The Death of the Monoculture


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The season of popcorn blockbusters, beach reads, summer girls, and boys of summer has arrived. And the only thing missing is the (un)official song of the summer — a ubiquitous pop smash that demands we shake our hands in the air and sing along as though we had not a care in the world.

In 2007 that song was “Umbrella,” by Rihanna; the year before “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley brightened our June, July and August.

So where is this year’s hot, hazy hit? Although New York magazine recently handicapped eight potential summer songs (including Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop,” Leona Lewis’s “Bleeding Love” and Coldplay’s “Violet Hill”), a leading contender has yet to emerge. And at this point, we’re starting to run out of summer.

If you wish to play the game of blame, the death of the monoculture has become a popular choice in recent years. The infrastructure that made the winner-take-all monoculture possible during the mid-to-late 20th century — the radio-MTV-record store monopoly of music distribution — is gone forever, thanks to the Internet.

We now have the “long tail,” Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson’s belief that there are huge profits to be made from the extensive back catalogues of movies, music and books. Add to that legal (and illegal) downloads of TV, music and movies, and the cultural jambalaya of YouTube and MySpace. While consumers enjoy the binary buffet, critics – those in charge of constructing contexts and explanations for what we like – are less enthralled. “When I grew up, there was a monoculture,” Robert Christgau, the dean of American music criticism, noted in an October 2006 interview on “Everybody listened to the same music on the radio. I miss monoculture. I think it’s good for people to have a shared experience.”

As music journalist and author Carl Wilson recently noted on his blog, Christgau repeated his gentle yearning for the monoculture during a Q&A session following his talk on indie-rock, neofascism (!) and John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change” (?!?) at the annual Experience Music Project (EMP) Pop Conference in Seattle this April.

For cognitive musicologist David Huron, however, the monoculture is very much alive — albeit embedded in the songs themselves. In a recent article in Nature magazine, Huron argues that, as a result of globalization, the scales, melodies and harmonies used by musicians throughout the world are becoming more and more Western, even if the style and genres of world music remain diverse and localized.

We hear music through Western ears — which for Huron means, for example, that we “expect large changes of pitch in a melody to be followed by a change of direction” — but what we take for granted as musically natural might not be universal. With the rapid spread of North American culture across the world, however, alternative musical approaches are being muted through hybridity. So as the cultural infrastructure is changing rapidly, the sonic landscape degenerates. Perhaps the reason we lack a summer song is that the eight songs chosen by New York magazine are too structurally similar to each other to meaningfully distinguish themselves as an uber-hit.

In his new book, Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, Rob Walker, who writes the popular Consumed column for The New York Times Magazine, describes this as the Pretty Good Problem, in which consumer goods such as kitchen ranges are now of such similar quality, we’re forced to distinguish between major appliances on the most minor of differences.

The death of monoculture also reduces the necessity of having to write a genre-crossing hit song in the first place. Writing on her blog Asymmetrical Information, Megan McArdle argued, “The rise of cheap distribution means there are more genres and sub-genres than there used to be – and also that acts don’t need to broaden their appeal so much as they once did. If you don’t need to get on a top 40 station to make it big, you will lose the elements you once might have added to attract that audience.”

There might be more genres, but from an engineering standpoint, all those songs are starting to sound the same. “On most modern CDs the music is squashed into the top 5 dB of a medium that has over 90 dB of range,” writes Nick Southall in a 2006 article called “Imperfect Sound Forever.” The result: “Not only are the volume differentials flattened when you compress music, but bass and treble frequencies are pressed into the midrange and the space surrounding instruments is lost, making them less easy to separate when you listen.”

Putting things in plain speak, Southall concludes that, “By the time you’ve listened closely (or tried to) to a whole album that’s heavily compressed, you end up feeling like Alex at the end of A Clockwork Orange — battered, fatigued by, and disgusted with the music you love.”

This aural assault, known as the “loudness war,” began in earnest with Oasis’s 1995 album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, which averaged -8dB Root Mean Square volume (RMS), as compared with the 1987 Guns N’ Roses album Appetite for Destruction, which was -15dB RMS (and was considered plenty loud at the time). The 2005 average volume for a rock record, according to Southall, is -9dB RMS. Negative numbers and weird acronym aside, today’s albums are really loud – and identically so. Cultural critic and professional irritant Chuck Klosterman has argued that the monoculture eradicates regional differences, but at the same time, “the acceleration and splintering of media destroys the potential for cultural universals,” he said in a 2006 interview with “There are fewer and fewer specific cultural touchstones that every member of a certain generation shares simultaneously (Johnny Carson, Led Zeppelin, Jaws, etc.). As a result, people end up feeling alienated by their own normalcy; they feel lonely within a crowd. And this is a huge cultural problem.” Or, as a headline on a mock 2004 article in The Onion put it: “Majority Of Americans Out Of Touch With Mainstream.”

Some would argue that critics such as Klosterman and Christgau have an ulterior motive in their left-handed compliments about the way things used to be — their relevance and livelihood diminishes as the monoculture dwindles. Not that Christgau is likely to over romanticize the past. As noted in the comments section of Wilson’s blog, Christgau amended his statement at EMP Pop Conference by adding, “I understand that we can’t have it (the monoculture) back and that there are reasons why we shouldn’t.” So would it really matter if this summer fails to produce a song to call its own? It might even be a blessing, given that past summer songs include “Who Let the Dogs Out?” and “Macarena.”

And now, at the risk of making everything even muddier, Anderson’s long-tail theory is being aggressively challenged. Anita Elberse’s article “Should You Invest in the Long Tail?” in the July-August 2008 Harvard Business Review, examines data from Nielsen VideoScan and Nielsen SoundScan, along with Quickflix (an Australian version of Netflix) and Rhapsody (a subscriber-driven online music database). She argues that the importance of big hits, be they movies, music or books, is increasing over time.

“Although today’s hits may no longer reach the sales volumes typical of the pre-piracy era, an ever smaller set of top titles continues to account for a large chunk of the overall demand for music.”

For Elberse, the tail is long but flat — we have more choice through Amazon or iTunes, but we are still social animals who prefer to listen to what others are listening to, although heavy consumers of music and movies are more willing to dip into more obscure waters occasionally.

While Elberse and Anderson are already respectfully debating definitions of where the hits end and the tail begins online, it appears that the nichification of culture is not yet complete.

So, to recap thus far: In the near future, we might have to be content with songs of the summer, rather than a lone chart-stomping tyrant. The monoculture is dead, except it’s not. The long-tail theory is correct, except when it isn’t. And critics miss the monoculture, except not really, but kinda maybe.

Which is to say the monoculture is dead. Long live the monoculture. • 13 August 2008