Popular music is one of the great passions of my life and
I've spent almost 30 years of my career writing about it. Although I've left
the game for the new generation of music journalists to sort out, I still enjoy
music with as much passion as I did as a teenager listening to London Calling
or The White Album for the first time.
This year's Grammys, the television event where the music
business hurls a little bit of everything at a confused nation for three hours
a year, was a messy, vulgar, over-the-top affair as usual.
For the first time in years, things are looking up for the
field of recorded music, which completely collapsed for good in the mid-1990s
after a decline that started around the time that John Lennon died and picked
up steam as the millennium approached.
There are actually new superstars and legends of the 21st
century. Beyonce and Jay-Z are known the world over in the same way Michael
Jackson was. And whether you're a fan or not, Lady Gaga is this decade's
version of Madonna and Taylor Swift our Stevie Nicks.
Meanwhile, there seems to be a greater appreciation of the
great legacy of recorded music bequeathed us by previous generations. The
Beatles, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan and Tupac Shakur are heroes to countless
numbers of young Americans, and disaffected high-school kids still have posters
of Kurt Cobain and the Sex Pistols on their walls.
The Grammys broadcast mixed Dylan, Mick Jagger and Barbra
Streisand with Rihanna and Arcade Fire, and the strange mash-up worked. This
year marked a return of style, swagger and sexiness that made Grammy shows such
a blast when I watched them as a child in the '70s.
The music industry seems like a more enjoyable business now
that it has accepted the fact many people who consume recorded music prefer to steal
it instead of buying it. Artists have long dreamt of a day when "music would be
free," although they got more in the bargain than they'd hoped.
Maybe there are still teenagers who flock to music stores
and enthusiastically spend their allowance money or their paycheck from
McDonald's on CDs, but most young people I know download whatever they want for
free whenever they feel like listening to it.
Music has changed from a product enjoyed in a physical form
— crates full of vinyl, CDs and tapes — to a much less constrained
product. If you want to download the entire recorded history of the Beatles or
Pink Floyd, for example, all you need is a high-speed Internet connection and
BitTorrent, not a fistful of $20 bills.
When you have an unlimited supply of music, as most music
fans do, you tend to pick a little bit of everything. Billie Holliday and
Paramore. The Flaming Lips and Donovan. Classic soul and jazz and rap are just
a click away.
Whether there is an immorality in stealing vast amounts of
music is an irrelevant point, since wishing people started spending big money
on music again is like wishing Bill Clinton was back in the White House. It
simply isn't going to happen.
So with the music executives seemingly surrendering to the
inevitable, they put on a Grammys show that encapsulated the most outrageous
elements of modern music while still trotting out the oldtimers for another
turn in the spotlight.
Seeing Cee-Lo Green dressed like Elton John was great fun at
the Grammys, as much fun as admiring Katy Perry's bountiful cleavage and
Rihanna's dancing. The fact that Bob Dylan's voice sounds even more hoarse and
gravelly than it did five years ago is a reason to celebrate.
When Arcade Fire, an independent label band, finally took
home the prize for Album of the Year and closed the show with two stirring
numbers, the picture was complete.
This was the year that the music business stopped trying to
fight the battles of the recent past and began, at long last, to get back to
its roots as the purveyor of wild, colorful, energetic fun.
It seems as if the reality has sunken in. Even the cheapest
iPod will hold hundreds and hundreds of songs, available on demand. This
metamorphosis has solved the inherent problems of the music industry's delivery
issues by eliminating them entirely. There is no need for record labels except
as publicity machines, not aggressive sales agents — and they're not even
very good for that.
What the music business is good at, however, is finding
attractive, voluptuous women to sing pop songs, groups of nervous young men to
summarize teenage angst, and convincing the hitmakers from decades gone by to
come out and play one more time.
In that sense, the Grammys served its purpose as an
informercial for recorded music. More than that, it held out the hope that
music, once again, might someday return to its former position as the most
vibrant, innovative and exciting medium in entertainment.
If so, it would be a welcome return to relevance that music
hasn't seen in years. Let's hope it happens.