alive in the band’s manic, two-guitar sound. Their newest album, Favourite Worst Nightmare, is dark, and its portraits are as full of warts as they are of vitality. But there’s more matter in these finely detailed snapshots of club life than in any vague message of serious social import. Here the individuals presented are not the band members, and the clarity and compassion in these portraits give individualism the ability to rise up into universal, if profanity-laden, truth.

Likewise, Belle & Sebastian have released an entire album of individual snapshots fleshed out into narratives. Bookended by a two-part tale of a young woman trying to make sense of life, The Life Pursuit is full of bittersweet tales set to upbeat tunes reminiscent of sixties bubblegum-pop and seventies disco. These are stories of ordinary lives pursued down corridors of unspoken love, declared indifference, and dreams that somehow slipped away with the years. Like the songs on Favourite Worst Nightmare, the music of Belle & Sebastian begins in the individual but carries far more weight than mere personal opinion.

More dramatic yarns are spun on the latest album from The Decemberists, The Crane Wife. Set to a folk-influenced sound that breaks out into rock and roll from time to time, The Crane Wife is full of stories of rape, murder, arson, haunting, and war. These songs are not so much bittersweet as they are violent and depressing, with an occasional glimmer of hope. The stories are also less believable than those recounted on The Life Pursuit, the characters more caricatures than those on Favourite Worst Nightmare. The individual stories here never rise above the individual. The Decemberists favour archaic language and Dickensian settings; the artifice is obvious and weakens the songs’ impact. Belle & Sebastian and the Arctic Monkeys, on the other hand, have created albums that don’t feel like art, but rather like life as we know it.

Introspection becomes self-indulgence

There is a danger inherent in writing about life as we know it: too much introspection quickly becomes self-indulgence. The focus on the individual can devolve into mere selfishness. This is the trouble with indie supergroup The New Pornographers. Their latest album, Challengers, is a musical departure from their previous pop sound. Orchestral instruments and mellower moods dominate this new album, but the lyrics, like those on the previous album, Twin Cinema, are still focused on the search for fulfilment. The New Pornographers never find it, though, getting lost instead in a maze of obscure lyrics, modulating bedfellows, and random digressions.

There are occasional flashes of connection, as on the slow and lovely "Go Places" or the tentatively sympathetic "Adventures in Solitude." For the most part, however, these songs are the epitome of the personal. There are suggestions on Challengers that there’s something more out there, but the protagonists are too vain to forget themselves and go after it.

If rock music is shifting focus, it may also shift form. Sufjan Stevens, on his album Come On, Feel the Illinoise!, creates symphonic reflections out of voices, horns, piano, a drum set, and, yes, guitar. Stevens not only combines instruments; he also combines personal confessions with flashes of American history to generate a call to conversion. He confesses his own weaknesses, his own sins, his hopes and fears, and he sets them against a larger background. The result being that when he asks, "What have we become, America?" the question is honestly probing.

If these lyrics suffer, it is from an overload of detail and reference, not from vagueness and disconnection. If Sufjan Stevens manages to reconnect with larger crowds, it is by leaving his home and walking out into the streets of Illinois (he’s done it to Michigan and says he’ll to it to the other 48 states). Whether he inspires listeners to do the same remains to be seen.

Soundtracks for navel-gazing

That he does inspire listeners is beyond question. Music affects its hearers. The music above lacks the spur to rebellion for which rock has been castigated in days past. It also, for the most part, eschews the kind of heavy beat that makes you want to get up and move. This is not music to dance to, and not music to sin to—at least physically. This is music to drive to, or to sit and listen to and think about. These albums, with their emphasis on the individual, are a soundtrack for navel-gazing. Whether that gaze is honest, therapeutic, or merely self-satisfied depends more on the listener than the artist.

Ultimately, it’s the listener who acts on the music. And what the listener does in terms of sales affects what the next round of artists will do. Music, like any cultural artefact, is as much a product of society as an influence on it. In the case of current trends in rock music and music sales, today’s songs are the product of a society that’s been splintering ever since the invention of the nuclear family. They enforce the notion that meaning and fulfilment are ultimately personal and subjective quests. They are evidence of rampant relativism.

Fortunately, there is also some evidence of hope. The music of the Arctic Monkeys, Belle & Sebastian, and Sufjan Stevens suggests that meaning and fulfilment are quests facilitated by involvement in the lives of others—and possibly completely satisfied by that involvement. They hint at the possible reintegration of society: if we’re willing to become emotionally and poetically involved in the lives they describe, what’s to stop us from putting down the iPod and walking out the front door to get involved with people closer to us?

Kate Bluett hails from Irving, Texas, and is a contributing editor of Salvo magazine.


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