Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Synapse to the Beat: Radiohead's "OK Computer"

I don't want to do the grumpy-old-man-bitches-about-today's-music thing. It is true that the majority of the music I listen to on any given day was recorded before the year 2000, but I'd like to think that reflects more on my than it does on the music that's out there today. To a certain extent, I think people have a finite amount of 'music that moves them' available to them, and after a certain point, what moves other people just ceases to move you. But that reflects little on what's out there and a lot on you yourself.

Except this. I was reading something about OK Computer, and I noticed a rather mundane fact that struck me: it was released in 1997. Yeah, so what, right? Well, it's 2011 right now, and that means this album was released 14 years ago. Now here's where it gets a bit funky: sure, the world has changed in the past 14 years. Music has changed. There are new things out there, different things out there. Importantly, how we consume music is completely different - the 'digital revolution' has changed the behaviours involved in music consumption in a way that in 1997, when there was an internet after there was MP3 technology, remember, we couldn't have predicted.

But... consider the world now and the world into which OK Computer was born. Now, go 14 years before that: 1983, and Duran Duran and Michael Jackson. MTV, synths, those horribly OTT eighties drums and saxophones every-bloody-where. Madonna is traipsing about with her bra on over her clothing and Cyndi Lauper is wearing bright plastic 'spangle' bracelets.

The world of 1983 seems hopelessly 'retro' today, but it did in 1997, too. We listened to 1983 music with ironic distance in 1997, amazed at how different everything had become. Those were great days, but they were very different days. There's no way to confuse 1983 and 1997; they were two entirely different beasts.

Now repeat the exercise and go back 14 years before that: 1969, the year of Woodstock. Long-haired hippies, denim, peace-and-love and Charles Manson. Jimi Hendrix was alive and the Beatles were still together. This is a world I know nothing about (I was born in 1975) and it's a world that has always seemed as far away as William Shakespeare or Christopher Columbus to me.

Now that's just my perspective, of course, one that people even just a half-generation older than me would laugh at. But the point remains: 1969 was nothing like 1983. If you could teleport a 1969 hippie to 1983 and play the radio for him, he'd find it completely alien. And probably hate it.

14 years before that and you've got 'year zero': 1955. The year of Elvismania, of "Rock Around the Clock". The year accepted as the 'birth of rock and roll', whether or not you buy that particular fiction. 'Sock hops' and Beaver Cleaver, Little Richard and soda shops. Again, light years away.

Isn't this the speed at which popular cutire, including music, is supposed to progress? I know I'm not a teenager now so I don't really 'get' it, and I'd love to think that there are still revolutions happening out there today, ones that maybe I'm unaware of but that in time will be seen as as game-changing as Elvis in 1955, Hendrix in '69, Michael Jackson in '83 and, yes, Radiohead in 1997. But it's tough to avoid the conclusion that momentum has somehow been lost, that somehow progress in music is 'slowing down'. Is there nothing left to do? Has everything already been done? I can't believe that. But where are today's revolutionaries?

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