Why popular music sucks so bad
Popular music is subversive. Or it's supposed to be, at least. Not always in a serious way. Usually it's playful, fun, sexual, preposterous, free. Just by being these things it's subversive; it embraces the very things that are frowned on by our puritanical culture. And because of this, shortly after people began to make recordings, music was the dominant medium for the voiceless to find their voices. For a century now, young people and black people have been leading the charge, changing music and creating a permanent state of panic for the dominant culture. And popular music has stubbornly refused to go away. Selling records is big business, so censoring popular music out of existence is not an option. Instead, there seems to be a loose conspiracy of sorts to pretend that popular music, particularly rock music, springs from the soul of the most under-represented, voiceless people in history--white guys.
Rolling Stone magazine is the predominant periodical of the No, It Was Actually a Bunch of White Guys movement. Periodically, they release Best Of issues, not only to sell magazines but also to reinforce the mythology that has become so dear, that popular music is about White Guyness. And now they've done it again.
They've gotten better about throwing a couple of bones in the direction of those of us who know the true diversity of popular music. For instance, there is actually a black artist in the top ten greatest albums of all time! (#6-Marvin Gaye, who should definitely be many spots above the Beatles in a just world.) Noticeably missing is the artist who gave the stupid magazine its name with his song "Rolling Stone"--Muddy Waters. He does show up at #38, probably only because they remembered that they owed him a big one. But there's room for 4 Beatles records and 2 Dylan records! (Granted, it's pretty much impossible to include most recordings before the 1960's, as they didn't really make "albums" then. I'll give them a pass on that. It would be great if they did try 500 greatest recordings, though. "Good Golly Miss Molly" is worth the entire Beatles catalog, in my opinion.)
The first female-headed band or female solo artist doesn't show up until #30, and then of course it's a nice, safe Joni Mitchell. You finally get a female artist who pushes the envelope a little at #44, Patti Smith. The first hip-hop album doesn't show up until #48, Public Enemy. The Allman Brothers rank above Little Richard! It's a nightmare. Girl groups get their due in a Phil Spector box set, and isn't that enough?
It's not just that black musicians, non-Boomer musicians, and female musicians get the shaft. The great diversity of popular music is ignored in favor of elevating the wave of masturbatory cock rock. (In the top 100: 4 Led Zepplin albums, 9 Beatles records, 4 Rolling Stones records.) They seem to figure that Miles Davis and John Coltrane are all you need to represent jazz. Of course, punk rock is my favorite music and I always feel that it gets the shaft. Out of the top 100, there are only 7 punk or punkish albums, and that's stretching to include the Velvet Underground and Nirvana. The Ramones, whose music should be regarded as the equivalent of setting a bomb off in the middle of the guitar solo wank-a-thon that rock music was at the time don't show up until #33. The Rolling Stone has good reason to hate underground, punk and art rock, since all these are giving them the big ol' finger. Too bad. Yes, it's never sold very well, but these are often the only bands doing original work, reinventing rock music and keeping it alive.
I'm sure these criticisms would amaze the people who compiled this list. No doubt they think of themselves hip and with it because they know who Public Enemy is, and what more do you want? It was enshrined in the 1970's that the Beatles are the greatest band of all time, and even though time has shown that in the long run, they are of interest to musical history but don't really have alot of influence, no one sent the memo to the folks at The Rolling Stone.
The problem with lists like this is that by stating that the greatest artists of all time all played the same tired white guy rock, you justify record companies decisions to promote that music above all others and radio stations who play that music instead of anything else, even and especially on stations that comically call themselves "alternative". There is no reason to push the envelope, because fans read these lists and say, "Well music sucks now because the heyday of great music is over." There's a cycle where the record industries put out and promote nothing but identical white guy bands and the magazines, radio stations and therefore record-buying public reinforce them by only buying it and the music just devolves into the crap you hear on the radio now, every band sounding like a variation on Pearl Jam.
This cycle won't be stopped by jerk-off magazines like The Rolling Stone and certainly not by the record industry or radio stations, all predominantly run by middle-aged white men who have way too much ego invested in their belief that men like themselves are the only true rock geniuses of all time. The only way that music is going to get better is if music fans make the effort to diversify their own tastes and throw their support behind artists who step out of the mold. After all, black musicians have managed to keep putting out albums and selling them despite sometimes open hostility from the industry and only because their fan base stayed loyal.
I got the Rolling Stone link through a link to the forum for the band Ween that was sent to me. Some of the comments on there were quite telling. There was complaining, thank goodness, that the Beatles didn't need to utterly dominate the list and that kicking them out would have made more space. (I would post the link, but it's not working for some reason.) But sadly, there were people who were complaining about what musicians did provide some diversity on the list. What really startled me was a poster who complained about Prince reaching #73 for Purple Rain. If Prince was born with the same amount of talent, but as a white boy in England and was a little older, he'd probably be heralded as the Second Coming and would definitely be in the top ten. But he's black and not a little weird and he threatens straight white guys and he's pushed down to #73 and even that relatively low rank is being questioned.
Music is not going to get better unless the audience demands that it gets better. And the audience isn't going to demand it unless they get over knee-jerk hatred of anything weird or different than themselves. If you find yourself getting annoyed at the monotonous crap on the radio, go home and look over your record collection. How much funk do you own? Hip-hop? Real punk rock? Art rock? Jazz? How many of the musicians aren't white? How many women? How much of it is published on independent labels? It's one thing to have a particular kind of music that you like and lean towards that. It's another not to see how your own prejudice is helping contribute to the creative bankruptcy that is dominating the industry.