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The many deaths of pop music

I’ve recently seen various “album of the decade” lists; the first I think I saw, and certainly the worst, was the NME’s. Still, the terribleness of that list does have the benefit of honesty—no-one could possibly argue on the basis of that list that the first decade of the twenty-first century was anything other than “a bloody awful decade for popular music.” The existence of these various lists did encourage me to look back at what had actually happened, musically, in the decade. One interesting thing I discovered is how out of sync the internal chronology of my memory is with actual linear time; did Supreme Clientele really come out only a year before Is This It? The former seems to come from a now impossibly distant past, while the latter is still all too present.

The other thing that occurred to me is that this past decade has been full of the strange deaths of pop genres.Indie probably died some time in the 90s, but the stench of its rotting corpse has been a constant miasma permeating music in the 2000s. The death of hip-hop was more interesting. I’ve haven’t been able to find great statistics on hip-hop’s market share, but it looks like it peaked early in the decade, at which point it was, at least by certain measurements (sales, but not revenue, I think), the biggest genre in the world. Hip-hop’s success took the form of its demise, as it either fragmented into hundreds of tiny local varieties, or transmuted into an as-yet unnamed new world-straddling form of pop music.

What hadn’t occurred to me until recently, however, was the, well…perhaps not death, but cryogenic suspension of dance music, or house and techno, anyway. Of course people are still making dance music, and indeed the scene is still proliferating new genres, but the seem to be ever more minor refinements of a general minimal template. This glacial pace of innovation produced some listenable records, but it’s been a long time since any of it was exciting. And this, of course, at a time when the dance sounds of the last decade have been imported wholesale into the pop mainstream, with R&B’s ongoing revival of 90s trance. I was reading an interesting article recently about East Oakland techno label Deepblak, in which they complain about the lack of representation of electronic music in mainstream media, which is true, but only if by “electronic music” you mean self-identified house and techno. How have these genres managed to marginalize themselves at precisely the moment their sound has gone mainstream?