Sunday, August 6, 2017

Unplugged

Big news: The electric guitar is in decline.

In other news, water is wet.
No, this story is no surprise, although the PBS Newshour's Web site and the Washington Post have both dedicated stories to it.  What fascinates me is how many people are struggling to explain why sales of electric guitars have been steadily falling over the past few years.
Why?  Why?  Have you heard the latest hits on the charts?  All you hear are synthesizers and electronic noise.  Computerized music has been the bedrock of early-twenty-first-century pop, and electric-guitar music has been pushed aside.  Some folks have blamed the failure of the record business in the age of digital downloading that has all but rendered vinyl records and compact discs obsolete.  But other forms of music are thriving in the age of digital downloading; in fact, downloads of hip-hop are now outnumbering downloads of rock tracks.  A better explanation is that not only are kids today more into the new technology that produces new sounds and provides new ways to access them, they themselves would prefer to make music with computers because learning how to play a Fender or a Les Paul is "too hard". . .  and besides, the electric guitar takes so damn long to master.  Why take all that time to play a traditional instrument when you can program a computer to make music instantaneously?    
Then there's the coolness factor.  Rappers like Kanye West have promoted their "music" as rock and roll and have declared their sound to be relevant and fresh, implying that guitar rock is neither of those things. Old-fashioned rock and roll music played on a Fender or a Les Paul is dismissed as "dad rock," something your dorky father listens to.  Kids can't be bothered with the real genius of an Eric Clapton or a Duane Allman.  And yes, there's the racial issue - traditional rock and roll is laughed off as "white guys with guitars," ignoring not only the legacies of Hendrix and Prince but also ignoring current black rock guitarists like Gary Clark, Jr.
As hip-hop has gone on the offensive, defending traditional rock and roll in general and electric-guitar rock in particular can get you into trouble.  Remember when, in 2008, then-Oasis member Noel Gallagher criticized organizers of the annual Glastonbury Festival for booking BeyoncĂ©'s husband, Mr. Shawn Carter, as a headliner for that year's show?  I talked about this before on my blog.  Gallagher's objection was based on the the tradition that Glastonbury had been a showcase for guitar music.  But Mr. Carter himself would have none of that.
"We don't play guitars, Noel," he said of himself and other rappers, "but hip-hop has put in its work like any other form of music. This headline show is just a natural progression. Rap music is still evolving. From Afrika Bambaataa DJ-ing in the Bronx and Run-DMC going platinum, to Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince winning the first rap Grammy, I'm just next in the line. We have to respect each other's genre of music and move forward."
We all know what happened at Glastonbury in 2008, and it took awhile for Noel Gallagher to recover from the backlash he got.  It was also in 2008, incidentally, that MTV personality Matt Pinfield made his effort to launch rock station WRXP in New York.  You know all about that as well.  :-(   
And prospects for the electric guitar are unlikely to get better as more kids become entranced by electronic music.  Even Paul McCartney has conceded as much, saying that there's just no new electric-guitar talent (not even Gary Clark, Jr.?) to inspire the youth of today.  Paul McCartney, by the way, first experimented with electronic music in the 1960s, and with far less technology at his hands then than some kid with a laptop has now.
Guitar music will survive - just not the electrified sort.  In a bizarre twist, thanks to the popularity of country music and thanks also to singer-songwriters like Taylor Swift, sales of acoustic guitars are up.  
That should be good news for people whose first career choice - say, politics - doesn't pan out. 
Martin O'Malley, you do indeed have a future.
(P.S.  Although I am obviously so disgusted with where popular music has been heading that I haven't published any record reviews on Sundays in this space lately, I hope to write some more soon.) 

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