Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Albums, Art, Youth and Beyonce

What does Beyonce have in common with the Beach Boys and A Tribe Called Quest but not Elvis Presley or Grandmaster Flash? And what does this have to do with the Grammys?

The Grammys are imminent, and as people stake their claims on who will win album of the year, it’s worth looking at the place of the album as artistic statement in pop music.

Rock music gained cultural accreditation in the 1960s as it evolved from a singles-oriented genre to an album-oriented genre. Bernard Gendron posits this argument in Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club, but examples are rampant. Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, the girl groups of the early ‘60s were all singles artists. The Beach Boys’ crowning achievement was Pet Sounds. Sgt. Pepper, rather than any individual song on that album, culminated in rock’s achieving cultural legitimacy. Two factors contributed to this shift. One was that rock artists were conceiving of the album as a unified work, but the other was that they were meeting the maturing tastes of their audience. Singles are for kids. Albums are for adults with their extended attention spans and thicker wallets. The first wave of Baby Boomers were entering adulthood, and albums that were conceived as more than a collection of singles with filler fit their evolving taste.

A few decades later, hip-hop went through that same maturation process. Early hip-hop stars were singles artists. Think Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. But hip-hop achieved its golden age as artists such as Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest put the emphasis on albums as a whole rather than singles. For all of popular music, the focus remained on albums throughout the CD era, as record companies largely phased out the single to force consumers to buy more expensive albums, which were increasingly bloated with filler to support their 70-minute playing time.

Two components allowed the pendulum to swing back to singles as a dominant force in the cultural landscape: iTunes and Millennials. The launch of the iTunes Store in 2003 unbundled the single from the bloated album. Consumers once again had a choice in spending less but getting only what they wanted. And there was a huge consumer bulge of potential buyers: the kids of Baby Boomers. Singles are the music of youth, and there was a huge generation of youth following Generation X, who had been referred to as the Baby Bust for the sharp drop in birth rates until that generation earned their own distinctive moniker.

But now the Millennials are moving into adulthood, and their tastes are maturing with them. They have the attention spans and income to consume albums. And in the realm of the Grammys, if you want to award an album as something conceived as a whole, not just a collection of hit songs, nothing comes close to Beyonce’s Lemonade in dominating the cultural conversation in the last year. This isn't a prediction of who will win since the Grammys have often gotten it wrong, just a warning that this could end up in the many lists of when the Grammys got it wrong.

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