We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

They all look the same to me

It may be a response to our inability to halt the ageing process that causes so many of us to plot out our memories with milestones: first day at school, first kiss, first job, marriage, birth of child etc.

I think we mark these milestones because they provide us with a certain comfort. If we cannot go back then at least we can progress. Change is an option and one never knows what tomorrow may bring.

I say this because I think it is time for me to acknowledge another milestone. Truth be told, it was raised a little while ago but it is only now that I am forced to grant it full recognition: pop culture and I have gone our separate ways. It was a passionate and intimate relationship while it lasted, but now the ‘spark’ has gone. We’ve both moved on and changed. I’m not the same, it’s not the same. There’s no communication any more. Time to call it a day. Not only do I no longer know who is topping the charts, I no longer care.

I think the actual epiphany came about two years when I managed to get myself caught up in some sort of street festival on my way home from work one night. Not even for a fleeting second did the idea of joining in occur to me. Finding myself in the midst of a gang of teen-somethings gyrating furiously to some noise or other reminiscent of a car alarm, my overwhelming desire was to be somewhere else. I was tired, I was hungry and I really, really wanted to be home.

Nowadays my internet radio ‘favourites’ list has been stripped of virtually everything except classical stations the hegemony of which is only occasionally broken by a nostalgia trip back to the 80’s. I would rather drop paving stones onto my bare toes than go to a rock concert and, even if that were not so, just how ridiculous would I look leaping up and down, punching the air among a crowd where the next oldest person was still young enough to be my daughter? I find myself examining old T-shirts and thinking they might make useful dusters. But, many years ago, I was a teenager (no, really) and things were very different. This was the 1970’s when much of British industry was under state monopoly but there was a vibrant free market in youth culture. After graduating from a ‘puppy-fat’ musical diet of David Cassidy and the Osmonds, I suppose I was at about the right age when, in 1975, the Sex Pistols changed everything. By the summer of 1976 I was Punk Rocker replete with pinned jeans, ripped T-shirt and cropped hair. The Pistols, together with the Damned, the Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Buzzocks nearly drove my poor parents out of their own home.

By 1978 it was the ‘Era of Disco’ and I had moved onto being a ‘Soul-Boy’ (stop laughing) sporting drainpipe slacks, shoelace ties and (God forgive me!) blow-waved hair. The Buzzocks were out and Donna Summer was in. I still remember going to a school disco wearing a T-shirt which read ‘Let’s get it on with Marvin Gaye’. Everybody thought it was the coolest thing ever devised by the hand of man (except for one myopic sixth-former who thought it read ‘Let’s get on with it, it’s marvelous to be Gay’).

But the point is that styles seemed to evolve so quickly and dramatically back then. Quite apart from my own fashion statements, there was a whole cornucopia of youth sub-cultures which could be used by surly, rebellious adolescents to express their petulant insistence that nobody understood them. There were mods, bikers, pagans, rockabillies, teddy boys, skinheads and even a smattering of hippys, still stoned from the 60’s. Each sub-culture had it’s own dress code, hairstyles, music preferences and even lingo. The cultural map of Britain resembled medieval Europe.

And it was a serious business too. Each of the ‘style-tribes’ congregated at their favoured venues where they jealously guarded their ‘turf’ with insane parochialism. Walking into the wrong watering-hole with the wrong type of haircut meant there was a better than evens chance that you would have to fight your way out again.

But the one thing that was of utmost importance, indeed the theme of the entire era, was the desire to be different; the contempt for conformity was palpable and even within the various sub-groups there were bold and earnest attempts to ‘individualise’ style and appearance so as avoid looking ‘like everybody else’. Quite the highest compliment anyone youth could pay to another youth during that period was to concede that they looked ‘different’. Everybody wanted something that marked them out as unique, albeit a trivial something.

Now, nearly quarter of a century later, the very opposite seems to hold true. I say that because teenagers today all look like exactly the same as one another. And whatever music they do like they all seem to like it together. What was once a veritable smorgasbord of colour and styles has been replaced by a uniform of impossibly baggy jeans, hooded sweatshirts, woolly caps and pierced faces. They all look like that!

I realise that the immediate and obvious explanation is that this is all how it appears to me because I am getting middle-aged and grouchy. Well, I am getting middle-aged and grouchy but I maintain that my perceptions are still intact. Nor am I one of these people who can only look back through rose-tinted lenses and insist that everything was better in ‘their day’. No, most things are better now and I don’t think that current cultural output is rubbish, it is just not created by or aimed at people in my age group and that is as it should be.

But something has definitely changed for the worse in my view. The urgent desire to be individual and different appears to have given way to a marked insistence on blending in with the crowd. Whereas non-conformity was once a frantic compulsion for anyone under the age of 25, there would now seem to be an abject fear of expressing any personality at all. How strange that, in an era where ‘diversity’ is a dominant social and political obsession, youngsters should have become clones of each other.

I suppose, amidst matters of great international import, this all seems rather silly and inconsequential. Who cares what teenagers wear or listen to? Do fashions provide us with any readable social, or even political, trends? Beats me. I do know that I find the one-dimensional uniformity of today’s kids to be dreary and cloying and leaves me feeling rather privileged to have grown up when I did.

24 comments to They all look the same to me

  • I know what you mean. I used to be a radio DJ in the 70s and 80s, and even dabbled in the music video arena for a while. I had the good fortune to be close to college radio in the mid-80s, which gave me a leg up on commercial pop culture of the 90s (as one band after another finally made it big, I was able to say — “yeah, I was a fan before they were stars…”). But as the 90s came to a close, I began to feel more and more detached from the kind of things my son would bring home on the “NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL MUSIC” series; the annual Grammy Award nominee CDs, and other trendy pop-compilations.

    Now the radio all sounds like vocodered “Miss Thang” Divas and boy-bands, or gangsta rappas. I like some of it, but a little goes a LOOOONNG way. Joan Osborne recently (kindly) did an album full of old soul covers, which I like a lot, but it’s anything but “new music.” Out on the fringes (where I used to hang in the days when I would stay up late with a waterpipe, USA Network’s Night Flight and New Wave Theatre, running the gamut from David Bowie to Black Flag), today’s denizens just don’t sing to me (literally — most of them just rap, ripping off musicians of yore for their soundtracks). If anything, I find myself listening to old bluegrass and hillbilly music of the 1920and 30s. Man those country cats could play, even if many of them sang like bloodhounds.

    But I am noticing some interesting antiwar music coming out: old protest songs being dusted off and sometimes redone by new artists, as well as completely new things. VietNam war protest was one of the big influences and motivators in the golden age of late-60s and pre-disco 70s pop. Perhaps it will reignite pop culture once again, in a way that unites the high school and college generation with aging rebels like me. I’d like to think so.

    On the other hand, don’t pass up a chance to go to a truly great rock concert, even today. Rush recently toured, with a re-inspired Neal Peart. My wife and I made note of the extreme youth of many of the attendees at the show we experienced. But did we care? There were a lot of people closer to our age, too, and it was nevertheless one of the greatest evenings of rock music that either of us could remember. Peart, in particular, was beyond amazing. It was loud, and we DID look funny waving our hands in the air along with the kids, holding flickering lighters high, etc. But it was still a lot of fun. Maybe you should have just thrown yourself into that street festival. It might have grown on you, once you found the groove. Y’never know.

  • fembup

    About the same sequence of events happened to me, only 10 years earlier. Then when my son was about 16 in the early 90’s, we realized that our musical tastes were actually very similar (we both like late 60’s-early 70’s stuff). This common interest helped keep us close thru his adolescence, plus we still know just what to get each other for birthdays.

    I wonder if rap music will ever draw generations together – – but that’s a whole ‘nother subject.

  • I will probably blog about this subject, but a quick observation:

    I am only a bit younger than you — I was born in 1966 — and as I was reading this, all I could think was, “Get your nonconformist t-shirts here.” It was the “in” thing when we were younger to be “different,” and yet, as you note so clearly, most kids hung out in like-minded cliques anyway. So how nonconformist were any of us really?

    We also grew up in an era of greater socialism than today. Which leads of course to fewer opportunities and less freedom–which I never recognized then, but do now. Which means we had more reasons to feel alienated and powerless.

    Morals have also loosened up substantially over issues like sex. Which, once again, leaves less to rebel against.

    So the question becomes: is it naturally desirable for people to feel rebellious? Is it perhaps more the case that today’s young people feel less constrained, feel they have more choices and more opportunities? Is it the case that, perhaps, they are more following their desires, and it just so happens that most people aren’t all that different from each other when you get right down to it? That what we see now is more like what kids would normally look like when they aren’t feeling particularly put upon by the world?

    In my conversations with tweens and twenty-somethings, I find them usually to be fun-loving people, not prone to harsh judgements, very accepting, and not particularly in thrall to any particular leader. There are still cliques, depressed kids who think the world suchs, and etc. and yet it seems more diffuse. There’s no single authority figure or group or movement they’re wanting to rebel against, OR throw themselves in with. So they like exciting music, and dancing, and playing games on their computers and the internet, and fun movies, and get jobs that help them to those ends.

    I see less of a desire for conformity than a comfortable bourgeoise bohemianism–but without the pretensions.

    Perhaps they no longer need their nonconformist t-shirts quite so badly. It’s a thought, eh?

  • O'Brian

    Dean’s argument that the rebelliousness of youth culture has diminished with the implementation of the 60s agenda is a powerful stimulus to the perceived conformity of today.

    In addition one can add: the demographic bust has diminished the power of youth culture and is combined with a wholesale corporate commercialisation of music that has squeezed out the marketing of independents; the decline in educational standards that leaves the ‘youth of today’ less inclined to rebel; the rise of new forms of entertainment that are off the media radar but nevertheless attract the attention of today’s youngsters, whether it be dance music or the internet; the Ugly Rumour that Blair was a guitarist and that as we become Europeanised, our tastes conform to the standards set for the Eurovision song contest.

    Take your pick!

  • Johnathan

    David’s article does raise the issue, though, of whether young folk are less rebellious than their elders. I think they are less rebellious most of the time – remember, we are Thatcher’s children. Being rebellious for us meant reading Milton Friedman rather than Marx, cheerfully embracing a job with a big salary – if they were available – and so forth.

    In fact, the ultimate rebellion T-shirt is available for purchase on this fine site!

  • Eamon Brennan

    Every generation thinks certain things.

    1. It discovered sex
    2. It discovered music
    3. All previous generations (especially their parents) never had a life, just a dull ongoing present.

    Every generation is wrong.

    On a brighter note, I prefer this outlook on growing up as postulated by my friend Dermot.

    “There are 2 major events in any persons life. The first occurs at 7-8 years old when you realise that the world does not revolve around you. The second occurs around 10 years later, when you realise that you were right the first time.”


  • David, I am in complete sympathy with what you say, and am happy to report that, in the area of music at least, there is still nonconformity, creativity and freshness to be had. It’s a 51-year-old Curmudgeon, who grew up on the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Moody Blues telling you this.

    The main reason things appear so uniformly bland is the tight embrace wrapped around “mainstream” pop music by the major corporate promoters. These organizations have an inherent “conservatism” driven by marketing considerations. Actually, I should say it’s driven by an inability to address marketing considerations. No firm that makes its money from the arts knows how to predict what will hit it big in the pop market, so they all tend to repeat earlier successes, as closely as possible.

    But, thanks to the Internet and the maturation of digital music technology, there’s a lot of good, off-the-median stuff out there… if you go looking for it.

    Check out some of the alternative-Internet-radio facilities, such as http://www.ytsejam.com. Check out groups like Glass Hammer (http://www.glasshammer.com), Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic and Dream Theater. And above all:

    Don’t lose heart…
    …They might want to cut it out…
    …And they’d rather avoid a lengthy search.

  • I appreciate the sentiments in your piece. Here are my random thoughts:

    In my opinion, we love dearly the things we discovered when we were young, not necessarily because they were good, but because youth is such a rush.

    For example, I love the music of the 60’s and 70’s because I was a teenager and in my twenties then.

    But I’m like a shark swimming in an ocean of music. I have to keep going or I’ll die. To say I love all music is an understatement. To me, music is the language of emotion.

    That said, I’ve often wondered whether music stimulates an emotion in me or perhaps provides one. I can’t say for sure.

    So for me to shut the door on contemporary music because I’m not “young” anymore would be … unfortunate.

    In part, that is why I am intensely interested in the music my two kids listen to. (The other part is that I’m their dad). They are both teens. My oldest, my son, loves movie soundtracks, Broadway musicals and classical music. I loved all of that when I was his age. It’s easy for me to advise him, pointing out worthwhile stuff.

    On the other hand, my daughter is completely absorbed in radio pop music, as was I at her age. But her taste is contemporary; so her favorite music is more ephemeral compared to my son’s. For example she loves hip-hop.

    She advises me on what she likes. When we’re in the car, she controls the radio; we listen together and I grill her on who is singing which song. Being a parent, I also get a chance to gently steer her away from the crap and NC-17 stuff.

    In turn, I advise her on worthwhile oldies; she likes the Beatles and the Beachboys, among others.

    We crack up talking about how, when she’s my age, Destiny’s Child, Jay-Z, Nelly and Avril Lavigne will be on the oldies stations. Hee!

    Someone made a comment about rap drawing the generations together. Maybe that’s what’s happening here. I can’t say.

    What I do know is that music is the language of emotion. And if a piece of music makes me resonate, then I listen to it.

    And if it makes my kids resonate, then we listen to it together.

    After all, age is just mind over matter — if you don’t mind, it don’t matter.

  • Dale Amon

    As the other Samizdatista who has lived the double life of “making a living” and “artist” – musician in my case – I just have to…

    David is completely right about the pop music scene. It is total crap and the blame is squarely on the music industry. The 60’s happened because there were many small studios, daring labels, producers who were beholden to few if anyone, Top 40 radio with disc jockeys who selected their own play lists rather than an industrial list passed down from on high and in which the new “hit” has already been selected by the highest bidder.

    The whole system is sick from top to bottom. They blame internet copying, but the truth is they have been busy destroying themselves for well over a decade.

    I first noticed the decline in the early ’90’s when remakes and samples started becoming the “safe” way to make money. Some friends of mine in an a band called the Adventures, were badly advised to remake an old Mama and Papas cut. California Dreaming I think. They got some air time, but… it was not what that talented band should have been doing.

    Some of the remakes are so bad you practically want to roll down the car window and throw up. The putrefaction of “Killing me Softly” was perhaps one of the low points of the decade. In the last few years we’ve had total ripoffs with different lyrics. There was one done of the Burt Bacharach song, “What the World Needs Now”.

    But don’t despair! There is still a music underground. There are still old blues players out there doing what they’ve always done; there are Jazz players, rockers, all playing the small clubs and backwaters, recording indie and selling on the net. There are marvelous writers, magnificent musicians in abundance.

    The Music Industry/Pop Culture is a write off. The seeds or the revival are just waiting for the monster to stop thrashing. Anything we can do to kill it off faster is all to the betterment of music.

    The King is dead… long live the King!

  • Oh dear oh dear oh dear…

    I was listening to the Fugees’ “Killing me Softly” yesterday, as it happens. I think it’s brilliant. So is the original version by Roberta Flack (I think?). But the Fugees make it into something different: distant, worldly-wise, hardened, elegant, ordered, extremely musically disciplined and controlled, and nothing like as romantic. And still containing all the emotional power (and history) of the previous version.

    But musical criticism is not rocket-science, I can’t prove these things exist, only suggest them to anyone who might be interested. Same with Eminem.

  • Elizabeth

    It’s hard to stay up too late, to go through the day with out making the bed or leaving dishes in the sink – Cigarette butts in the ashtray and patchouli incense still simmering on the counter.

    I changed a great deal after having children though. All of a sudden I was a neat freak, quit smoking, prefer the smell of orange blossoms to patchouli and try to be a positive role model rather than pushing the limit by being offensive.

    Music appreciation is a constant evolutionary process for me. I’ve always been a freak that way though, loving Doris Day to Blue Grass, Heart, New Order and of course Maria Callas. My current favorite is coffee blend music from Central and South America.

    The only time I remember liking pop culture was when I was a little girl and LOVED my mini-skirts. I am from 1966 as well, hated the burbs and feathered or tidy hair.

    One thing I DETEST about getting older is smiling lines around my eyes.

    I don’t think you’re going through a crisis though. It’s normal to change and I’d be worried if you felt a need to change WITH everyone else in society.

    I have noticed a marked difference between my interests and the interests of those I use to go to high school with. Some of those who I thought were forever friends now seem to be the most bigoted narrow minded conformists I never wanted to meet.

  • David Crawford

    It used to be that old geezers used to bitch and moan about kids these days not being respectful, or loud, or obnoxous, etc. However, ever since the 60’s generation entered geezerdom (in about 1975), their whine is that kids these days aren’t as political, or more conformist, or aren’t protesting enough (The 60’s: What are you protesting about? What do you got?).

    What’s so funny is that the late 60’s/early 70’s were the heighth of conformity (inside that group). Everyone was expected to have the same political views (anti-war, etc.), dress the same, look the same, listen to the same bands, etc.

    As to the number of tribes out there among young people, there are still as many, belive me. As you get older it gets a little bit harder to tell them apart. After all, could your parents tell all of your tribes apart when you were young?

    As to the poster above who thought the music died in the early 90’s, that’s a hoot. I sure seem to remember a bunch of bands appearing at that time which again saved rock (without resorting to rap or rap influences). (Rock = one or two guitars, a bass, and a drum.)

  • Or is it possible that popular music/culture is mass produced crap? I am a rock critic but none of what I review is what would be called mainstream. I find most pop rock these days to be derivative and well boring as sin.

    Another problem is that if you are white, popular culture can be rather hard to take. Not reflecting your background or experience at all.

    In the US epecially, it seems to be driven by black/ghetto culture which is alien to me and many like me. To not like hip-hop/dance and other forms of black culture can sometimes ellicit hints of your being racist. Of course, I find whiggas to be one of the most amusing things on the face of the earth. My black well-educated freinds in the US don’t seem to find it as funny, merely pathetic.

    What is being peddled is a bland mish-mash of all types of culture that is uninspiring and at times unoriginal. It is not a shock that Norah Jones, a jazz singer, swept the Grammys this year. The fact she won several awards was good (as her album is stunning), the fact she got 8 Grammys demostates the state of the music biz. As in the 80s, the music biz in flushing itself out, merging and going under in places. What will emerge is a whole new lot of new labels that actually give a shit about original music and variety.

    For the record I think popular culture is the most boring I can remember. I was born in 67 and was out of the country for most of my life until ’80 so the 1970’s sorta passed me by.

  • It’s heartening to see that people like Francis W. Porretto have already mentioned the bands that I would. And I’m at least a decade younger than most of the posters above, so don’t think of disillusionment with pop as an age indicator. I haven’t liked pop as a whole since junior high. (In any genre, even rap, there are the occasional jewels that show the realized potential of that style.)

  • Devilbunny

    Pop music now is bad. In 1989, it was terrible. Whenever I think that today’s music sucks, I always run the inner comparison: is it worse than Martika’s “Toy Soldier”?

    Even when I hate the stuff, it’s very rarely on the bad side of that balance.

    The handful of teenagers I know (and no, they’re not self-selecting for being around adults; I tutor them) are worried about the same sorts of things teenagers always are, but they’re also thoughtful, interested in their world, and funny. At school they’d look very much alike, but the external homogeneity, such as it is, isn’t reflected in opinions or associations.

    O’Brian, there’s not so much a demographic bust today (as there was, say, through most of the 90’s; I know my high school class of ’93 was the smallest since 1970) as there is a boomer generation that is in control. The target of a lot of marketing has been the Boomers throughout their lives; youth culture may be important, but 16-year-olds don’t buy $50000 cars. Maybe in another ten years, when the leading edge of the bubble hits their early 30’s, you’ll see a lot more targeting to the younger generation.

  • Virginia Warren

    I know what you’re talking about David. My husband and I feel that way often, and we’re nearly 10 years younger than you. My husband and I went to a Dave Matthew Band concert a few years ago, and all of the kids there seemed to be wearing the same outfit. We went to our very last music festival a couple of years ago–we’ll probably never go to one again because it just isn’t *fun* anymore. I don’t want to stand in a croud of hippies and “dance”, I want room service!

    The fact remains, though, that there are just as many “tribes” as there were when we were kids, and they’re pretty much the same, too–goths, punks, preps, nerds, burnouts, etc, etc. But, by definition, most people are in the mainstream. Go figure.

  • Dale Amon

    If you want to find brilliant music, hang out in the East Village in NYC (an area I’ve lived in while doing contract work over in the US). Any night of the week, virtually any type of music you can concieve of, done by musicians who are embarrasingly good… and who you will never, ever, hear on the tightly controlled pop monopoly radio system.

    If you want interesting music, tune to the local campus radio station. They’re about the only ones who have open play lists.

  • Steve Bodio

    Francis Poretto and Dale Ammon, among others, have nailed it: it’s the MAINSTREAM that is lame. There are good things out there, from the dying Warren Zevon to Russian C&W done by classically trained kids, to amazing un- pc cultural fusions. You just have to look for it.

    Steve Bodio

    PS– I’m 53 and listen to more classical than pop. but there is great stuff out there.

  • Good on you! My favourite music since I was 13 has been J.S. Bach but you are obviously getting there.

  • Frank Sensenbrenner

    There’s a distinct lack of originality in today’s music. Social protest does not take to satire like Frank Zappa (although he would be a high standard to hold any satirist to), while expecting any sort of consistent quality mixed with innovation from any major band is ludicrous. I define good music as a CD (tape, 8-track, mp3) you can pick up a few years from now and still enjoy immensely, as opposed to an attempt to conform to public expectations.

    As for covers, Puff Daddy’s philistinism equates to his boorishness, given his steal of the Police’s “I’ll Be Watching You”, a classic.

  • There are quite a few good indy labels for each genre of interest. Europe and the UK are full of them. Names like Now & Then, Z Records, Frontiers, Earache, Black Mark etc are there. It can be a bit of a bugger to get their stuff though, it is best to go through a mail-order house. The best magazine for rock music is Classic Rock. They cover everything from Punk to Prog to Folk Rock. The staff are made of ex-Sounds, Kerrang, Raw, RIP and other magazines old farts. Not only is it informative, it is very well written. They have great listing for live gigs you would never hear about as well.

  • YES YES YES!!!! Someone besides ME saying this…there used to be INDIVIDUALITY! STYLE!

    Now its 70s all over again…and on EVERYONE EVERYWHERE!! Same colors, same patterns, same talk, my God!!!

  • The Other Dale

    Ted Sturgeon informed us years ago that of course 90% of science fiction was crud because 90% of everything is crud. But of course that wisdom gives us no insight into where to look for the 10%. I remember the music of my youth fondly as I stare down the dusty … um … yards of road toward my 40th birthday.

    However, on those occasions when I bother with the radio in my carfor anything other than news, I tune into an alternative station. I can’t stand half of what they play. But I find a lot of gems there too (Dido, Ani Difranco, Moxy Früvous, Miranda Sex Garden). Okay, Ani and Moxy have been around for a while, and I don’t even know whether MSG is still around. But all of them remind me that music didn’t die on my 30th birthday. I just had to relearn where to look for it. Listen to these ladies too.

  • Tony Millard

    Try refreshing your jaded palate with http://www.classicgolddigital.com or Sky 872 (I think). The only station where I recognise and enjoy (almost) all the music, even if it is interspersed with patter provided by Hospital Radio cast-offs.

    It’s the way forward when you’re an expat in Tuscany!