Music is cyclic. Musical elements come in and out of fashion. New sounds pop into existence and exit the scene as quickly as they appeared. Years later, these sounds may resurface, revitalized by an artist who uses them in new ways, incorporating them into the current scene. Music lends itself to itself—a sort of self-sampling occurs as the constant exchange of ideas takes old ideas and creates something new. I believe that is what is happening today, as artists are embracing old elements, as we arrive on the cusp of a new musical age.
The paradigm shift in music has been a long time coming. Since the early ’00s or even the late ’90s, the progression has tended in favor of pop and electronic foundations. In a 2014 interview with Howard Stern, Chris Cornell, lead singer of the band Soundgarden, had much to say about the fate of modern music when looking at the past. Cornell recognized that electronic dance music (EDM) and more synth-pop music dominates the younger generations playlists. Its popularity was in constant ascent. But it likely will not last forever.
“I don’t know how much more it can go up,” Cornell said. “ The only thing I can say is that tends to be the beginning of a really great new movement in rock, which is the same thing that kind of happened when disco was dominating.”
After disco died, punk rock and other genres of music took off in popularity. In part a response to the dissatisfaction with disco and the desire to create something new, the giant hole left in the cultural scene opened up for new kinds of artists to break into the mainstream. The parallels with the disco age and the EDM age are substantial, and we may find in time that it will be the big fad of our decade. Only time will tell. But Cornell’s point also highlights where we might be going. Just as the ’70s disco faded into ’80s punk and metal, the EDM and synthpop of the ’00s fades into retrowave and new alternative rock.
We might be close to breaking into a new musical horizon as older ’80s sounds are coming back into play in retrowave electronic, which uses more atonal, imperfect sounds, reminiscent of the time period. EDM, though a party genre, has become primped and proper as the technology allows for near perfect sounds to be created. Just as the imperfect, grating, and distorted guitar sounds of ’90s grunge contrasted the conventional powercords and sounds, new music, like retrowave, will throw away modern conventions in favor of something more raw. This seems like a natural progression, fleshing out old ground, while incorporating it into new media. Retrowave may be the natural predecessor.
The umbrella term alternative rock may simply function as a catch-all phrase for uncategorizable rock bands, but it is also the home of artists who push the boundaries of rock music. The 1975’s new album, I Like It When You Sleep, for You are Beautiful Yet Completely Unaware of It, is a prime example of this. Though frontman Matt Healy is not shy about stating that genre is dead, the band recognizes that the sounds of the ’80s are present. Incorporating more reserved and classic uses of synth in several of their songs, listeners will notice the similarities while appreciating the differences laden in the work. The boundaries are being pushed further back. And this band is representative of a larger shift in music toward a new kind of rock that Cornell references in his interview.
Maybe this new era has a certain irreverence to genre, maybe it will continue to employ older elements in new and exciting ways. In any case, being on the edge of a musical shift is exciting because it suggests that there are more artists out there to find and sounds to be explored. Music has always been as dynamic as the people who create it. Individually, we are an amalgamation of nature and nurture. It is natural for us to keep a pulse on everything going on around us. As an industry, collective of people, music keeps a pulse, too, evolving with every turn. Disco is dead. Punk is dead. Grunge is dead. EDM is dead. Genre is dead. Music is alive.
Featured Image by Kelsey McGee / Heights Editor