Mark Twain said it doesn't repeat, it rhymes...
There is a preponderence of music in the clubs and on the streets played by young people (teens to late 20's) that seems festooned with an obsession about late 19th to early 20th century style. I have been confused about where this is coming from. Even the fashions of the players seems to hark back to that time but it comes out looking more like stretched out rags from the Bugsy Malone set. Mostly they are playing rags, medicine show music, blues, and folk-songs. You see them carrying around banjos, accordions and euphoniums. It's not new, it's already gone on long enough (at least five years here in New Orleans) that if it were the early 20th century they would already have come up with a new form of jazz and thrown themselves out of date. They are, however, gripping tightly onto some set of imagery and I have been wondering why. Perhaps, symbolically, it is showing what is in the following article...
(For more on the idea in this post see this entry I wrote about the album by Aurora Nealand & the Royal Roses dedicated to Sidney Bechet (Sat. April 23). That piece was informed by similar ironies.)
This article, "America: A Peek at the Past You're Repeating" addresses more serious consequences of being unaware of social developments since the early 20th century. It is clear that, at least locally, there is the very same lack of awareness about music development since those same times. The very subject of those music developments of the 20th century, both sonically and lyrically, were mostly about liberation, human and civil rights, and class problems. Music is a mirror for what is going on in its culture, and it can't fail to be, although sometimes you have to be shrewd to see it clearly because the messages can be deeply masked (even from the performers.) Right now, on all music fronts and genres there seem to be two main strains: commercial branding of the artist and seeking ways to boost the brand (mass popular forms) or, mad preservationist behavior in other styles. Both expose a deep cultural ossification.
Pop music has hardly moved anywhere in a decade. Additionally we preserve baby boomer music stars like we are waiting for technology to give us a way to keep them going, bionically. There is a kind of masked conservatism in that, a gripping on to the old way...perhaps if we can keep the musical times from a-changin' we can keep old Zimmy singing the song about it.
Development now, and for a long time has been in the modes of moving content, not the content itself.
There are clear obsessions with preservation in jazz, folk, etc. A lot of this stems from scarcely examined ideas from the roots of ethnomusicology. A lot of those ideas are left over from Victorian nationalisms, elitism, and imperialism, and expose a lot of backward beliefs about ethnic hierarchies, "the noble savage"," the pastoral, undisturbed, country folk"- and a whole host of other mythologies. Frankly, musicians tended to be some of the smartest people around and were largely open to all itinerant influences- and they were always there. Musicians were on the silk road as well as highway 61.
It is possible to go very deep at looking in these directions. That would be fruitful if the content of the current music was about ideas. However, in large part, so much now is about escapism and an avoidance of ideas. We actually, can't move on because no-one wants to look for an idea. If we can see an idea, we can understand it, absorb it. Then we can move on to the next set of theories, postulations, refutations, clarifications, and evolutions. We can go for new forms. Music teaches us much about form since it has very few basic elements, but it can be spun out, formally, in so many ways.
My suspicion is that people want to be on the side that's winning. Corporations and corporate behavior is winning. Ideas and slower focus and learning is bad for sales and share value. If we regurgitate old music we have a funny feeling that we already understood its ideas and so don't need to concentrate on it. If it's pop, it's pap and we don't have to concentrate on any ideas there either. The result, more time to watch the commercials and deal with the pushing of brands. There is no movement in that and here is what our musical art form is showing us at all levels.
Mindless conformity because of fear of being on the losing side is a hallmark of fascism and how it takes hold. That may seem like a jump but there are masses of people across the world who comment on it. It is not a fringe observation.
This article from something called The News Junkie Post shows that we are not learning from our history. Nor are we learning from music. In actual fact, the two carry each other, music is still shamanic in this respect. It's best to listen to it carefully, pay deep attention to all facets of those playing it and where they play it. Then let the body absorb its content, and then once you've got it- allow yourself to be changed by it (it is, after all, your experience; the only one you've got) and then move on.