Robert Frost may have been correct that nothing gold can stay, but most of those gilded goods make their way back into circulation if you wait around long enough. That’s certainly the case in the music industry, where yesterday’s obsolete technology is today’s must-have hipster accessory, and half-remembered rockers resurrect 20-year old albums for lucrative summer tours. So which of today’s passé musical movements will get a second life in the 2030s? It’s impossible to predict, but that’s never stopped us from trying.
Musical media never really die. They just hibernate and wait for nostalgia and hipsterism to run their courses. On the other side of the coin, even the hottest trend is just a temporary thing by definition. Sure, right now ideas like music clouds, 100% digital libraries and on-demand song services are intoxicatingly enticing. Once the novelty of it all wears off, though, all this space-age stuff will quickly become the new normal, and everybody knows that normal is boring.
As the mainstream embraces total musical mobility, the next generation of hipsters is going to fall in love with tangible objects. While the return of CDs probably won’t be as widespread as the vinyl record resurgence of the ‘00s, it will be at least comparable to the current cassette tape revival: a largely inferior technology resurrected by the formidable duo of nostalgia and irony. The utilitarian, portable nature of CDs makes them especially ripe for a comeback. The art school undergrads of 2032 will sport ostentatious Discmans on the train and host CD-only basement dance parties. It will likely be just as obnoxious as it sounds.
Commercial radio seems more and more redundant every day. These days most folks carry extensive music libraries in their pockets. There are dozens of online services that can tailor playlists to suit your exact personal preferences and introduce you to new artists who are right in your wheelhouse. With all of that at our disposal, the idea of sitting down to an hour of preprogrammed, corporate-mandated robo-playlists broken up by eight-minute blocks of screeching advertisements seems quaint at best, masochistic at worst. The Clear Channel model of radio appears destined to collapse under its own predictability in the very near future.
That doesn’t mean radio is done for, though. It just needs to return to its roots. Tom Petty summed up a generation’s worth of radio nostalgia when he sang about “the last DJ who plays what he wants to play and says what he wants to say.” When commercial radio is on the ropes in the coming years, look for a return of the idea of disc jockeying as a skilled position. Even in an era when everyone has the power to program a playlist while waiting for the bus, there’s something to be said for letting a true professional do the work. Look for the future of mainstream radio to take a cue from the college and independent stations that have been embarrassing it for the past couple of decades. Employing hosts with strong personalities, good taste and, most importantly, a little creative freedom just might ensure that broadcast radio is still a thing in 20 years.
Music writers have been penning obituaries for the full-length album pretty much since the day iTunes first went online. The long list of supposed killers includes the rise of ring-tone culture, the ease of buying a single MP3 online and the general shortening of our collective attention span. Somehow, albums continue to soldier on, but their omnipresence does seem to be on a precipitous decline. The full LP will never disappear completely, but the next generation of music buyers will likely no longer think of it as the default format for exploring an artist’s work.
Give it a decade or two, though, and we’ll see a return to prestige for the album. Anyone who’s listened to a “one-hit wonders weekend” on the local oldies station should be able to see why. There has always been a place for performers who can craft great singles. Produce enough of them and you’ll have no problem striking it rich. But if you don’t have at least one classic album under your belt, you’ll never command the respect of the critics, the industry or the historians. Cultural shift or none, sooner or later, the pop star of tomorrow will have to demonstrate some long-form skills or risk being derisively labeled a “singles artist.” Although it’s possible that those superficial labels will lose their power in the coming era. We all know what a well-adjusted, ego-free lot professional musicians are, right?
The Black Eyed Peas
If ever you’re bedeviled by the ubiquitous presence of an artist you truly loathe, it helps to remember that few things are more fragile than a pop culture cache. Today’s inescapable chart-topper is tomorrow’s county fair headliner and the next day’s Jay Leno punch line. There are exceptions, of course – did anyone think in 1998 that Britney Spears would still be a viable presence in American music thirteen years later? – but generally speaking the best way to kill off an earworm is to just wait a few months.
That should be a comfort to the myriad music fans who currently seethe at the very mention of The Black Eyed Peas. Yes, the band has had a string of imbecilic successes. Yes, Fergie and Will.I.Am have been elevated to positions of prominence that far outstrip their modest talents. Yes, “I Gotta Feeling” has a catchiness-to-annoyance ratio that could attract the attention of Amnesty International. All of that aside, the band’s mojo can’t last forever. We’ll be rid of them soon enough.
Except for their inevitable rediscovery by future generations of schlock merchants. Some of us remember when ABBA was just that cheesy bunch of Scandinavians who did that lame-ass “Dancing Queen” song. But shellac them with 20 years’ worth of camp value and ironic appreciation, and they become “the legendary hit-makers and Rock & Roll Hall of Famers who inspired “Mama Mia”!” Be sure to relish the inevitable Black Eyed Peas break-up while it lasts, music fans, because you won’t have long to wait before you’re watching Fergie pick up her Lifetime Achievement Grammy on the way to the Broadway opening of “Tonight’s Gonna Be a Good Good Night.”