Musical shifts in ‘9’ years echo deeply into the following decade – so what does 2019 have to tell us about the sound of the future?
The flow of time in music can be hard to pin down: that goes for the evolution of trends as much as the fluidity of free jazz drumming. Sometimes it’s sticky, other times it explodes forward. Detecting the flapping of cultural butterfly wings can feel like a mug’s game – but the end of a decade represents a good point to futurecast. Years ending in 9 are glutted with rearview recaps, with a great deal of energy spent picking apart what dominated the previous decade, to the extent that their usefulness in signposting the one to come is overlooked. Look closely, and they always cough up interesting flashpoints.
1969 is seen as the grand archetype, where acid-soaked dreams of harmony quickly turned nightmarish: high-profile murders at the hands of Charles Manson and the Hells Angels reflected rock mutating from the pastoral pomp of The Zombies to The Stooges’ strung-out lurch. The nativity of the hippie era was supplanted by a paranoid dread that lingered deep into the 70s: in cinema, on the radio, and in the news, there was a riot goin’ on. It certainly marks the most stark inversion of the overall cultural mood. But the way the 9s can teach us about the near future goes beyond 1969 and all that.
In 1979, The Clash sang that “phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust”, but that feels anachronistic in retrospect. The Beatles, and the era to which they belonged, couldn’t have felt less fashionable. Still, the rock dinosaurs ruled for longer than the combustible punk urchins that usurped them. By the end of the 70s, it was Pistolmania on life support, with Sid Vicious dead and three-chord amateurism no longer a draw. But the swashbuckling attitude of punk remained in the water supply. This bled through into a fertile middle ground between post-punk, new wave, no wave, dub, industrial, and synth-accented New Romantic pop, where the next wave of headline draws were developing. Right at the bell, this set broke through en masse.
The volume of landmark releases from young groups is eye-popping. Self-titled debuts by The B-52s, The Specials, and The Raincoats; Gary Numan’s The Pleasure Principle; Public Image Ltd’s Metal Box; Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats; Talking Heads’ Fear Of Music; James Chance & the Contortions’ Buy; Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures; and more. Throw in the loosies of “Rapper’s Delight”, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, and “Dream Baby Dream”, and you get the measure of an arresting sea change taking place. As a whole, 1979 accurately presaged how the 80s would feel: tense, political, mixed-up, exploratory; a bit rough around the edges, but charged with unparalleled creativity.
Two key things stand out in 1989. Hair metal was a slippery slope, with disaffected grunge laying in wait. Career highlights from The Cure, Pixies, and Faith No More rubbed up against Nine Inch Nails, Fugazi, and Nirvana first punching the clock. Collectively they exuded an earnest and slightly extra blend of mope and rage that struck a (minor) chord. Taken with the formation of American alternative labels Merge, Matador, and Slumberland, this lay the foundation for a decade where independence was the most valuable asset to hold in rock’n’roll, even at stadium level. Self-consciously branding yourself was selling out, tantamount to treason. Imagine that.
1989 also gave us a sliding doors moment in hip hop. Beastie Boys and De La Soul lit the touch paper. Both Paul’s Boutique and Three Feet High and Rising are dexterous, whip-smart and extremely fun, layering hundreds of records to make the beats as lucid and chatty as the MCs. But their magpie approach had repercussions. Aggrieved older musicians starting hauling rappers into the docks as the art of liberally sampling established records was brought into focus. Labels froze up.
These high profile legal cases stymied the development of the same technique that the Dust Brothers and Prince Paul had so elevated. Mike D laughed off being sued by The Beatles as a token of cool. De La Soul surely found it less funny: they had to settle with The Turtles for a reported $1.7m, and still lose money to this day as their catalogue remains in digital purgatory. Having failed to detect which way the wind was blowing, Biz Markie’s 1991 court smackdown over ripping “Alone Again (Naturally)” was the finishing body blow. Hip hop didn’t suffer for greatness in the first half of the 90s – De La’s breakout success in particular opened a door for D.A.I.S.Y. disciples like Main Source, Digable Planets, and A Tribe Called Quest – but an alternate history for the genre could have unfolded if two of the most inventive groups to ever do it had been… less inventive. It’s a funny game.
“I’d expect this year’s music to further chip away at the Anglo edifice... It surely won’t be long until a fully-fledged crossover star emerges from Bhutan, Burundi, or Bolivia”
Flash forward to 1999 and you’re looking at a parable for what happens when the industry gets drunk on its own success. Rave and alt rock, far in front for more or less the entire 90s, are out of creative puff. The cokey, cash-flush era of superclubs (many of which would go out of business within months of opening) have ballooned to ludicrous heights: Pete Tong is a News of the World columnist, Judge Jules is taking six-figure fees for Gatecrasher sets, and “Praise You” is used as the theme music for a New Labour conference. Whether Tony Blair or Fatboy Slim had the bigger ego is lost to history.
Over Stateside, the festering catastrophe of rap-metal ground zero Woodstock 99 is often cited as a low watermark for modern culture (something that seems to have eluded those bent on beating a dead horse again this summer). Indie rock thrived as the new millennium took shape, existing as a hip antacid to a mainstream scene of financial largesse and credibility bankruptcy. In the same time modern groups like Tame Impala take between records, Sum 41 – who would have slotted in perfectly at Woodstock alongside The Offspring and Sugar Ray – had been signed, marketed to the spiky-haired teen demographic, dropped two hit albums, overtaken on the inside lane by a hotter prospect (The Strokes), and all but admitted their obsolescence in a video concession. It turned out to be a great moral battle for those invested in guitars. But man alive did some of the music suck.
Yet 2009 makes 1999 look positively enlightened. Ultra-compressed warning shots were being fired: the Guetta dynasty had begun, Swedish House ‘Ndrangheta were convening, and Dizzee Rascal led the grim charge of grime artists cashing in. This fixation with flash nights became all-consuming. In a sense, you have to marvel at the longevity of a cottage industry that made the act of going out seem so utterly lame.
In a more honest sense, who the fuck let will.i.am’s ego run unchecked? The silver moon boots, CNN holograms, and stupid punctuation resulted in not only the most wrenchingly inescapable song of a generation – “I Gotta Feeling” shattered as many hopes for a brighter tomorrow as it did records – but a gold rush to the lowest common denominator. Staring down a generationally heavy recession, Occupy movements and the Arab spring, were we urged to keep one thing in mind: the club, lads, is alive. Throw in the reactionary force of quote unquote ‘real music’ (i.e. banjo folk), and you get a picture of how stressful the charts felt in the early 10s. If only the majors had been paying attention to chillwave instead.
So, little hope for 2019 and onto the 2020s then? Not quite. As albums get brilliantly condensed (Tierra Whack, Pusha T) and needlessly bloated (Migos, Drake), space is opening up in the middle for voices situated outside the English language. We’ve been sold the idea of music as a barriers-demolished free market since the start of the century. The apparatus may have opened up, but hands of English speakers retain a firm grip. Representation of artists from the Gulf or Southeast Asia in particular is close to non-existent, in spite of their surging presence online. Yet R&B and electronic pop have been refreshingly inclusive lately, trending toward proper elevation of divergent global styles, rather than co-opting them as exotic additions to what listeners already find familiar.
Last year’s late-breaking critical darling Rosalía wove filigreed flamenco over clacking beats with few concessions to English speakers, bar a cute Justin Timberlake interpolation. The diasporic sound of Afrobeats has exerted a huge influence on UK rap and grime with artists. On the experimental fringes of club music, labels like Principé and Nyege Nyege Tapes are harnessing their heritage without compromise. 88rising, a zeitgeisty collective consisting of esoteric R&B and trap starlets, have proven that being born in Jakarta, Seoul, or Osaka is no impediment to making inroads into the rap game. Taken with white-hot Korean pop bands BTS and BLACKPINK (who are ranked above Anderson .Paak and Kacey Musgraves on the Coachella bill), they represent a wave of new household names crashing into view.
That feels set to go further. At the least, I’d expect this year’s music to further chip away at the Anglo edifice. Media giants like Spotify are moving into untapped markets, but hopefully some drive arrives from outside the given industry to properly harness the untapped potential of not just consumers, but music makers too. This should break the hegemonic stranglehold, opening the door to new faces with new things to say, who set pace for the new decade. It surely won’t be long until a fully-fledged crossover star emerges from Bhutan, Burundi, or Bolivia.
Now sit back and watch that Panglossian outlook get demolished by a decade of white-reggaeton “Baby Shark” edits. Happy future.