Death of the rock canon

David Yaffe asks (er … make that asked, since this is actually a month old) a provocative question in Slate: Is there anything left to say about the Beatles?

It’s funny timing on a personal standpoint because I’ve been running into all sorts of new Beatles material, including a BBC piece on producer George Martin that I thoroughly enjoyed. I’ve also subscribed to the “Beatles minute” podcast. And Slate linked back to an intriguing piece on the lack of qualify in Beatles solo albums, defending the psychological theory that all humans should strive for the mix of personalities offered in the four Beatless.

Perhaps we keep analyzing the Beatles because there’s nothing to analyze in today’s music. Maybe that’s been true for a couple of decades — as wonderful as some ’80s music was, there aren’t that many interesting questions about the creative process that weren’t answered by Behind the Music. (I would like to see a retrospective on the early days of music video, but MTV and VH1 might realize that today’s slickly packaged videos are creatively inferior to the charming efforts of ’80s. There’s no soul in that CGI.)

The other issue is that music has become increasingly disposable as we’ve moved from album to CD to iPod. Sgt. Pepper’s really isn’t the best Beatles album, but it’s usually seen as the album that made an “album” more than a collection of songs, a belief that drove rock music through the ’70s and most of the ’80s. The CD era encouraged bands to record 20 minutes of decent material and 40 minutes of hit-or-miss stuff, rarely recording anything worth checking out all the way through. Now we’re in an era of 99-cent singles.

Convenient, yes, but now it’s tougher to use albums as landmarks in a musician’s progress. And a single just doesn’t have the same artistic impact as, say, U2’s The Joshua Tree. In another era, we might gather to assess a wonderful CD like Carbon Leaf’s Indian Summer — perhaps not the best CD to enter my collection in the past five years, but perhaps the most consistently excellent.

I think we’re losing something as pop/rock music loses its artistic pretensions and becomes a 99-cent-per-riff medium. Not that I have any idea what to do about it.

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