A new (musical) mainstream

Now that everyone can agree we are entering a new millennium, perhaps it is time to consider an idea: Perhaps the various multifaceted, even fractured, musical styles and genres of today will coalesce back into some dominant art music style we can call mainstream. There are many requests for such a thing, and the smaller world of the Internet might make it possible on a global scale. If we posit that it was the West's expansion to, domination of, and ultimate respect for cultures around the world which served to fracture compositional technique in the first place, then we can at least suspect that the present move toward unifying the world might undo the situation. We might suspect, even, that we will undo the events of the Tower of Babel itself, but at what cost? The idea that new music of today or tomorrow will fit neatly into a collection, the arrangement of which is motivated by the numerical order and keys of e.g. Mozart's symphonies, is absurd. One thing of which we can be sure: If there is a "return to order," as we might call it, it will be nothing so simplistic. We will not have a vote between existing categories, deeming one "mainstream," much to the consternation of those who hold the reins of category designation.

Ah, but do we not already have a mainstream? The world of popular music has its mega-stars, celebrities known at least as much for their "philosophies" (to be kind) and appearances as for their music. They are most popular with adolescents, people with limited attentions spans. They become, in fact, the frequent subject of "Whatever happened to...?" inquiries. Popular music for adults, at least adults who seek out music for other than casual listening, is increasingly fractured itself. There seems to be a new category every year (alternative, grunge, etc.), if not more often. The explosion to dominance of popular song as marketed by radio (roughly consummated in the 1950s) was as singular an event as the "golden age" of the Classical Style, and we can see it becoming multi-threaded at an even faster pace. Maybe the popular mega-stars, however short-lived their careers and unpopular their music outside their own segment of popular society, really do form a mainstream, and I am simply blind to the facts. On the other hand, with inner city rap and country music ascending, look how bifurcated they are, and look how distinctly American they are. Popular music went through its internationalism phase and seems to have rejected it, or rather has moved to a different part of a cycle. If we return to the Tower of Babel notion, what of the language of song? Bizarre token usage of English in Japanese pop songs aside, if we are to have a real mainstream, it needs to be a worldwide mainstream, and not an English-only one.

The "world beat" genre continues to gain fans, although it frequently seems superficial (and sexual). The idea that sexuality and exoticism might condition a new mainstream is not one which can be easily dismissed. Nonetheless, it is surely the variety of sonority & rhythm along with the down to earth quality of various world traditions which make them ripe for wider marketing in some sort of intermingled guise. Especially when the audience is unfamiliar with the individual traditions, fused forms are much more easily developed. One need not unite diverging threads in any technical way, but only appear to swirl them around in a little mixture. I have offered the idea that medieval music could be a basis for stylistic combinations on a more sophisticated level, but this is not to suggest that medieval music — or any music of the past, historicism aside — could be truly mainstream. The whole idea of a mainstream is flawed in many ways, but that does not mean the flaws cannot be subsumed in the same sort of entropic process which allows superficial premises to create popular world fusion. I have spoken of fluidity & resonance as it applies to Machaut and his unification & development of various forms and resulting artistic centrality, and so the sort of resonance process required to create a new mainstream needs a fluidity, something which might not be predicated only on knowledge. Ours is, after all, a time which exalts ignorance, and there is no reason to believe that element will be absent from any future result.

The issue of word and language remains. People have called instrumental music a "universal language," but it is a suggestion which never stands to scrutiny. Others have said that instrumental music of other cultures is easier to appreciate than vocal music, but can the general public ever embrace music without text? We know they are disturbed by foreign words, or at least uninterested in understanding them. What of "universal" instrumental compositions which can either be appreciated as they are, or combined on the web with words in the listeners' language? We could think of the words as a narration or gloss, perhaps akin to rap music today, perhaps even improvised. The idea intrigues me, but is far too structured to occur as anything but a curiosity. What would be the point of the underlying connection? It would immediately be too misdirected to yield any possible communal transcendence. It would appeal only to people fascinated with ideas and abstract connections. No, if any pan-language form arises, it will be far more infuriating than this, probably more akin to the nonsensical English in popular Japanese songs. For a mainstream to seem real, it will require much forgetting, even forgetting in the face of readily available information, albeit information which will seem too intimidating for most to investigate.

Why suggest that a new mainstream is even possible? It seems possible for two reasons: The increased homogenization of some other elements of world culture (clothes, economy), and the cyclical nature of most things. Such vague notions are rather far from constructing a real reason to believe. The better question to ask is: Why is there such a demand for a mainstream style? There is the "golden age" nostalgia. There are the control freaks. There is the "world peace" fantasy. Each of these requires people to be in step. Moreover, I believe there is a strong subconscious distaste for relativism, and despite a growing anti-religious sentiment, a desire for personal expression to align. The idea that anyone can & should express himself, and is inherently as good as anyone else at doing so, could easily lead to increased uniformity, just as all counter-cultural teenagers seem to look the same. As in world politics, such a movement toward uniformity can easily gain momentum: As more places share the same values, they become more inclined to simply crush those which do not. A new mainstream could be very restrictive indeed.

When wondering which elements might continue to prosper, can the world's musical values really include "Listen to Mozart, get higher SAT scores?" Can there be a new classical work which does not evoke as much distaste as admiration? Call it the price of originality, but the choice for anything new seems to be a widely mediocre reception or a charged combination of love & hate. The latter reflects the growing musical variety of our culture, and so a question revolving around increased Internet usage is: Will it allow neighbors with vastly divergent tastes to avoid each other and so avoid conflict, or will osmosis dissolve those neighboring divergences and yield a general sameness around the world. Topology suggests that if the world as a whole is to retain its variety, similar variety will eventually be observable in every subset. Neither bland sameness nor neighbors who do not interact seems very appealing, but world communication should erase broader gradients. I have always found shelter in variety (since the popular never seemed very good), but if we are to have a new mainstream, why not hope for something good? We have the ingredients, and we cannot afford to slide further into solipsism.

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Todd M. McComb