Toure and Amanda Marcotte – two of my favorite writers – took to pen to write about the demise of monoculture – particularly in popular culture.
Toure’s article, “Why I miss the monoculture” (http://www.salon.com/entertainment/music/2011/09/28/how_niches_killed_culture/index.html) highlights how our cash-spending society as a whole was able to band together in very specific moments of time in our popular culture to embrace a product – be it a record, film or television series – that created a community of sorts. I get it. He’s right – I remember when I was growing up and Nirvana’s Nevermind and Green Day’s Dookie were on everyone’s Discmans (do you remember Sony Discmans?). And if you weren’t into alternative music, you had Whitney Houston’s soundtrack to The Bodyguard or Lauren Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauren Hill. In my 1993 junior high school, Janet Jackson’s janet. album with it’s unending slew of singles was pretty ubiquitous.
We got together with my friends and discussed the latest music video (this was before MTV stopped playing music videos and Chicago had this weird, free music channel called the Box). Since I was gay, I of course discussed the merits of the costumes and the choreographed dance moves of the latest Jackson video. We never bothered to borrow and lend each other albums, because we owned all of those records, already…So I get Toure’s nostalgia.
But I also get Marcotte’s issues with his article. The monoculture that Toure seems to miss so much came at a huge detriment not only to indepedent artists, but the buyers as well. It’s obvious now, with the way the record industry is shifting, that the monoculture cannot really exist anymore. As Toure pointed out, too many outlets exist now where music is promoted, so that there’s a potential that you’ll never get “caught up” with what’s out there.
Which, as Marcotte pointed out, will probably mean the end to those ridiculous hefty record advances that artists such as Prince, Michael Jackson, Madonna or Barbra Streisand enjoyed. People no longer rely on the local record store or the mall for their musical education. I myself, still pretty old school when it comes to CD’s look to YouTube and Facebook a lot when seeking out new music (that’s how I discovered my new favorite, Twin Shadow). Unlike Toure, though, I don’t see this as a breakdown of sorts, but I see it as a possibility for weirder artists to get more exposure.
For example, in its heyday, the music industry had very defined genres that artists fit in comfortabley: pop, rap, rock, country, etc. The little overlap that occured was more a marketing thing than actual sonic (i.e. maybe Michael Jackson could be considered “rock” or “soul” instead of pop at certain times). Now artists willing to be a little bit more elastic in their sounds can get exposure and create mini-movements.
A great example is the advent of black urban alternative music. When it first emerged in the late 1980’s, early 1990’s, urban alternative music seemed to be “the next big thing,” mainly due to brigh artists such as P.M. Dawn, Arrested Development, De La Soul, Neneh Cherry and Digible Planets. Then poof! Gangsta’ rap and party rap exploded and the alternative urban acts began to fade out of the mainstream (which might’ve suited these artists fine, if it didn’t mean losing their record deals). Now thanks to the Internet, alternative soul is reaching a decently-sized audience – we have successful artists like Outkast, Kelis, Janelle Monae or Gnarles Barkley now stretching the boundaries of what urban pop music can mean. Now, are their record sales on par with Prince’s Purple Rain? No, of course not. But those salad days of albums selling over 10 million copies is over – case in point: British soul songstress, Adele’s sophomore release, 21, has been number 1 for like a jillion months and “only” sold about 3 million copies (which is nothing to sneeze at “these days”).
Finally, I’m not so sure of a monoculture doesn’t exist – I think it’s just shifted. Sure, The Cosby Show was a major cultural moment that probably won’t happen again, but now we have YouTube – I mean, how many folks have seen “Two Girls and a Cup”? Unfortunately, I have….Or Justin Bieber – I mean, I don’t “get” Justin Bieber but he’s one of the biggest pop stars in the world because of YouTube. And more people vote for their favorite American Idol contestants than they do for presidential candidates.
I understand the nostalgia that Toure is indulging in – though, I was never a huge fan of nostalgia. I’m glad the rules of succeeding in popular music changed. I’m glad that artists who would normally toil away in garages now have a decent chance at a contract and maybe a tour. I’m also glad that my iPod selection will be radically different than that of my friend and we can actually trade music tastes – I mean, when everyone had a copy of “Beat It” or “Billie Jean” there wasn’t all that much to talk about, was there…
p.s. I was gonna point out to Toure that disco music “died” as a result of a straight white male populace tiring of a genre that is disproportiontely gay, black or Hispanic and female, and reverting back to “real” music, but I Marcotte already pointed that out; I would also like to point out that disco didn’t die really, but merely evolved in dance and house music.