Humanity, despite the prophecies of Edward Bellamy and H. G. Wells, never mastered the technology of time travel. The art of it seems another matter. Our DeLoreans drive in one direction: reverse.
The ensuing Butterfly Effect alters the future rather than the past. We leave little in the way of cultural legacy as we continually mine our inheritance.
Roger Friedman noticed earlier this week that albums (combined age 90) by Queen and Joni Mitchell held the top two spots on the iTunes chart. He reacted, “I was 16 in 1973, I’m trying to imagine music from 1923 and 1933 suddenly being popular. And I can’t.”
A similar thought struck in 2011. “The bestselling album of the last decade was a collection of Beatles number-one songs,” I wrote here at The American Spectator, asking, “What recordings from the 1920s even charted during the 1960s?” I cart out this 10-year-old column from time to time on the cultural reduce-reuse-recycling obsession because regurgitation is “in.”
We live in the Age of Some Other Age.
This retromania phenomenon more dramatically characterizes Hollywood and Broadway than the music industry. Although the pandemic briefly interrupted the film industry’s promotion of brands masquerading as movies, the success of A Quiet Place Part II, F9: The Fast Saga, and sequels and reboots characterizing all but one of the rest of 2021’s top 10 at the box office indicates that old habits die hard. Whether theatergoers see The Lion King, Aladdin, or Chicago, or Spotify listeners prefer Don’t-Stop-Believing back-catalog to “Butter,” the Billboard Hot 100 current chart-topper by BTS, everywhere signs of cultural decay confront consumers of pop culture. As a number from yesteryear explains, “You glorify the past when the future dries up.”
But in looking at the same music charts from earlier this week that Friedman looked at, one notices something Friedman and other critics get paid to overlook.
The No. 1 song on iTunes? “Am I the Only One,” an Aaron Lewis tune accompanied by explicitly conservative lyrics: “Am I the only one not brainwashed/ Making my way through the land of the lost…. Am I the only one who quits singing along/ Every time they play a Springsteen song?” Toby Keith’s “Happy Birthday America” ranked seventh on the iTunes chart. Keith sings, “Now your children want to turn you in/ To something other than yourself/ They burn your flag in their city streets/ More than anybody else.”
Add to this the public’s rejection of the gatekeepers’ attempt to cancel Morgan Wallen and Van Morrison releasing his best and most critically panned music in decades, which lampoons and laments the lockdowns, the waste of time that is social media, and the West’s slow suicide. “Where have all the rebels gone?” Morrison and collaborator Eric Clapton ask. The answer? The rebels may have left the stage. They still heavily populate the audience. The little people want what the big people want them to not want. A great rebellion among the audience against the industry exists even if the industry pretends that it does not.
So why notice retromania all these years after it first appeared when the peculiarity of songs blaring right-wing lyrics suddenly occupy spots high on the popular music charts? The former, old-news, albeit still disturbing, phenomenon obscures the latter, new, unheard-of occurrence that proves inconvenient for an industry in which supply demands much from demand.
The preference for past over present and the popularity of performers who rebel against the industry’s politically correct ethos both stem from the same source: consumers saying “no, thanks” to what producers spoon-feed them, which includes, yes, politicized drivel, but more so lazily made, paste-pudding schlock. It turns out popular music isn’t very popular. How many people out of 100 could hum along, let alone recite the lyrics, to any song currently in Billboard’s top 10? Many people from 9 to 90 could do this during the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.
Our DJs don’t take requests. They issue commands.
But listeners, despite what that label suggests, do not listen, at least to the DJs. They listen, as always, to the songs. And the less the DJs — human, algorithmic, and otherwise — play them, the more they listen.
Whether country (Johnny Cash, Kitty Wells, Hank Williams), rock (Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Johnny Rotten), or rap (Public Enemy, NWA, Tupac Shakur), rebellion sells. The music industry now sells conformity.
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