The last decade in pop
From Live Aid to Jarvis Cocker via cyberspace: a lot can happen in a decade of pop, not least in the Czech Republic
Four years later, as the eastern bloc crumbled away, it became clear that what had finally killed off Communism was not the West's superior armaments but rock 'n' roll. In liberated Czechoslovakia, the new president offered America's most freakishly articulate musician, Frank Zappa, a government post in recognition of the way his music had kept the light of freedom burning in Czech hearts ever since the Russian tanks had rolled in some two decades earlier.
The ramifications were significant in the West, too. Pop, so often condescended to as child's play, at last acknowledged its own maturity. The result was the rise of truly adult-oriented music: as the singles market dwindled away to a trickle commensurate with teen pocket-money budgets, the albums market boomed. Autumn 1986 saw Paul Simon's Graceland top the UK album charts, kick-starting the "world music" boom. The magazine publisher Emap launched Q magazine in 1986, quickly mopping up the hundreds of thousands of older pop fans alienated by the youth-oriented NME and Melody Maker.
Meanwhile, the hardware industry, emboldened by a temporarily booming economy and the increased spending-power of the "mature" rock fan, pulled off the single greatest marketing coup in pop history, persuading us all to ditch those scratchy old vinyl LPs and replace them with shiny new silver discs at twice the price. Once was enough, however: when Sony and Philips tried to pull the same stunt again in the recession-hardened Nineties with, respectively, Minidisc and DCC, they were left with egg on their faces.
It was not only the means of consumption that were revolutionised in the late Eighties, however; the modes of creation were also undergoing radical change, with the rise of the digital sampler, the home computer and the cheap synthesiser. Across Europe rave music became the Lingua Franca of the young underground. Thanks particularly to the sampler, post- modernist thinkers had the cultural artefacts to bear out their theories in the collaged backing tracks of rap and ambient music. Overnight, DJs became stars, and musicians became unemployed.
In America things were different. While the average British band was, by the Nineties, more likely to be two boys in a bedroom with a computer and a drum-machine, the American model was still reliant on three or four boys with the full panoply of guitars, bass, drums, unwieldy amplifiers and hair. REM became the biggest band of their generation, then saw Nirvana rocket to fame on riff-borne complaints. Only in black ghettos was there any recognition of the new technology, as rappers used samplers to appropriate backing tracks for their freewheeling tirades of sex, politics and violence.
The past few years have seen the Britpop boom, led by the triumvirate of Oasis, Blur and Pulp, and fuelled by the attentions of the tabloid press. While all are capable of sublime moments, there is a retrogressive slant to the genre, with deliberately nurtured comparisons with earlier styles lending an air of ironic familiarity. This backward-glancing is, however, endemic in nearly all current pop music: just as the bedroom boffins wielding their samplers sift among the cultural detritus of former decades for inspiration, so does Noel Gallagher shamelessly appropriate entire riffs from earlier hits, and American grunge bands fall back on memories of Kiss and Aerosmith and half-digested notions of punk rock.
As so often, pop seems stalled on the cusp of the future, waiting for some breakthrough that will point the way forward. For some, it is to be found in the manic beats of jungle / drum 'n' bass music. For others, it's in the cinematic atmospheres of trip-hop, or the furrow-browed ruminations of progressive "post-rock" music. One thing is sure: it won't be Boyzone.
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