The Future of Pop Music and Youth Culture

Girl Talk
Concerns that the US economy can no longer innovate seem to be trickling into the cultural realm. According to Grant McCracken at the Harvard Business Review, some music critics are worried that “innovation in popular music is in decline,” and that, “If this is true, a big cultural change is upon us — the end of popular music as the great lab bench for our culture, as the defining innovator of our time.”

But McCracken recognizes the nostalgia that underlies such fears, and puts forth five ways in which youth culture and pop music are actually changing the boundaries of what those cultural concepts mean today:

1. Contemporary musical forms like mashups are not a “barren genre.” They are merely a new grammar, invented by cultural innovators to express a new culture.

2. Originality is not so much in decline as being revalued.

3. Young consumers are interested in music produced by previous generations, but they are using this music for their own purposes.

4. The new forms of music are expressive of new forms of self and group.
5. If music matters less to the way young consumers define themselves it’s because they have found other, more useful media to do the job. Music doesn’t have to be the innovative media it was for Reynolds’ and other generations. That it worked especially well for earlier generations is due to historical chance and happenstance. Music matters to Reynolds for the same reason books matter to Boomer academics: it just happens to be the form that ideas assumed in the world they grew up in.

McCracken’s conclusion echoes Breakthrough Journal writer Dan Krewson, who wrote of punk’s enduring, if unconventional, legacy in “Punk and Possibility”:

In many ways, punk’s legacy is such that it is now a mark of sophistication among artists to draw from a constellation of influences, just as it was once stylish for prog rockers to draw upon classical music.
Consider Top 40 rapper KiD CuDi. Born in 1984, CuDi unapologetically channels Pink Floyd over Grandmaster Flash. He rhymes about outer space instead of the ghetto and samples Lady Gaga rather than James Brown. He combines orchestral strings with turntable scratching. He references Facebook, Carl Jung, and insomnia, embracing big pop hooks that helped his record debut at number four on the Billboard 200. Asked about his wide-ranging sound and influences­­, CuDi said, “I did want to make something that would baffle the critics, as far as putting it in a certain genre; I wanted them to have a hard time doin’ it.”

Photo courtesy of Tom Purves via Wikimedia Commons