Abundant Living is a monthly column where Zachary Lipez does the only things he’s remotely good at: wallowing like a happy pig in a seemingly endless litany of grievances and expounding weirdly about the music he loves, hates, and loves to hate.
I believe in generational differences the way my old roommate believes in the moon landing and the singer of Cro-Mags believes in dinosaurs: I totally don’t and I don’t know that I can be convinced otherwise by rational argument. If you think baby boomers are selfish, Gen X-ers are Cobain-addled nostalgists, and millennials are either spoiled Tamagotchis who are incapable of feeding themselves or the put-upon reincarnation of the Dust Bowl survivors, I respect it. But I won’t ever, in my heart of hearts, buy that anything more than social mores and fashions change. I believe in generational trauma on the scale of world wars and civil wars (hence the so-called Greatest Generation’s, for good or ill, exceptionalism). Outside of that, it’s just the same people with different beards and opinions on Dylan.
Thusly, I don’t entirely buy the New Pessimism In Pop Music argument, that all the kids want to do is take pills and cry in their soup, that’s been going around for the last couple years. Nor will I buy the New Optimism In Pop Music argument in a couple (or five) years in the future, when the winds change because Trump, our viciously gleeful stand-in for a nation’s bad history, is no longer in office and critics go back to separating the art from the artist and musicians theoretically go back to singing about having rapturous sex in relatable places. I don’t believe any overarching theories at all really, just that kids, since the invention of the teenager, want to have fun and they also want to complain and it’s the nature of pop and its discontents to reflect that, in only slightly unequal measure. I have seen the numbers and I have seen the studies and I do not care. I’m a generational clash truther. @ me on twitter, old people. @ me on Instagram, slightly younger people. None of you will change my mind and I’ll readily, if therapy has taught me anything, confuse your negative attention for affection. (Actual young people, I don’t know how you communicate. I guess just give your complaint to my Adderall dealer next time they pick up from you and they’ll pass the message along.)
I’m not an idiot, exactly. I know that music right now feels apocalyptic. I see the face tattoos of inverted crosses and the videos of teenagers crying blood and gore. My current albums of the year (billy woods and Kenny Seagal’s Hiding Places, American Pleasure Club’s Fucking Bliss, Inter Arma’s Sulphur English, and Rakta’s Falha Comum) all share a feeling of oceanic grief, forgoing choruses, and often discernible language at all, for horror show atmosphere that rejects “ambiance” for deep, deep blues. And I know that what’s popular now. Billie Eilish and manifold Yung Narcotics with names ripe for SNL hack parody are all supposedly singing/rapping the soundtrack to a youth born just to die. Lana Del Rey’s shadow-of-indeterminate-age supposedly looms over all.
Today, sadness merchants of varying worth top the charts. Hell, the reification of the aforementioned Del Rey’s thesis statement, the now classic “Summertime Sadness,” has just reentered the iTunes chart. But while a billion people listen to them for break-ups and pill intake, they also listen to wordless EDM for the usual business of pop: losing one’s goldarned mind. And it’s not like it was all cake even a few years ago. I mean, did you watch the Katy Perry: Part Of Me documentary? About her breakup with that longhaired Parklife meme, in all its hyperreal faux-honesty? Black metal had nothing on that unremitting grimness. It may as well have been the final scene of Raiders Of The Lost Ark cast in purple with its unpitying representation of lost souls and melting faces.
Without going through every moment of the last 40 years of MTV’s decline, for every Hey Soul Sistering sugar-fix or boyband pillow fight, there has been chart-topping grief and grievance. If it wasn’t nu metal, it was Gangsta rap. If it wasn’t Fleetwood Mac obsessively breaking their own hearts, it was a funk/party band ACTUALLY CALLED “SLAVE.” Grunge and post-grunge and post-post-grunge slipped seamlessly into Interpolian Joy Division worship and, hell, even Kelly Clarkson took pleasure in leaving her lover by lifting from Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps.” Maybe 2019 is the first time in recent memory where the charts are topped with existential despair, but the light of Juvenile’s 1998 hit, “Back That Azz Up,” shone so brightly at number 9 on Billboard only as a continuation of the pure noir of “Ha” which peaked at an entirely respectable number 68. Fifty-nine placements is no argument for an entirely different generational cultural mindset. One could annihilate a word-count with further examples.
I’m not arguing that all human life and history is static. Things are terrible and people are correctly upset! I’m merely saying that the artistic response to trauma ebbs and flows, most often simultaneously. Whether it’s life under Trump’s vulgarian hate-fest, the nuclear war terror and AIDS denialism of Reagan, Clintonian happy-faced cruelty, Obama’s status quo imperialism thinly masked as progressivism, or either Bush’s pious commitment to war crimes, Sad Songs, historically, even if surrounded on the charts by aural spray-tans, have Said So Much, and to so many.
All this may be moot. We can watch the coexistence of pop moods in real time. “Old Town Road,” even with its minor chords, is a deee-lite-ful slice of cool glee, the rare earworm I don’t mind in the slightest. If pop does what pop does, we may be in for a year of yee-haw variations performed by every hungry rapper and white twee Californicator. They’ll have the overlapping cultural heritage of terrible tattoos, only the placing of the ink will differentiate their target markets. Indeed, the metalcore band Our Last Night’s screamo version of the “Old Town Road” has over 300,000 views on YouTube. I won’t pick on this version for the same reason I don’t make Nickelback jokes; it’d be like taking a howitzer to a barn door. And, really, besides truth and beauty, who is it hurting? Even journeyman bum-outs can’t drain the energy from Lil Nas X’s bottled lightning.
We are also now two songs into the new Taylor Swift album cycle. I won’t critique Ms. Swift’s ouvre as I’m not the target audience and I don’t enjoy death threats from adults unless they have anime avis. I’ll just say that, as opposed to Reputation (the Taylor Swift album with songs I actually like because they sound like pissy electroclash), new Swift is hella peppy. And “You Need To Calm Down,” regardless of its hamfistedly admirable intentions, comes complete with a “you should smile more” exhortation we haven’t seen since Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 brutality, “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” Or maybe since Mel Brooks’ vision of the Inquisition. So much for the underglow. (To be clear though, despite my personal taste in music; in regards to the current Swift vs. Scooter Braun discussion, I’m staunchly Team Taylor, with an unwieldy “No Gods. No Scooter-Owned Masters” backpatch to prove it.)
At the end of the day, I’ve seen the supposed pendulum between light and dark generational moods swing too quickly and too many times over the years. It doesn’t negate the opioid crisis or anyone’s individual depression. It just means the arc of history curves wild and free. Disco existed as an empty-headed distraction for some and music of euphoric resistance to others. Same with rock, jazz, metal, hip-hop, and every genre we put under the universal umbrella known as “Beyoncé.” And so it is for all the hazy, druggy, gesture-towards-the-abyss pop of our current epoch. Until the day arrives that the Top 40 is nothing but power electronics and harsh noise, I’m going to assume that the kids are — in their (be it all black or garish tie-dye) fashion — all right. If they were having a bad time at the party, they’d leave. Or at least move to doing whippits in the kitchen.
Simply put, I don’t believe in the notion of a generationally exclusive soul. Be it ascribing a particular ennui to millenials (or, ugh, Gen-Z) or a centrist solipsism to the Woodstock generation, I reject it. Every group gets accused of self-centeredness so much, you’d think it was a human condition or something. Even setting aside the Western World naval-gazing of the entire enterprise, there are just too many people, too many exceptions of every stripe, too many revolutionaries and school teachers among the accused. I reject the flattening out of individuals for any reason. People, en masse and as individuals, are complicated and the art they consume, en masse and as individuals, has to address both hook-ups that neither party immediately regrets and the bummer of unreturned texts, and all the joys and terrors that spread out from these two pillars of pop. And if one doesn’t particularly feel that strongly one way or another about sex and death, that’s fine for you too. It’s doubtful Drake or Taylor or the endless legion of red-haired UK coffee shop soul-bores, who presumably have names, are going anywhere anytime soon. Vanilla was a popular flavor and it still is.
Incapable Of Calming Down: A mix of new songs that, in my mind, are part of the tradition of rock and pop where anger was always an energy, sorrow never a fashionable blip, and being blissfully pissed a given; part and parcel of being young, and then old (with apologies to Haram, Khiis, Black Dresses, Alsarah and The Nubatones, and Heterofobia, who all rule but don’t have their new songs on any streaming services).
Amyl And The Sniffers: "Gacked on Anger"
Kel Assouf: "Tenere"
Mekons: "Lawrence Of California"
Mock Identity: "Where You Live"
Eerie Family: "Everybody Disappear"
billy woods & Kenny Segal: "Spongebob"
American Pleasure Club: "ban this book"
Sleaford Mods: "When You Come Up To Me"
Soul Glo: "31"
Blu Anxxiety: "Baptized In Space"
Rakta: "Fim Do Mundo"
Inter Arma: "Howling Lands"
Clay Rendering: "Black Vows"
Taiwan Housing Project: "Buy Buy Buy"