End Of The Decade: Concluding Thoughts

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And it's naptime. () courtesy of The Patton Veterinary Hospital hide caption

itoggle caption courtesy of The Patton Veterinary Hospital
Cat and dog cuddle

And it's naptime. ()

courtesy of The Patton Veterinary Hospital

It's hard to believe that we've reached the end. For the past two weeks, all of us — the NPR Music Team, a handful of outside contributors and myself — have explored the last 10 years in music. Did we cover everything? No. Did we try? Gleefully.

I feel immensely proud of the sheer amount of writing that we've put out there. So many newspapers and print publications have cut their music sections and critics, and so many music magazines have resorted to the only plausible life raft, which is to ape the Internet (or at least its effect on the attention span) by churning out lists instead of articles, and gossip and news bytes instead of treatises. I can honestly say that it's been a long time since I've seen this much thought, polemic and discourse on a single Web site — from a variety of voices — dedicated solely to music and to the music industry.

On the other hand, I also got the sense that some people didn't exactly want to read about or dissect music; they wanted to listen to it. James Blur wrote in the comments section, "I want to hear great music, not the 'reviews' of what other people think is good or bad." Fair enough. I understand that any attempt to summarize a decade in music is cause for unease. Perhaps that's because we each have our own version of the events, and the impact of the events on each of our lives is wholly subjective. Therefore, one person's exploration of the decade might come across as singular, even unnecessary.

Matt Love commented: "I guess it's human nature, at the end of a decade, to try to figure out what the decade was about... well, it's just an arbitrary slice of time, and it wasn't about anything; it was just a bunch of stuff that happened. But I know one thing — I didn't spend it listening to music I don't like, and nobody else has to, either. They don't need to listen to it; they don't need to worry or complain about it." On a similar note, Matthew Argalas wrote, "Stop worrying about everything! Music allows the listener to recognize or realize things within themselves! As long as the individual enjoys the music, why fret?"

Short of quoting the over-quoted Socrates — you know, the one about the unexamined life — I will say that I am a staunch defender of exploration, discussion and participation. For me, participation has always been visceral as much as it's been intellectual. And, while I do enjoy sitting back, letting go and tuning in to music, I have absolutely no desire to tune out. So when someone basically asks, "What's all the fuss about?" or "Why can't we all just get along?" — while I appreciate their contribution to the discussion — I disagree with their premise that this decade, in its tearing down of walls and barriers, somehow also ushered in an era of post-criticism. There is a fuss, we don't all agree, and it's in those uncomfortable crevices, the gray areas, that we get to grapple, to search for meaning, or to sit and revel in the unknown. But to simply want out unscathed, or to never get your hands dirty, is not only a privilege, but also a cop-out.

But just as I don't agree with the dismissals of our examinations of this decade ("Stop worrying about everything!"), it's unfair for me to dismiss the reactions to and critiques of our endeavor; reactions that seem, in and of themselves, to be byproducts of the changes that took place in the last 10 years. After all, what was this decade if not an invitation to compile 15,000 songs on our iPods and never have to take the headphones off to listen to anything other than what we wanted to hear, music or otherwise?

In fact, if there's one recurring theme to the end-of-decade coverage and the reader commentary surrounding it, it's that a sense of cohesion has eroded. And what exactly has atomized? The music industry as a whole. The ways we listen to, obtain and discover music. Bands themselves, as they've splintered off into side project after side project because it's so much easier to be in multiple bands, record an album with each member never having to leave his or her individual city, and then release the songs the very next day.

Albums themselves have been broken up into singles, remixed or iPod-shuffled into oblivion. Genres have disappeared, blended and multiplied. The location and context of artists are unknown or obsolete. Labels hardly matter, or so some say, while intention and politics are divorced from the music unless implicit in the lyrics. And, of course, there is more, more, MORE music than ever. For some of us, this unraveling of the structures and the means of exploration we had grown accustomed to is unsettling. For others, it's freeing. Some don't know it any other way. And for most of us, it's a mixture of awe, enthusiasm and at least a little bit of skepticism.

One topic wherein we managed to find common ground pertained to the ways technology contributes to greater accessibility. There are fewer gatekeepers or roadblocks standing in the way of those long-lost musical secrets and gems, and nearly anyone can track down hard-to-find records, singles and artists. Plus, newer musicians and bands — including the unsigned and unheralded — can get their music heard. Hooray, no doubt. Furthermore, recording equipment and software make the process of music-making that much easier.

Where we begin to disagree, however, is on whether unfiltered, uncurated, non-contextualized, genre-less, everyman, everywoman music is better. While some celebrate and insist that we're in a post-genre, post-record-label, post-gender, post-music-industry world, not everyone, including myself, thinks that you can keep a knife sharp when it has no edges. I don't want art, specifically music, to become a blunt tool, with no point or purpose other than to be held.

But, like many of you — and I'm just basing my feeling on a hunch, though there's plenty of evidence on this blog within these past days to support it — this might have been one of the best decades for music ever. One of my favorite parts of these past two weeks has involved receiving and listening to more than 150 songs that people recorded in a matter of hours, and for no other reason than them wanting to communicate a feeling or an idea. The willingness to share, to participate and to create was inspiring. And the comments people left in regard to the songs were full of generosity and encouragement. Thank you and bravo!

I also loved the fact that on these "pages," via the posts and the subsequent comments and discussion, we seemed to form a genuine — if temporary — community. We argued, we supported and we challenged one another. I was honored that so many friends, colleagues and readers contributed time and energy to the project. We talked some about what role community plays in music, now that the notion of community has been expanded to basically mean everywhere. It was reassuring to realize that "everywhere" isn't so diffuse as to render it "nowhere." And, while I prefer the actual and the real to the virtual, the coalescing of so many ideas, opinions and voices on this blog during our end-of-decade coverage felt hefty and tangible. Almost, I dare say, like a modern-day fanzine (minus Kinko's and glue).

So, what now? What's next? And what are my hopes for music in the next decade? They are no different than what I always want: for music to be surprising and unpredictable, and to knock me off my feet.

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