Looking back on this decade, what stands out most is not war, terrorism or recession. It's something more intractable, in a way more disturbing. It's how Americans fell apart from each other.
I haven't seen as much looking forward. Sure, some people are making new year's resolutions they'll soon break, just like every year. And a new poll shows Americans are more optimistic about next year; if the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, then perhaps that positive sentiment will prove itself self-fulfilling. What, however, do we have to expect from the coming decade? It's impossible to predict the type of events that for many defined the Zeroes-- war, terrorism, recession-- but will the main trend Basu cites persist? Will Americans continue to fall apart from each other? Is entropy inevitable?
I dunno. But here are some top-of-the-head, totally arguable, probably embarrassing thoughts I was sharing over dinner the other night. About music, because that's what I'm (again, totally arguably) qualified to write about. Can we stipulate that in the 1990s, indie rock was a relatively apolitical affair, characterized by Gen X irony and detachment? You weren't going to find Beck, Pavement, or Sebadoh at a Bill Clinton rally. As recently as the early 2000s, people from almost anywhere on the political spectrum could dig some of the most indie-acclaimed albums-- although even then records like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot were pretty consciously challenging not only the major labels, but also traditional radio listeners.
At some point, however, I feel like indie's anti-corporate story became simply an anti-Bush story. More and more artists and albums took a political stand, or at least gestured toward politics-- whether the 2004 Vote for Change Tour or vaguely war-themed albums like the Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots or Radiohead's unsubtly titled Hail to the Thief. For some (probably indefensible) reason I feel like this cross-identification of "indie" music with progressive politics peaked around the time of Arcade Fire's Funeral, if not so much because of anything in the music then because of the way countless people first heard about it: "Fear is wholly pervasive in American society, but we manage nonetheless to build our defenses in subtle ways-- we scoff at arbitrary, color-coded "threat" levels; we receive our information from comedians and laugh at politicians," wrote online-friend-of-Des-Noise Dave Moore in the first paragraph of his widely read Pitchfork review. The same year, a rapper named Kanye West rose up in indie circles in a way few recent rappers had-- it's embarrassing and probably more potentially more self-destructive than worthwhile to admit, but I, for one, let peer pressure sway me into including his debut album on my year-end list (I felt guilty because I had fallen out of touch with recent rap-- despite growing up on the stuff... and hearing journalism professors say rap coverage was a good career move for would-be music critics). I doubt I was the only one. Eventually, West would cement his indie cred with a few famous words: "George Bush doesn't care about black people." From there, if "indie" meant anything, it came to mean "stuff left-leaning people like and people who are right-leaning probably won't."
Now, as the decade ends, I wonder whether we've reached a crossroads. Barack Obama is president. Prominent critics have declared the death of hip-hop. The snake of contrarian thinking has eaten its tail; we've gone from the unironic revival of Journey to multiple articles calling for a reappraisal of Creed. Meanwhile, the actual death of Michael Jackson-- plus the popularity of the Beatles' "Rock Band" video game-- has left many of us craving the universal icons of the old monoculture. To that end, there's already been a groundswell of critical support around Taylor Swift, an artist who is nominally mainstream-country, a genre that is traditionally conservative (and which indie had been slowest to embrace). This is a change. That her big moment this year came in a kerfuffle with West is only appropriate and symbolic.
More and more of the new music I hear every day seems content to connect with only tiny, self-congratulatory niches. That's the way all media have gone in the past decade-- you read the blogs you like, watch the TV news you agree with, and you tune out whatever disagrees with your worldview. There's no turning back the clock. Nor should there be. But my hope for the 2010s is that more artists will see the value of reaching outside of a small coterie of fans-- fans who devour dozens if not hundreds of albums a year but devote their lives to precious few-- and start truly touching people who maybe have tastes, beliefs, and backgrounds that are different from theirs, but who will maybe appreciate their music more fully. You know the great Oscar Wilde quote: "A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing." Let's work on reaching some people who couldn't rate an album on a 101-point scale if it killed them, who could barely put together a top five list let alone a top 50 list, but who know what a song is really worth.
So my hope for us as music fans is the same as Basu's hope for us as citizens: that we'll be able to find some common ground. That, even if we end up differing, we'll at least be communicate with each other. If you believe great music can touch what is fundamentally human in each of us-- and I do-- then why close off that possibility by speaking to ever-smaller, arbitrary niches who will download your music for free, listen to it once, form an opinion, and then move on to the next big thing?
In 2020, everybody will appear on at least one top 10 list.