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.


  • Nate

    I don’t think this is a problem of people looking back or a lack of revolutionary sounds, but rather, of over-saturation of new music with no filter. I can’t think of a better time to find experimental, exciting new music than right now. However, for an average music listener, there are just too many options for finding that music and too many new musicians to hear. That is, before the internet, a select group of musicians were pretty much placed in front of us (be it through popular radio or MTV or whatever other few places music was broadcast) and that’s who everyone liked. Nowadays, you can listen to 20 new bands from 20 different genres before you finish your morning coffee — and without having to go seek it out through obscure, indie-store crate-digging.

    I think what it all comes down to is paralysis caused by choice. It’s not an uncommon phenomena. If you go to the grocery store and there are 20 different choices of apples, and you labor about which one you think will taste best, the one you choose will keep you second-guessing. If there were only five apple varieties and you went with your gut and just grabbed one, you are more likely to enjoy that apple. I think that is essentially is what is happening with music. More music choices means we have to spread our emotional energy thin for the new bands we do like. I also think this is why bands don’t stick in our memory as easily as the ones from our past do. I follow a band for an album and then I forget about them because there are so many other bands to hear in the time the other band is making their next album!

    So, I think the nostalgia for old music could largely be based in just having something good given to us easily. I don’t think it really has anything to do with the music of today being bad. I’m going to bet that the writer of this article probably HAS actually heard a sound that was “singular, exciting, and new” recently but that it didn’t register that way because we’re inundated by “new”.

    • Mark Hatlestad

      Couldn’t say it better myself. Time is one of the most effective filters for being able to disseminate media. That’s why we just have to be patient, and support the generation of more media in the hopes that something singular will stick.

    • Well said fellow Nate. Plus, there is just so much cynicism these days that a lot of stuff probably doesn’t even get a chance from listeners.

    • Peter

      That time in 1987 when John Doe sang

      “Now there are seven kinds of Coke
      500 kinds of cigarettes
      This freedom of choice in the USA drives everybody crazy
      But in Acapulco
      Well they don’t give a damn
      About kids selling chiclets with no shoes on their feet

      See how we are
      Hey man, what’s there for me?
      See how we are
      We only sing about it once in every twenty years
      See how we are
      Oh, see how we are”

  • BJ

    I see nothing wrong with enjoying from music from the past, but I do agree that we need to continue pursuing new music and supporting up -and-coming artists. The artist that is riling me up these days is Ben Howard, but I am also enjoying Castlecomer, a young band from Australia.

  • John Darner

    I think the spacey, lush, and hypnotic sounds coming out of Perth nowadays has every potential to end up as this decade’s singular, exciting, new thing (I’d like it to be, at least). Specifically, the work that Kevin Parker (Tame Impala frontman) and the group of musicians he works with put out. It seems like everything Parker touches has a texture and tonality all its own; a progressive sound that I can’t say I’ve ever heard before. Melody’s Echo Chamber’s self-titled album and Moodoid’s EP, both of which he contributed to, clearly bear his fingerprint, too. “Daffodils,” the song he wrote for Mark Ronson and performed on, which premiered on BBC Radio 1 in the last day or two, could very well be what launches Kevin Parker’s groovy goodness into the mainstream, making it accessible to a wider audience. And if The Current doesn’t already have that song in their rotation, they need to ASAP.

    Artists from that area and social group to also consider: Pond, Mink Mussel Creek, GUM, Nicholas Allbrook, Shiny Joe Ryan, Allbrook/Avery, The Growl, Space Lime Peacock

  • Niko

    There is so much excellent music out right now, yet certain elements found in older music have become a rarity (Such as backup vocalists, brass/woodwind sections, rock ballads) also, the times are different – there will always be a heavy nostalgia factor in the older music that cannot be replicated by recent stuff.

    My 18 year old son finds music from the 60’s, 70 & 80’s as much more to his liking – his first record was Pink Floyd’s The Wall – and what he loves is how much more elemental music was back then, how you can have a 12+ minute song with a wide variety of ranges, changeups and solo’s. Much of that is damn near impossible to find in today’s music scene.

    So – today there is excellent music to be heard, you really have to dig & search. The Current helps discover some of that greatness, but they too miss some excellent ones along the way (Kishi Bashi comes to mind). Also, as long as these great bands remain under the radar, they do become much more accessible in the smaller concert venues – and I am thrilled with that! Let the lame “talent” fill the big, void arena’s like the Target Center and allow the unknown, smaller excellence thrill us at First Avenue.

  • Mallory Cina

    The last artist I can think that totally revolutionized sound to me was Grimes and her album, “Visions.” It will be interesting to see where she takes her next album.