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Sound o' The Times

What is Rox Populi? | Archived Columns

Posted: November 26, 2003

By Christopher Roberts

For each decade, there has been a musical identity that defined it. Not really a theme or anthem, but an indefinable sense of sound that summed up the times. This sound was not really limited to one group or performer: For some, the '70s may have been about Led Zeppelin or The Eagles, or for others even Blue Oyster Cult. None of that music could fairly be called homogenous, but something about all of it, together, reflected the times in which it was forged. When the '80s rolled around, one could pick from a myriad of musical selections. A Flock Of Seagulls. The Bangles. The Art Of Noise. Culture Club. Duran Duran. Each unique in their own regard, but all bound by a sense of the time that bled through in their music. The '90s had its grunge movement with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains. It was a darker, stripped-down sound with sometimes-brooding lyrics and tones. You didn't have to like it, but when you heard the music, it brought home the essence of the decade -- or the early-to-mid '90s, at least.

What, then, is the sound of today? No one can deny the inroads made by rap music, especially lately, when you can actually find rap and hip-hop artists occupying every slot in the Top 10. We've come a long way from Yo! MTV Raps. Hip-hop has entered the world of mainstream music and is not likely to go away anytime soon. Is that the sound of today? Of course, we have also seen the return of what I presume could be called "pop" music with the likes of Britney Spears and the assorted boy bands that have come and gone. Is this the sound of today? What about this American Idol virus? Clay and Reuben have now become household names, and I must admit they are fantastic performers, even if they fall a bit short of my shower renditions of "It's Now Or Never" -- but hey, that's a subjective call. Are these guys the voices of today? What about our country stars? Toby Keith, Alan Jackson, and Tim McGraw are all bona fide superstars, but do they define the times?

The larger question being begged here is, of course, what kind of times these are. What is important to us? What are the biggest problems we encounter? What events have changed our lives? There are a million different answers to these questions, and it may be that that is why there is no one "sound" of the day. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It may be that now more than ever, one has a world of music to choose from. But dammit, I want a sound! I want a feeling from music that lets me know that I am "in the now," if you know what I mean.

Where is it? Unlike in the '80s, I can't turn to music videos to help me with the answers, because every time I turn on MTV, all I can see is the latest lame incarnation of the played-to-death reality show genre. VH1 is no better, especially when they start that damned "look back at the decades" or "I love the whatever decade" show. What about now? While we are all busy loving the '80s or '90s, who is defining this decade musically? If we aren't careful, it could be another Ricky Martin or, dare I say it, Clay Aiken! Worse -- and I fear this is a very real possibility -- we have to be careful not to revel in the past at the expense of our musical present. We're all so busy rediscovering the sounds of the past, we're running out of past, and leaving ourselves very little present.

But all is not lost. We do have a host of artists, each, in their own way, trying to carve out a sound of the times, whether they even know it or not. Norah Jones. Coldplay. Spoon. Dave Matthews. Hell, even Nickelback. Is it working? Well, to tell you the truth, not as well as I'd like. But then, few things work as well as I'd like, so I'm willing to wait and see what develops. But maybe that's the point. Maybe looking for one definable sound is the problem. Perhaps, as previously mentioned, it is the lack of one dominant style that defines the current times. Maybe today is the musical "cereal aisle" of our youth, with all sorts of flavors and rhythms from which to select. Maybe one day we'll all look back at this decade as the time of, well, everything. A time where you could sneak a peek at someone's CD library and find everything from OutKast to Faith Hill, and all points in between. And if we're lucky, that openness would mirror the open and understanding world of the '00s, a time when barriers were broken down and we were all invited to the same cool party. Maybe that will be this decade's legacy. I'd really like to believe that, but as with most things, only time will tell.

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