Musical curmudgeon

I spent a good part of yesterday morning going through the annual Triple J Hottest 100 to see if I could find a song I liked.

I can’t say I grew up with the Hottest 100 – I was already in my twenties when it kicked off – but I was an avid follower of it for many years. It became a bit of an institution, with many Australia Day barbecues using it as the soundtrack. Back in those early days I listened to Triple J more often than not, and reckon I must have purchased a half dozen of the Hottest 100 CDs they put out each year – but none since the mid-nineties.

It’s been a while since the Hottest 100 was relevant to me, and same could be said about Triple J. I noted some commentary on the Hottest 100 yesterday, much of it negative, but a lot of it coming from people around my general age. They said that Triple J had changed since the golden days, and the music was a reflection of that. But then Triple J was always on the alternative cutting edge, and it probably is today – even if the music itself is much different. If there’s an issue it’s probably that while Triple J has moved with the times, a lot of us haven’t. Despite my promises long ago, that’s the case with me.

I’m not close enough to make a fair assessment these days. Like so many, I listen to the radio rarely, preferring instead streaming services like Spotify, which can be curated. I listen to the radio when I drive, and generally one of the commercial stations that play older hits and more acceptable contemporary music. There’s little played on those stations you would hear on Triple J – which is different from back in the day when you would hear crossover artists like Nirvana and Regurgitator and the Whitlams. Not so today.

I scrolled through the Hottest 100 playlist on Spotify, which went all the way back to the start. It was amazing to see how music had changed. The further I went back the more songs I liked, and way back there many more I liked than didn’t.

I don’t want to be one of those grumpy characters complaining how things were better before, but, well, musically at least, they were. A lot of it is personal taste, but I think all the same there’s a fair argument that popular music these days is less substantial. In fact, much of it seems disposable. Growing up rock and pop centred around guitars pretty much. There were techno phases, and some great bands like Depeche Mode who were almost pure electronica, but they were a part of a diverse rockscape. That diversity no longer seems to exist, and guitars themselves much in the background.

I remember growing up we were all into music in a big way. We would save our money to go down to the local Brashes to buy the latest big LP release. We would discuss it at school and, if you were lucky, someone would make a tape of it to share. We all knew the stories, we watched Countdown and Sounds and Rock Arena and Nightmoves and maybe even listen to the American Top 40 with Casey Kaysem. Music was a subject.

It was a rare kid who didn’t want to grow up to be a rock star, and if you didn’t want to play the drums you wanted to play lead guitar. Most of us never got that far, but those who did were grounded in this tradition and emerged as passionate musicians who believed in the craft. Music was a calling and they put their heart and soul into song writing and performing. There was plenty of dross, but there was some great stuff too, and some of it profound. It was a lived experience.

Listening to music these days so much of it feels fabricated. Music used to move me, but these days it feels much more like backing music, with little to really engage the heart or mind, and little profundity. It seems to me the market for a lot of music these days are young teens, and teen girls particularly. The intellectuality around music – some of it quite pompous and self-important – is now quite absent, but with that we have lost context and the sense of musical journey.

I know, there will be plenty out there today who love music now as I did then, and who find the same profundity and meaning as I experienced back in the day. That goes to show we look to find the same things, but find it in different places.

I always believe things happen in cycles and I reckon there’ll be a trend back some day to more traditional rock music. Popular music has always been subject to fashions and trends. When I look back the golden era of music is roughly 1987-1994, but everyone will have an opinion on that. And regardless of my comments here, there’s always some decent music to be found, though most of it is in patches, rather than threads.

For the record, I don’t reckon there’s been a better Australian band over the last ten years than the Hilltop Hoods. Internationally I’m left with old bands like the Foo Fighters, and even Muse. And, to be fair, there is some very clever and artistic contemporary music – top of my head though, I just can’t tell you what it is.

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