Happy New Year (Decade?) or The Zeitgeist and its Discontents

Happy New Year (Decade?) or The Zeitgeist and its Discontents

During New Year’s Eve some of my friends and I engaged in a verbal clash over whether 2010 was the final year of the first decade of the new millennium or the first year of a new decade. Most people were eager for the Noughts, Oughts, Oughties, Zeroes, you name it, to be over and done with, but at the same time folks who claimed the millennium began in 2001 rather than 2000 had to acknowledge that if the millennium began in 2001, the new decade couldn’t begin until 2011. I never bought into the whole 2001 millennium thing. As far as I’m concerned, shifting from years beginning with 1 to years beginning with 2—which is exactly what occurred at midnight on December 31, 1999—was way more significant (remember all the computer scares) than the marking of two thousand years. An exact numerical count is specious at best anyway since there was no year 0. Even Biblical scholars concede that the historical Jesus Christ was most likely born in 4 B.C. (four years before himself, go figure). So the new millennium began in 2000 and now we’re in a new decade and to refute it seems a little silly to me. After all, wasn’t 1970 part of the 1970s rather than the 1960s? Folks argued that the ’60s didn’t actually begin until well into the decade and ended several years into the 1970s. But what they’re talking about is defining an era, which is not the same as determining the decade even though loads of folks confuse the two.

So even though we’re in a new decade, we’re not necessarily in a new era. Or are we? Our previous decade was so full of trauma and tribulation that it would be a great relief if we were, not that chronological time is ever to blame for the world’s problems. But, to bring it to music, does being in the 2010s mean that we are on the dawn of a new musical style? I’m not so sure that the 2000s ushered in anything sonically that was drastically different from things that were already afoot in the 1990s. Even the digital dissemination of music, which all the pundits claim has radically and irreversibly transformed our relationship to recordings, was already occurring in the late 1990s. Napster was released in June 1999.

Should we even worry about what the style of the 2010s will be or should we just write, perform, and listen to the music we feel compelled to write, perform, and listen to? How important is it to be part of the zeitgeist? Was it wrong to want to be interested in the harpsichord in the 1780s when everyone was throwing over such instruments in exchange for the new-fangled fortepianos? That’s as silly as saying it’s wrong to care about piano music now that we have synthesizers, or Boulez’s 1952 pronouncement that “any musician who has not felt the necessity of the dodecaphonic language is of no use,” or the recent pronouncements claiming that no one writes serial music anymore.

Elijah Wald’s remarkable though somewhat misleadingly titled new book How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll (Oxford University Press 2009), which was actually recommended to me in a comment to a previous post of mine on these very pages (thank you!), reminds us that there was never really a mainstream and that in every generation multiple stylistic streams co-exist and—in the best scenarios—they inform and enrich each other. This book is great reading for the start of a new year and is yet another confirmation of my long held suspicion of bandwagonism. Back when serial thinking seemed ascendant, I did everything in my power to avoid it. Once folks started decrying it, I made it a point to explore it. And I’ll always love harpsichords. Happy new decade!

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