Cultural Straws Part 1

Via Insty comes this article which, in talking about the financial woes of the Guitar Center retail chain, exposes two deeper issues. Here’s the first:

Guitars don’t figure as heavily into chart-topping music as they once did, according to [Guitar Center boss] Gruhn. He ought to know. Over the years, his customers have included everyone from Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Eric Clapton to Neil Young, Vince Gill and Billy Gibbons. Those artists have left indelible imprints on the music landscape, all the way from Clapton’s burning solo on “Crossroads” to Harrison’s signature guitar part on “Daytripper.”
But these days? Well, things aren’t as guitar-oriented.
“Baby boomers are the best customers I’ve ever had. They’ve driven a lot of the guitar trends, but they are aging and many of them are downsizing their guitar collections,” Gruhn added. “This doesn’t mean that guitar sales are dying, but instrument sales in general are under stress.”

And from another guy in the business:

“Rock is almost dead,” he said. “It’s almost nonexistent. And with guitar there’s no almost one to look up to anymore – no one to get you to want to learn. I have three or four guitar students who are about 12 to 14 years old, and I told one of them she should find someone in her class to play guitar with. She said, ‘No one else plays the guitar, and people think I’m weird because I do.’ ”

As a one-time rock musician, I note this trend with sorrow, of course. As much as I detest the modern obsession with 1,000-watt amplifiers in cars, it does allow me to note that I seldom if ever hear loud rock music emanating from cars these days — in fact, now that I think of it, I can’t remember when last I did — because the market in sub-woofer bass played by sub-moron drivers appears to be dominated by rap music and its adherents, Wiggers and and their Black counterparts. (And this in our upscale neighborhoods in north Texas. South Chicago must be just one large cacophony of thumping drums.)

I suppose that the trend away from rock music (and its instruments) is just one of those things — just as in classical music, harpsichord music almost disappeared when the pianoforte became more popular in the nineteenth century. Of course, I think this sucks, but then again if it means fewer hair bands then it’s not altogether a Bad Thing.

What I hate is what the trend means: that popular taste is devolving towards the primitive — but then again, I suppose that classical music aficionados said the same thing when jazz and later rock music began to supplant classical music among young people. One could say that the classical folks had a point:  Buddy Holly wasn’t exactly Beethoven; then again, in today’s world Heavy Z (or whoever) isn’t exactly Freddy Mercury. But on his worst day, Buddy Holly could write better music than the most accomplished rapper, who has to rely on plagiarism (a.k.a. “sampling”) to provide some kind of musical overlay to a soul-crushing, over-amplified rhythm section. Don’t even get me started on the differences between Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and  G-Eazy & Halsey’s Him & I  (errrr Him & Me or He & I, surely?).

Of course, another manifestation of the move away from classical- to rock music was that guitar pupils began to outnumber piano pupils.  After all, the guitar is an easier instrument to play than the piano, just as manipulating a turntable and drum machine is easier than playing a guitar (as the article correctly notes). I mean, when Paris Hilton can be known as a good DJ… those whirring sounds you hear are Stevie Ray Vaughan and John Bonham spinning in their basements.

One could get all upset about how this is just another sign of the Dumbing Down Of Today’s Yoof, but I think this is more a factor of how music has traditionally been taught and learned — which brings me to the second issue raised by the article.

In Part 2 tomorrow, I’ll talk about that. But just to help people know what I’m talking about, here’s a guitarist:



  1. The one that gets me is the few performers who actually have some talent use it to produce crap. Cases in point, both Katy Perry and Lady Gaga have good voices, one sings pop crap, the other is seems more interested in shocking people a la Madonna (who IMHO couldn’t sing to keep herself out of jail) than in actually performing good music.

    Still, the music business (and it IS, and always HAS BEEN a business first and foremost) produces what people buy, so perhaps the problem is lack of appreciation among the consumers. When I was in school (back when I had to run away from T-Rex’ on my way to school while walking uphill thru snow in both directions) we had a class called “Music Appreciation”, does such still exist?

    I knew a guy some years back who was an aspiring musician (meaning he was a bartender) who bemoaned the fact that the winners of American Idol were making a fortune but they were sell-outs, while he of course remained pure to his art. Apparently purity of art for him mean writing overly-emo lyrics, setting them to an acoustic guitar, and singing them in a bad imitation of Bob Dylan (and not bad in a good way, meaning with some actual singing ability and the ability to carry a tune without a bucket).

  2. I don’t know if it’s just getting old but pop culture today just seems like cotton candy: It gives a brief moment of enjoyment but once its gone it leaves no lasting impression.

    Pretty much every movie I’ve seen in the past several years has been like that: No memorable scenes, no unforgettable lines of dialogue, just a brief couple hours of entertainment that is quickly forgotten.

    Music is getting to be that way too. It occurred to me probably 10 years ago that I pretty much rarely “listen” to music anymore. Music is something that’s playing in the background while I’m doing something else – usually driving or working in the garage.

    I don’t know if that’s something to mourn or just the way we age.

  3. Not sure of your opinion of InfoWars, but just as a broken clock MUST be right twice a day, there is at least one person on there who isn’t a stark raving loony. (Also not sure about your policy of including links to YouTube, etc., so I’ll do it in the future unless I get smacked down.) Personally, I saw the writing on the pop culture wall back in 1991 when in what seemed like the space of a single week, the entire radio spectrum was nothing but “grunge” and “gangsta rap”. (Also “country”, but I’ve never considered that to be music.) Things haven’t improved much since then, when all traces of musicality were exorcised. Basically, I haven’t listened to very much music since then, except for classic rock. And I’m getting tired of THAT, especially since the local classic rock stations have played the hell out of the Beatles, the Stones, Billy Joel, and Elton John. Anytime I hear any of these “giants”, I change the station.

    (Oh, and here is the obligatory NSFW warning, because naughty words.) (But he nails it.)

  4. From a slightly different perspective, observing my own progeny, the modern youth want instant gratification. The concept of studying and practicing for years to get good at something? How quaint. Why bother? You can be a rock star in just an hour or two playing Guitar Hero on Xbox. Spending years to master a real guitar just ain’t gonna happen. And ten minutes after winning Guitar Hero, it’s on to GTA, Halo, and whatever else is the hit game of the week. Why worry about good movies either, when all the entertainment you want is given to you in 2 minute clips on youtube. Heck, watching any video that’s longer than 5 minutes is a chore. This whole culture of “instant now” has pretty much reduced the attention span of kids to minutes (at best) and erased any desire to spend days, months, years perfecting a talent.

    Which also leads to my free time rant. Used to, childhood was defined by free time. Goofing off, laying around, thinking of things to do with no set schedule or adults or guidance or even rules (I’m sure many people just assumed I was raised by wolves). Long lazy days for bright young kids provided plenty of time to practice an instrument or perfect some other skill. Today’s world, with either constant online activities, or over-controlling parents running their children around from one event to another, completely takes away the free time that makes childhood special.

    1. modern youth want instant gratification

      I would replace the word “modern” with “all.” 😉

      Seriously, don’t all teenagers/young adults want “instant gratification?” I sure as hell did when I was a kid.

  5. In a lot of ways, pop music is a recreation of the music the artist grew up listening to.
    The British Invasion was their attempt to recreate American rock. Grunge was a recreation of 70’s hard rock with a fair bit of punk. Punk was a recreation of the raw & rough sound of the early Who.

    Which brings us to today. We’ve had nothing but Corporate Pop, Formula Country and Rap for the past few decades, so it has become a feedback loop of poor music. Add in the fact that the industry has a master template for guaranteed hits, which includes tempo, key, and so on just makes things worse.

    But, happily, there’s still good music being made today, and a hunger for it. Some of the teens I know were raving about a song they heard on the “Thor” soundtrack… something called “The Immigrant Song”.

  6. I think part of the issue may be a shortage of good composers. There are some fine voices out there…but nobody writing anything worth singing.

  7. Add in the fact that the industry has a master template for guaranteed hits, which includes tempo, key, and so on just makes things worse.

    This formula has led to its own satire. Language warning (not too much but a bit).

  8. I think they’re out there, but it’s Sturgeon’s Law in full bloom: ninety percent of the music is crap.

    Don Curton’s remarks aren’t too far off the mark either. Dave Grohl (of Nirvana, Foo Fighters, and a truly -ridiculous- number of side projects) once commented:

    “When I think about kids watching a TV show like American Idol or The Voice, then they think, ‘Oh, OK, that’s how you become a musician, you stand in line for eight fucking hours with 800 people at a convention center and then you sing your heart out for someone and then they tell you it’s not fuckin’ good enough.

    “Can you imagine? It’s destroying the next generation of musicians! Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old fucking drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in and they’ll suck, too. And then they’ll fucking start playing and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives and then all of a sudden they’ll become Nirvana.

    “Because that’s exactly what happened with Nirvana. Just a bunch of guys that had some shitty old instruments and they got together and started playing some noisy-ass shit, and they became the biggest band in the world. That can happen again! You don’t need a fucking computer or the Internet or The Voice or American Idol.”

    Nirvana wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I can’t help but think Grohl is spot on here.

  9. If you think what they did to rock is a crime against humanity, look at Country right now.

    I’ve taken to calling it hick-hop (no idea who coined the term, but it works). It’s a bunch of assholes rapping about “country” genre stuff. Utter trash.

    It’s come a long way from Alabama, Gordon Lightfoot or Montgomery Gentry. And not in a good direction.

    1. The person who introduced AutoTune to Country music will be going to a very special hell.

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