There will never be another paradigm shift in western music. Sure, genres may slowly fade and melt into one another, but we will never have another Elvis, another Beatles, or another Michael Jackson. We will never experience another game-changing event in music like when Nirvana exploded on the scene with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I’m not suggesting that all new music sucks or that we could never have bands as good as those of old; our current culture just won’t allow for these outliers to affect us in the same way again.
The current state of music is just too scattered. Today’s popular music is more artist-driven than genre-driven; instead of a specific genre’s timbre or mood, we gravitate to specific output of individual artists and bands. Lady Gaga and Adele, for example, has been a tremendous successes in mainstream music, and while their brand of music does sound noticeably different than other artists, there’s no flood of copycats and imitators. Their impact in pop culture does not extend much further than their own record sales and air play — they haven’t seemed to influence others in the same way that the Beatles or Nirvana did. Part of this is because the music that we listen to is already pretty diverse. Elvis and Nirvana were game-changers because they offered us something radically different than what we were previously accustomed. Nirvana would not have been as big of a hit if people were already listening to punk and grunge. Elvis would probably only see modest success if white guys were already playing rock-n-roll. In order for our music culture to experience another dramatic paradigm shift, we need to have more insular music preferences.
Music has become a melting pot. Related to the previous point, because music is no longer genre-driven, music has become less chained to predictable themes and confines of genres. Katy Perry, for example, has been one of the most successful artists in the past few years, and she’s usually described as “pop”. This label, however, does little to describe her music which can range from dance, electronic, rock, and rap. In previous examples of bands that ushered in a paradigm shift, they were defined by their respective genres (of note: it wasn’t until the Beatles later years that they started experimenting with other genres — after they changed the face of music). This amalgamation of style, instrumentation, tempos, and timbre has brought us music that is hard to pin down; accordingly, it’s much harder to think of a band or artist that stands out from what we normally encounter on the radio today. Even country music, which was once notorious for being inflexible, has found itself affected by rock, rap, and pop. The last big act that seemed to adhere to a sole genre was the White Stripes, and while their influence is far reaching, it is orders of magnitude less than any of the above mentioned bands.
We consume music in radically different ways compared to 20 years ago. In the time of these radical shifts in music, access to music was confined to only a few outlets: radio and television. With radio and television, consumers had their hands tied when it came to selecting music. Eventually, more and more people bought music for themselves whether it be on vinyl, cassette, or CD. Today, not only do we have more ways to access music (thanks to the popularity of the internet), but we have more ways to customize what music we listen to. When Nirvana rose to fame in the early 90’s, it’s because radio and MTV had been predominately flush with 80’s glitter rock — again, music was confined to a dominate genre. After being plagued with 80’s metal for so long, Nirvana’s stripped down, bare bones aggression was a breath of fresh air. Because we no longer have our hands tied, we can access music as we please. Now that we can customize our music selection, we don’t have to suffocate under long-tired genres. We can change what music surrounds us instantly.
Today’s music culture will not allow itself to be influenced by outliers like it once did. New breakthrough artists don’t change the scene of our culture — instead, what made that artist special or outstanding gets absorbed back into popular music. Music has become a democratic process, and because our options for consumption are so diverse, we are no longer bound to one genre, trend, or movement. The game can no longer be changed by one singular event — it’s constantly changing itself.