NMEvolution

Music has been called by some the greatest thing the human race has ever done, and at its best it is undoubtedly a profound expression of emotion more poetic than anything Shakespeare ever wrote. True, done badly it can sound like a trapped cat in a box of staplers falling down a staircase, but let’s not get hung up on details here- music is awesome.

However, music as we know it has only really existed for around a century or so, and many of the developments in music’s  history that have shaped it into the tour de force that it is in modern culture are in direct parallel to human history. As such, the history of our development as a race and the development of music run closely alongside one another, so I thought I might attempt a set of edited highlights of the former (well, western history at least) by way of an exploration of the latter.

Exactly how and when the various instruments as we know them were invented and developed into what they currently are is largely irrelevant (mostly since I don’t actually know and don’t have the time to research all of them), but historically they fell into one of two classes. The first could be loosely dubbed ‘noble’ instruments- stuff like the piano, clarinet or cello, which were (and are) hugely expensive to make, required a significant level of skill to do so, and were generally played for and by the rich upper classes in vast orchestras, playing centuries-old music written by the very few men with the both the riches, social status and talent to compose them. On the other hand, we have the less historically significant, but just as important, ‘common’ instruments, such as the recorder and the ancestors of the acoustic guitar. These were a lot cheaper to make and thus more available to (although certainly far from widespread among) the poorer echelons of society, and it was on these instruments that tunes were passed down from generation to generation, accompanying traditional folk dances and the like; the kind of people who played such instruments very rarely had the time to spare to really write anything new for them, and certainly stood no chance of making a living out of them. And, for many centuries, that was it- what you played and what you listened to, if you did so at all, depended on who you were born as.

However, during the great socioeconomic upheaval and levelling that accompanied the 19th century industrial revolution, music began to penetrate society in new ways. The growing middle and upper-middle classes quickly adopted the piano as a respectable ‘front room’ instrument for their daughters to learn, and sheet music was rapidly becoming both available and cheap for the masses. As such, music began to become an accessible activity for far larger swathes of the population and concert attendances swelled. This was the Romantic era of music composition, with the likes of Chopin, Mendelssohn and Brahms rising to prominence, and the size of an orchestra grew considerably to its modern size of four thousand violinists, two oboes and a bored drummer (I may be a little out in my numbers here) as they sought to add some new experimentation to their music. This experimentation with classical orchestral forms was continued through the turn of the century by a succession of orchestral composers, but this period also saw music head in a new and violently different direction; jazz.

Jazz was the quintessential product of the United States’ famous motto ‘E Pluribus Unum’ (From Many, One), being as it was the result of a mixing of immigrant US cultures. Jazz originated amongst America’s black community, many of whom were descendants of imported slaves or even former slaves themselves, and was the result of traditional African music blending with that of their forcibly-adopted land. Whilst many black people were heavily discriminated against when it came to finding work, they found they could forge a living in the entertainment industry, in seedier venues like bars and brothels. First finding its feet in the irregular, flowing rhythms of ragtime music, the music of the deep south moved onto the more discordant patterns of blues in the early 20th century before finally incorporating a swinging, syncopated rhythm and an innovative sentiment of improvisation to invent jazz proper.

Jazz quickly spread like wildfire across the underground performing circuit, but it wouldn’t force its way into popular culture until the introduction of prohibition in the USA. From 1920 all the way up until the Presidency of Franklin D Roosevelt (whose dropping of the bill is a story in and of itself) the US government banned the consumption of alcohol, which (as was to be expected, in all honesty) simply forced the practice underground. Dozens of illegal speakeasies (venues of drinking, entertainment and prostitution usually run by the mob) sprung up in every district of every major American city, and they were frequented by everyone from the poorest street sweeper to the police officers who were supposed to be closing them down. And in these venues, jazz flourished. Suddenly, everyone knew about jazz- it was a fresh, new sound to everyone’s ears, something that stuck in the head and, because of its ‘common’, underground connotations, quickly became the music of the people. Jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong (a true pioneer of the genre) became the first celebrity musicians, and the way the music’s feel resonated with the happy, prosperous feeling surrounding the economic good times of the 1920s lead that decade to be dubbed ‘the Jazz Age’.

Countless things allowed jazz and other, successive generations to spread around the world- the invention of the gramophone further enhanced the public access to music, as did the new cultural phenomenon of the cinema and even the Second World War, which allowed for truly international spread. By the end of the war, jazz, soul, blues, R&B and all other derivatives had spread from their mainly deep south origins across the globe, blazing a trail for all other forms of popular music to follow in its wake. And, come the 50s, they did so in truly spectacular style… but I think that’ll have to wait until next time.

‘Before it was cool’

Hipsters are one of the few remaining groups it is generally considered OK to take the piss out of as a collective in modern culture, along with chavs and the kind of people who comment below YouTube videos. The main complaint against them as a group is their overly superior and rather arrogant attitude- the sense that they are inherently ‘better’ than those around them simply by virtue of dressing differently (or ‘individually’ as they would have it) and listening to music that nobody’s ever heard of before.

However, perhaps the single thing that hipster elitism is loathed for more than any other is the simple four-letter phrase ‘before it was cool’. Invariably prefaced with ‘I was into that…’, ‘I knew about them…’ or ‘They were all over my iTunes…’ (although any truly self-respecting hipster would surely not stoop so low as to use such ‘mainstream’ software), and often surrounded by ‘y’know’s, this small phrase conjures up a quite alarming barrage of hatred from even the calmest music fan. It symbolises every piece of petty elitism and self-superiority that hipster culture appears to stand for, every condescending smirk and patronising drawl directed at a sense of taste that does not match their own, and every piece of weird, idiosyncratic acoustic that they insist is distilled awesome

On the other hand, despite the hate they typically receive for their opinions, hipster reasoning is largely sound. The symbolism of their dress code and music taste marking them out from the crowd is an expression of individuality and separatism from the ‘mass-produced’ culture of the modern world, championing the idea that they are able to think beyond what is simply fed to them by the media and popular culture. It is also an undeniable truth that there is an awful lot of rubbish that gets churned out of said media machine, from all the various flavours of manufactured pop to the way huge tracts of modern music sound the same, all voices having been put through a machine umpteen times. Indeed, whilst it is not my place to pass judgement on Justin Beiber and company (especially given that I haven’t listened to any of his stuff), many a more ‘casual’ music fan is just as quick to pass judgement on fans of that particular brand of ‘manufactured’ pop music as a hipster may be towards him or her.

In fact, this is nothing more than a very human trait- we like what we like, and would like as many other people as possible to like it too. What we don’t like we have a natural tendency to bracket as universally ‘bad’ rather than just ‘not our thing’, and thus anyone who likes what we don’t tends to be subconsciously labelled either ‘wrong’ or ‘misguided’ rather than simply ‘different’. As such, we feel the need to redress this issue by offering our views on what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’, which wouldn’t be a problem if other people didn’t happen to like what we see as bad, and perhaps not get on so well with (or not have heard of) stuff we think of as good. Basically, the problem boils down to the fact that all people are different, but our subconscious treats them as all being like us- an unfortunate state of affairs responsible for nearly all of the general confrontation & friction present in all walks of life today.

What about then that hated phrase of the hipster, ‘before it was cool’? Well, this too has some degree of logic behind it, as was best demonstrated in the early 1990s during the rise of Nirvana. When they first started out during the 1980’s they, along with other alternative rock bands of the time such as REM, represented a kind of rebellious undercurrent to the supposed good fortune of Reagan-era America, a country that was all well and good if you happened to be the kind of clean cut kid who went to school, did his exams, passed through college and got an office job. However, for those left out on a limb by the system, such as the young Kurt Cobain, life was far harsher and less forgiving- he faced a life of menial drudgery, even working as a janitor in his old high school. His music was a way to express himself, to stand out from a world where he didn’t fit in, and thus it really meant something. When ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ first made Nirvana big, it was a major victory for that counter-culture, and pretty much put grunge on the map both as a music genre and a cultural movement for the first time.

And with success came money, and here things began to unravel. Unfortunately where there is money, there are always people willing to make more of it, and the big corporations began to move in. Record labels started to sign every grunge band and Nirvana-clone that they could find in a desperate attempt to find ‘the next Nirvana’, and the odd, garish fashion sense of the grunge movement began to make itself felt in more mainstream culture, even finding its way onto the catwalk. The world began to get swamped with ‘grungy stuff’ without embracing what the movement really meant, and with that its whole meaning began to disappear altogether. This turning of his beloved underground scene into an emotionless mainstream culture broke Kurt Cobain’s heart, leaving him disillusioned with what he had unwittingly helped to create. He turned back to the drug abuse that had sprung from his poor health (both physical and mental) and traumatic childhood, and despite multiple attempts to try and pull him out of such a vicious cycle, he committed suicide in 1994.

This is an incredibly dramatic (and very depressing) example, but it illustrates a point- that when a band gets too big for its boots and, in effect, ‘becomes cool’, it can sometimes cause them to lose what made them special in the first place. And once that something has been lost, it may never be the same in the eyes who saw them with it.

Although having said that, there is a difference between being an indie rock fan and being a hipster- being a pretentious, arrogant moron about it. *$%#ing hipsters.