The BBC recently published its portrait of the decade. As the first segment of the new millennium draws to a close, what is interesting about such retrospective bouts of listmania is how little individual music performers or acts figure in the discussions. It is as if the likes of the Kaiser Cheifs never existed. They have disappeared because the notion of popular music being homogenized “content” to be squeezed down the cyber-pipeline is truely with us. Sure, rock acts still have their magic, but much more praise in the noughties has gone to the consumer technologies that deliver them: iPods, YouTube, Facebook, Spotify.
The means to digitally replay and manipulate music have now been ‘democratized’ more than ever. These means help us feel that popular music is almost all the same, available at will, easily mixed and matched, no longer groundbreaking or unique. Arguments about the talent of contemporary artists seem to be redundant. Musicians are no more or less talented than before; it is rather that their talent inevitably means much less. The engine of commerce has switched focus from the phantasmagoria of music performance to end platforms that now deliver it. In association with that, popular music – though popular as ever – is somewhat sidelined in the public imagination.
If the noughties was a decade in which geeks were the new rock stars, it was because they were the gate-keepers of the technology that defined social relations. Witness the rise and rise of nerdy film characters; a phenomena listed by Empire film magazine as the second biggest movie trend of the decade. In an era where big advertising made gadgets cool and U2 hustled iPods, no Puff Daddy or Jay-Z could hope to be a mogul like, say, Steve Jobs.
It is as if the death of popular music has been a bloodless coup, different from the more obvious horror facing television. Consider some media history. In the 1950s, cinema was usurped by television, so it found ways to reinvent itself. In the noughties, television, too, has been usurped (by the net), and has already reinvigorated itself with things like reality TV, ‘The Wire’ and a revamped ‘Dr Who’ (making David Tennant into an unfeasibly successful UK celebrity). Popular music, on the other hand, is content: a maleable cultural form, rather than a specific media technology. It is not in need of rescue, but is now spread across the mediascape like a ghost in the machine, an absentee crew member rattling round a ship being steered from elsewhere. Piracy has become endemic and shrewd synergists like Simon Cowell have taken over what’s left of the asylum… If I was starting a band right now, I would call it Facebook.