My three oldest memories of hearing music are as follows – Joan Jett and the Blackhearts “I Love Rock & Roll“, J. Geils Band “Freeze Frame” and the Stray Cats “Rock This Town“. Not nursery rhymes. Not Sesame Street Songs. Just pure good ol’ Rock n Roll (yes Papa Dogg and Mama Dogg were and still are way cooler than your parents).
All three of those songs came out in 1981 and were on heavy radio rotation throughout the early 80s. In my pre-pubescent little Lil’ Pup recollections the riffs and rhythms drift out from car speakers, home radios and of course MTV. Back in those ancient days certain songs and musical groups permeated life in a way that is impossible in today’s modern Internet World. Hall & Oates videos were on MTV every hour on the hour but I also distinctly recall hearing “Private Eyes” while waiting in a dentists office to have my tiny teeth cleaned. Those two things, MTV and the Dentist, were on the complete opposite ends of the cool spectrum in 1984 yet both were pumping out the Rock n Soul jams from Philly’s finest.
In academic terms this is known as “Monoculture”. Certain aspects of life that are common to just about everyone. You could be a Reagan Youth punk, a Cyndi Lauper looking clone or a 45 year old accountant and it didn’t matter, all three would still be able to hum the melody to “White Wedding” and then go home and watch Kate & Allie. The number of TV stations and radio options available meant no matter what your personal preferences were at some point you just had no choice but to engage with the same media as everyone else.
And while that was extremely limiting it was also a beautiful thing. Shared experience is what connects people. Cultural touchstones like Brady Bunch reruns and Hair Metal videos created a short hand amongst members of certain generations. If you had a half hour to kill before dinner in 1987 the odds that you were watching Marsha Brady get hit in the face with a football are pretty high.
In 2018 if you polled 1000 kids asking them what they were watching at 7 PM on a Wednesday you’d probably get 1000 different answers. I’d like to consider myself a pretty voracious consumer of pop culture and I couldn’t name one song that would be in the current Top 40. Every store, every office, every restaurant plays their own personal highly curated play list. The chances of randomly hearing a hit pop song in public is basically zero. Choice is great and all but it’s also extremely polarizing and paralyzing (the number of times I’ve turned off Netflix after endlessly scrolling and being unable to decide on what to watch is probably greater than the amount of Netflix shows I’ve actually seen). Take a look at the pedestrians on the sidewalk. Everyone has their earbuds in, strolling to their own personal soundtrack.
But what does it all mean????????
We all know the Internet is evil. That’s a given. But has online life actually hurt the quality of popular art? This pup believes so. Play me one song from the last 5 years that’s as instantly great and immediately accessible to any human as “Head Over Heels” or “Easy Lover“. Show me something new by Netflix that’s as funny as Cheers or as entertaining as Indiana Jones, something that both a 55 year old and an 8 year old can agree on.
I suppose the whole point is that things don’t need to appeal to a mass audience anymore – “There’s something for everyone if you look hard enough”. Well it shouldn’t be that hard. “Pop” is supposed to be “popular” not niche.
The other morning I was in the car dropping off one of our little pups at Pre-School and “Stray Cat Strut” came on the classic rock station. As I listened and pictured the living room of the house we lived in when I was 4, I wondered if there would be any real time contemporary songs that my own child would remember fondly from her childhood. And that made this old Pup sad.