Local Current Blog

Has the Normcore trend spread to music? We need new sounds, and we need them now

By the end of this weekend, nearly 200,000 Twin Cities music fans will have attended one of the 11 shows performed by Garth Brooks—an artist whose last major hit came out 15 years ago.

At the Electric Fetus this week, top-selling albums include reissues of Bob Dylan’s The Basement Tapes Complete (recorded in 1967), the Rolling Stones’ From the Vault (recorded in 1981), Led Zeppelin IV (recorded 1970-1971), and Paul McCartney and Wings’ Venus and Mars (1975) and Wings at the Speed of Sound (1976). Other artists selling enough albums to get into the top 20 include Neil Young, Robert Plant, and Bette Middler.

On the Top 40 charts, Taylor Swift is breaking sales records for the year with 1989, an album that waxes nostalgic about the pop music that came out the year she was born.

And on modern, independent radio stations like the Current, you’d be hard-pressed to find a new band who isn’t channeling the New Wave and synthpop sounds of the ‘80s, the trip-hop, electro-pop, and post-New Jack Swing R&B of the ‘90s, or the acoustic guitar-driven Americana that’s been coming in and out of style since Woodie Guthrie sang “This Land is Your Land” in the 1940s.

All of these signs point to the fact that we are living in an exceedingly nostalgic time, and yet we don’t even have one particular era that we’re yearning for. The New York Times recently coined this period the New Mediocre, a time so untethered to any defining aesthetic that our latest fashion trend, Normcore, involves digging through our closets for our plainest, most blasé pieces.

Sure, we miss the good old days when the music industry was more stable and pop music was less homogenous, but when was that exactly? A survey of the music landscape suggests we’d rather be anywhere but here, at any time than right now. With all of our art looking backwards, how are we going to remember where we were at in 2014?

If you’ve been reading these Tuesday columns you’ll know that I’ve been on a bit of a nostalgia kick lately, contemplating the effects it has on fans from different generations and sharing stories about my own favorite musical memories. I don’t know if it’s because it’s that oh-so reflective time of year or maybe because I’m now a thirtysomething, but I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the way our memories and our favorite music intersect.

Even when I try to escape it, this idea of musical nostalgia keeps creeping back into my consciousness. Like the other day, when I picked up a history book (Soul Music: The Birth of a Sound in Black America by Michael Haralambos), and this line leapt off the page and smacked me right between the eyes:

“For nostalgia to be effectively evoked, the stimulus must be infrequent. If scenes from the past are continually resurrected, if old memories are revived daily, the process ceases to be emotionally stimulating.”

The author was writing about the declining popularity of the blues in the 1960s, but I think it applies just as much to what we’re seeing in music today: the endless reunion tours and reissues, the celebrations—all across the internet, as if on cue—of every major album’s 20th, 25th, or 30th anniversary. Every time we dig back into the past and mine those memories it feels a little less thrilling, like a photo that’s been left pinned to the fridge for years instead of stashed away in a long-forgotten shoebox under the bed. When’s the last time you heard something that sounded truly singular, exciting, and new?

What I worry about is that we have so many superstars from bygone eras to remember and re-celebrate that it could keep us going around in this loop indefinitely. Even the big, messy umbrella genre of indie rock has been around long enough now that people pine for its earliest days, when it provided a true alternative to the monochromatic pop and alt rock that had taken over the airwaves.

I guess what I’m getting at is that the time is right—not just right, but long overdue—for a new sound and a new movement to challenge the status quo. I don’t know where it’s going to come from or what it’s going to sound like, or if I’ll even recognize it or like it when I first hear it, but I do know that we need it. We need to be shaken. We need something new. Otherwise what will we write our retrospective thinkpieces about 20 years from now?

That’s my story for the week. What’s yours? If you have an artist that’s getting you riled up right now, please, by all means, share it in the comments—I’d love to hear it.