The rise of deathly pop music
October 10, 2019 10:56 PM   Subscribe

Although the song "1-800-273-8255" (whose title is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number) didn't win a Grammy last year, it's part of a trend in pop music: an obsession with death.
posted by Johnny Wallflower (75 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
As a fan of metal and its increasingly extreme subgenres for going on 30 years...

1. Not a trend.
2. Get off my lawn.
posted by Special Agent Dale Cooper at 11:01 PM on October 10, 2019 [46 favorites]


Undead undead undead
posted by mwhybark at 11:29 PM on October 10, 2019 [18 favorites]


I feel like the list of words might be a good start but there are a lot of songs which refer to death tangentially without ever using any of those selected words and perhaps language is a lot more direct now. I seem to feel that death and dying and loss like that have been subjects of pop songs for my entire 5+ decades regardless of that list of words.
posted by hippybear at 11:30 PM on October 10, 2019 [3 favorites]


Sure. Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" and Sarah McLachlan's "Angel" are two examples of that.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 11:42 PM on October 10, 2019 [4 favorites]


That Logic song is basically the exact opposite of this one.

Gravediggaz were way ahead of the curve on this trend.
posted by HunterFelt at 11:49 PM on October 10, 2019 [2 favorites]


dead man’s hand again

(this topic is killin’ me!)
posted by mwhybark at 11:51 PM on October 10, 2019


Like film school, but for pop music.
posted by eotvos at 11:55 PM on October 10, 2019 [1 favorite]


Last Kiss was a hit several times by various artists across decades and it was totally about death but didn't mention any of those words.
posted by hippybear at 11:56 PM on October 10, 2019 [8 favorites]




"And I find it kind of funny
I find it kind of sad
The dreams in which I'm dying
Are the best I've ever had"

Tears for Fears, echoing in my head for a solid 30 years.

(Posted purely to share, not to "prove" or dismiss anything.)
posted by seraphine at 11:59 PM on October 10, 2019 [10 favorites]


When has pop music not been obsessed with death again?
posted by spitbull at 1:02 AM on October 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


When it was solely obsessed with sex. Sex + death = literature.
posted by pompomtom at 2:15 AM on October 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


Wait until they find out about poetry.
posted by schmod at 4:35 AM on October 11, 2019 [12 favorites]


America is a death cult.

*buys another gun*

#AreWeTheBaddies
posted by glonous keming at 4:46 AM on October 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


come on kids, don’t fear the reaper.
posted by aesop at 5:01 AM on October 11, 2019 [9 favorites]


There was a real craze for teenage death ballads in the late fifties & early sixties. Many were big chart hits.
posted by Paul Slade at 5:24 AM on October 11, 2019 [11 favorites]


“The meaning of life is that it ends”
― Franz Kafka
posted by robbyrobs at 5:35 AM on October 11, 2019 [6 favorites]


1970s represent!
posted by flabdablet at 5:37 AM on October 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


"Ten years ago, on a cold dark night,
There was someone killed 'neath the Town Hall lights..."
posted by notsnot at 5:37 AM on October 11, 2019 [5 favorites]


It would be interesting to try to sort out whether death is more of a theme in mainstream pop that is more often about, like, romance and break-ups and empowerment and so on, and it would be interesting to sort out how death is referenced - is it more "these things happened and there was violence" or "death is interesting to me personally and perhaps I do not want to be alive".

I think that if genres that are not usually especially death-heavy are more death-heavy right now, and if genres that are conventionally more about violence as observed are more about reflections on death and the personalization of death, that's a thing.

~~
Also, what about all those fifties/sixties "Leader of the Pack" type songs that romanticize teenage death? That's obviously a different kind of zeitgeist from "I individually am depressed", but it's sure weird and it says something about the culture.

~~
You feel like depression specifically is more visible and more..."acceptable" in the sense that it's okay to be depressed as long as you don't get in people's way about it but that people who are seriously depressed are still marginalized and treated like a problem, and also that these are just terrible, terrible times where it's very difficult to envision living through them.
posted by Frowner at 5:39 AM on October 11, 2019 [7 favorites]


I do feel like a lot of older pop culture about death was a lot more glamorizing — "I'm so tough and/or poetic I can look death in the eye" or "The world is boring and I want to ascend to something beautiful" or "My pain is the most brutal pain that ever pained" or "She was a tragic beauty, so perfect, so flawless, and now she is gone" or whatever.

I get the feeling that I'm seeing more stuff now — music for sure but also comics, and definitely memes, and other art too — that's just like "I'm tired. It's not that I'm deeper or heavier or suffering more brutally than anyone else. I'm just small and tired and I can't keep up and I want to stop."
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:54 AM on October 11, 2019 [17 favorites]


I'm also struck by how often we see skulls - particularly Mexican DotD skulls - used in product logos these days. Again, it seems to occur mostly where young people are the target market.

Designer booze, hipster coffee bars and skater clothing are particularly prominent examples, but it bleeds into other fields too. "Death is cool," seems to be the message. "Buy our shit and you'll be cool too."
posted by Paul Slade at 5:54 AM on October 11, 2019 [4 favorites]


There was a real craze for teenage death ballads in the late fifties & early sixties.

Which then, despite all odds, resulted in a 1999 hit for Pearl Jam.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:13 AM on October 11, 2019 [1 favorite]




You feel like depression specifically is more visible and more..."acceptable" in the sense that it's okay to be depressed as long as you don't get in people's way about it but that people who are seriously depressed are still marginalized and treated like a problem, and also that these are just terrible, terrible times where it's very difficult to envision living through them.

I think you're right about this. (Selfishly, I feel less encouraged if an accomplished person is open about their depression. My brain hears this and translates: THEY got over it; what's YOUR excuse? But this is the depression speaking, of course, and not anyone else's fault.)

I also think that this trend is a needed corrective to American attitudes about death, which have been squeamish and avoidant for a while. Murder, yes, we love to talk about murder, about executing murderers, about shootings and God knows what all, but speaking of death to the immediately affected has always felt like calling down a curse. I can't be frank with my parents about my death or their own; none of these are expected, but they'll come, and why can't we talk seriously about them?
posted by Countess Elena at 6:53 AM on October 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


Better than reinforcing tropes from the patriarchal status quo.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:55 AM on October 11, 2019


As a Deadhead I just want to say I am shocked by skull iconography. Also, it's definitely just morbidly about the act of death itself and has nothing to do with honoring ancestors or human connection.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 6:58 AM on October 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


Also, for me, and, I'm sure, thousands of other former gothy teens, the subject of death provokes a lot less anxiety than the subject of romance.

Romance: when will it come? Will it ever come? Will it ever come again? Have I ruined my own heart forever? Am I too fat? Or am I too insecure? Do I have to do that, I don't want to do that, can I not? How could a dude sing this song when he's just boning groupies all night? What is love? Who can have it?

Death: 💃EVERYBODY'S COMIN', LEAVE YOUR BODY AT THE DOOR💃
posted by Countess Elena at 7:05 AM on October 11, 2019 [12 favorites]


"Death is cool," seems to be the message. "Buy our shit and you'll be cool too."

The tobacco industry leading the way in 1991
The company's plans to offer sponsorship to the Pacific Racing F1 in 1994 fell through after Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna were killed at the San Marino Grand Prix.
What an unprincipled lack of committment.
posted by flabdablet at 7:23 AM on October 11, 2019 [4 favorites]


It would be interesting to try to sort out whether death is more of a theme in mainstream pop that is more often about, like, romance and break-ups and empowerment and so on, and it would be interesting to sort out how death is referenced - is it more "these things happened and there was violence" or "death is interesting to me personally and perhaps I do not want to be alive".

And then you see the association of sex with death... in both directions, with death as metaphor for sex (little death), and sex as a metaphor for death. For example, see Hozier's Angel of Slow Death & the Codeine Scene. It's... quieter, that way, I think?
posted by sciatrix at 7:40 AM on October 11, 2019


the replacements had at least two singles about suicide but they were also the replacements
posted by dismas at 7:49 AM on October 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


Won’t you spare me over for another year...
posted by wildblueyonder at 7:57 AM on October 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


And then you see the association of sex with death...

"I love the dead before they rise
No farewells, no goodbyes
I never knew your rotting face
While friends and lovers mourn your silly grave
I have other uses for you, Darling."

But was Alice Cooper pop? Definitely popular. The album in question went platinum and topped the charts in both America and the UK.

And from the article itself:

But pop music’s death-oriented attitude can also trace itself back through cultural history at large. Death in music is by no means new—just look at the teenage tragedy song, a popular trope in music in the 1950s and 1960s. Recall the angsty liner notes of Nirvana, Metallica, The Smiths, and a litany of other artists who made singing about death something edgy and thrilling.

What's that law about the answer to articles whose headline is a question pretty much always being NO?
posted by philip-random at 8:07 AM on October 11, 2019 [5 favorites]


Wait until the normies find /r/2meirl4meirl/
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 8:09 AM on October 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


What's that law about the answer to articles whose headline is a question pretty much always being NO?

Betteridge's law of headlines
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 8:10 AM on October 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


I think this trope extends throughout our culture—sci-fi as a genre has largely turned into a venue for civilization-wide snuff films/literature, and it's increasingly dull. We're an overdramatic, morbid lot.
posted by sonascope at 8:27 AM on October 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


Sunday is gloomy, my hours are slumberless...

(Banned on the BBC until 2002?!)
posted by Not A Thing at 8:32 AM on October 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


"We're an overdramatic, morbid lot."

Only because the universe is exceedingly boring, cold, and empty punctuated by boring spots of heated gas and rocks with so little agency or personality they merely hang around the nearest wad of hot space farts. Everything here is dramatic in comparison.
posted by GoblinHoney at 8:35 AM on October 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


(I'll heroically resist talking about metal, Goth, pre-2015 music here)

It's an interesting dataset.

Note the hugest upward leap, by far, is circa 2009-2012. It's not hard to see in that a response to the Great Recession and what it did to the lives of, well, everyone, but esp. young people, pop's key audience.

I'd like to see them carry the analysis up to the past few years, beyond citing sample lyrics.

Interesting, too, how the long decline in death lyrics from 1998 to 2008 parallels the well established if usually ignored decline in American violent crime.
posted by doctornemo at 8:39 AM on October 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


have these people never listened to any Neil Young?
posted by supermedusa at 8:42 AM on October 11, 2019


"Birth, and copulation, and death.
That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks..." - T.S. Eliot
posted by PhineasGage at 8:45 AM on October 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


I gave my love a cherry
posted by elkevelvet at 8:52 AM on October 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


Now that I've actually read TFA, apparently "pop" status is defined by being listed in the Billboard Hot 100. Have the criteria for membership in that list changed over the years?

Given that we are looking at a well-defined corpus of 15000 songs, it does seem like it would be manageable to manually review a randomized subset to see how well the use of the chosen keywords correlates with reader-perceived morbidness. Is it possible that the "taboos" being broken down are merely taboos on the use of these particular words in popular music?
posted by Not A Thing at 8:54 AM on October 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


Poppy AAMF:

"Drunk is better than dead"
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 9:23 AM on October 11, 2019


Interesting that the analysis looked just for words and didn't consider context. If a song contained the phrase "kill the lights," it would be counted.
posted by explosion at 10:14 AM on October 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


"I went down to St. James Infirmary ... So cold, so stiff, so fair"

"I went down to St. James Infirmary / saw the plums that were in the icebox there / rip to your plums but i'm different / so sweet, and so cold, lmao."

St. James infirmary is fun because the refrain seems so mournful but the verses are like welp, on with my awesome life now.
posted by fleacircus at 10:34 AM on October 11, 2019 [2 favorites]




only tangentially related to the discussion at hand, but if anyone doubted that the Logic song was just a cynical cash grab, dude was literally featured on a track released last night where he utters the line "1-800 then I kill the pussy... Who can relate?"
posted by JimBennett at 11:59 AM on October 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


and then this 1972 mega-hit just popped up randomly ...

In a little while from now
If I'm not feeling any less sour
I promised myself to treat myself
And visit a nearby tower

And climbing to the top
Will throw myself off
In an effort to make it clear to whoever
What it's like when you're shattered


Gilbert O'Sullivan -- Alone Again Naturally
posted by philip-random at 12:03 PM on October 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


What happened to the romantic ballads of yesterday? Like, I Hold Your Hand in Mine.
posted by SPrintF at 12:35 PM on October 11, 2019 [4 favorites]


Did everyone just forget music during the 80s?
posted by Young Kullervo at 3:52 PM on October 11, 2019


Seasons in the Sun!
posted by rhizome at 11:25 PM on October 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


Did everyone just forget music during the 80s?

I distinctly recall that having been my impression at the time, yes. And I largely hold SAW responsible for it.
posted by flabdablet at 1:09 AM on October 12, 2019


What Did For The Dinosaurs
posted by flabdablet at 1:12 AM on October 12, 2019


...y'all do realize that all the "HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN THE CURE" in here is the equivalent of "Global warming my ass, it was cold yesterday," right? Like, you can have an increasing amount of X, and have had a lot of X to begin with, and still have a bunch of stuff now that's not-X.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:56 AM on October 12, 2019 [2 favorites]


to be clear (because I'm not at all clear of what those last few comments are getting at), my experience of the mainstream music of the 80s was that it was largely atrocious (with exceptions, of course). The music of 80s (even much of the pop sounding stuff) was often wonderful-powerful-superlative (choose yr own adjective) but what got hyped, got formatted, got played on mainstream radio, got heard by most folks -- that felt like a trial run for some future hell on earth scenario that hasn't manifested ... yet (or maybe it has and I just haven't been paying attention, cocooned away with my old records).
posted by philip-random at 8:22 AM on October 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


The 80s was kind of a special time in pop music. Digital recording removed limitations from physical tape; synthesizers and electronic instruments in general became accessible to normal, working musicians; and music videos challenged songwriting as the primary purpose of pop. You can see all of these coalescing in songs like "You Spin Me Round," a song that sounds like nothing from the 70s and before (don't @ me with "I Feel Love," it isn't Everything) and whose prominence was entirely a product of the changes of the 80s. There's other layers here, like the evolution of live soundsystems and people learning to play guitar from Eddie Van Halen starting their own bands, so a lot was going on outside of songwriting.

So, it kind of makes sense that people weren't making a lot of pop about death. I'm not going to say that it's some grand "well, a new era was dawning and that means Life," meaning, but I can see people being too busy simply coming up with new music to worry about death, or even incorporating complex themes in general.
posted by rhizome at 12:40 PM on October 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


it kind of makes sense that people weren't making a lot of pop about death

. . . except they totally were?

This all has a lot more to do with what gets counted as pop, when, and a sort of methodologically shaky textual analysis than it does to the actual lyrical matter of popular music over the years.
posted by aspersioncast at 4:21 PM on October 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


hell, the greatest of our rock musicians didn't just sing about death...they died.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 10:42 PM on October 12, 2019 [2 favorites]


The 80s was kind of a special time in pop music

Quite so. In the most euphemistic, politically correct sense possible.

I still have quite raw memories of feeling severely pissed off when some wet-behind-the-ears little dickhead five years younger than me dismissed Led Zeppelin as "dinosaurs" after I complained about his running nothing but Duran Duran on the workshop stereo all. fucking. day.

Duran Duran were good at what they did, but musicians of Page and Jones and Bonham and Plant's calibre they were so utterly not. The 80s were the decade when image-is-all marketing, heavy audio compression and production-line editing started to elbow aside raw in-the-moment feel and craft and magic, and warts-and-all performances with guts became unfashionable and passé; mass-market music has been the worse for that ever since.

The fact that today's music is most often reproduced on equipment completely incapable of doing so with anything resembling nuance is also indicative of the general state of decline. Go listen to something recorded in the 1970s on a 1970s hi-fi rig good enough that you can hear every tape splice if you think this isn't so.

Yeah, yeah, I know, the best music is whatever you were listening to at fourteen, yadda yadda yadda yadda blah blah blah, get off my lawn, yell at clouds, whatever. But there is something that this has and this has and this has and this has that this just doesn't.
posted by flabdablet at 12:08 AM on October 13, 2019


you know that you don’t have to say the same thing every time someone starts talking about music made with synthesizers, right? jesus christ dude get a new hobbyhorse.
posted by JimBennett at 12:35 AM on October 13, 2019


Got no problem with music made with synthesizers. Got a problem with musicianship being sucked down the memory hole under a toxic flood of marketing. Got a problem with kids apparently never having had a chance to experience music as anything other than vaguely inoffensive background noise until they're in their twenties.

If the music available to me at fourteen had been as utterly dominated by what's fashionable as my fourteen year old daughter's, I'd have been as depressed as she frequently is now as well. I'm just lucky to have grown up in an era where totally disposable music was less on-tap and things I'd never even have thought to choose to listen to had a correspondingly higher chance to enter my orbit.
posted by flabdablet at 1:10 AM on October 13, 2019


and what makes you the arbiter of what's background noise? stairway to heaven is background noise to my ears.

If the music available to me at fourteen had been as utterly dominated by what's fashionable as my fourteen year old daughter's, I'd have been as depressed as she frequently is now as well

you're really telling on yourself here.
posted by JimBennett at 1:20 AM on October 13, 2019


what makes you the arbiter of what's background noise?

The years of experience that come with being old enough to be amused by watching myself turn into my father.

honestly what is that rubbish the kids listen to these days i can't even
posted by flabdablet at 1:42 AM on October 13, 2019


If the music available to me at fourteen had been as utterly dominated by what's fashionable as my fourteen year old daughter's

Heh. The top ten Billboard hits of 1971, the year that Stairway to Heaven was released, had two songs from the Osmonds, One Bad Apple and Go Away Little Girl, a John Denver song, Take Me Home Country Roads, and Tony Orlando and Dawn's Knock Three Times on it (along with Joy to the World, It's Too Late/I Feel the Earth Move, How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian) and Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)).

The rest of the top 100 was about the same kind of mix of what-were-they-thinking, eh-that's-okay-I-guess, and not-bad-at-all songs on it with even an occasional, hey-that's-really-good! song too (Bill Withers!) which seems to me to be pretty much the constant state of popular music since I've been paying attention.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:47 AM on October 13, 2019 [2 favorites]


Heh. The top ten Billboard hits of 1971, the year that Stairway to Heaven was released, had two songs from the Osmonds, One Bad Apple and Go Away Little Girl, a John Denver song, Take Me Home Country Roads, and Tony Orlando and Dawn

as I recall, Stairway To Heaven wasn't even released as a single, but radio stations started playing it anyway. And so on. The flip of this is, by 1972 you had Alice Cooper's Schools Out tearing up the atmosphere all over pop radio ... even as little Donny Osmond continued to knock 'em out of the park. And the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards had a five week run at #1 with a bagpipe take on Amazing Grace. These were strange and delirious days for pop radio from which you can still win pretty much any argument you want as long as you cherry pick accordingly. In my neck of the woods, the first #1 of the year was Don McLeans's American Pie, the last was the Temptations' Papa Was A Rolling Stone. That says more than I ever could.

But I didn't turn fourteen until 1973 by which point no even half-cool fourteen year old would be caught dead listening to AM pop radio anyway. It was FM or nothing at all. Which was before the corporate types took over, so it was cool album rock all the way, anything-goes-as-long-as-it's-good and all that -- and a lot of it even now has to rate as very good indeed.

I do agree that pop radio has pretty much always been a mix of ...

what-were-they-thinking, eh-that's-okay-I-guess, and not-bad-at-all songs on it with even an occasional, hey-that's-really-good! song too

... but every now and then, the greater culture seems to grow wary of pop and its tendencies, looks to other places. And 1970-71-72-73-74, being immediately in the wake of the most POP phase in western culture ever (The Beatles, The Stones, Andy Warhol etc), well, I'd argue that was one of those phases.
posted by philip-random at 8:22 AM on October 13, 2019 [1 favorite]


Well "cool" is often defined as opposing the popular, so using it simultaneously as proof of popular while also using it as a way to cherry pick "best" things from a year according to hindsight is just a way to make a claim without having to back it up other than selectively by one's own preference.

It's true that album sales did change the music market in the latte sixties early seventies but that didn't diminish pop music's reach nor did it result in only "cool" albums being purchased or "cool" albums having much staying power. Grand Funk Railroad was a big album selling band and "cool" at the time to some measure, but now almost completely ignored. 1973 had some top selling albums that are well remembered, like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road which had some major radio play but was also popish and not especially "cool" by Led Zepplin standards. Dark Side of the Moon of course lingers in memory and culture, even if I don't care for it all that much, it certainly fits some definition of album cool as you have it, as does Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy. Alice Cooper's Billion Dollar Babies exists in cool limbo now, cool then but now remembered mostly for a couple singles and gimmicky look.

Rolling Stones' Goat's Head Soup, Jethro Tull's A Passion Play, The Allman Brothers Brother and Sisters, and Moody Blues Seventh Sojourn were mediocre best selling albums by "cool" bands that are mostly better forgotten other than for a single track or two.

Chicago VI, Carly Simon's No Secrets, Elton John's Don't Shoot Me I'm the Piano Player and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road are more singles writing put to album than Led Zeppelin-like, which meant radio play on AM and FM beyond the "cool" boundaries.

McCartney's Red Rose Speedway and Harrison's Living in the Material World were mediocre albums along the same lines that came out after the Beatles 1967-1970 compilation. Elvis had Aloha from Hawaii: Via Satellite and Dueling Banjos and the soundtrack for Lady Sings the Blues rounded out the top sellers, which only the last might be considered some measure of cool now, though it certainly wasn't considered so then. Cool as measures by Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd fans of the time didn't have much cross over to Elton John and Carly Simon type music and I'm not sure the former has "out cooled" the latter over time as some of the pop from the early 70s is as well loved as many of those "cool" albums.

The early seventies also led to Punk and New Wave in the late seventies which took the "cool" baton from the album rockers among the usual suspects of cool kids while disco took some space from funk and led in different "Not cool" directions that all led to the eighties. What you want to claim for "cool" from there gets more and more contentious as the arguments over what was cooler between metal/hard rock and the pop side tend to disagree on basic principle over what cool means. From there music only kept changing and moving towards hip hop and other forms that don't map to seventies ideas of cool all that well.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:49 PM on October 13, 2019


my overall point was that "cool" (always a subjective word) albums sold very well in 1973, which is worth considering when discussing what was pop at the time (another subjective word -- some take it to mean remuneratively successful, others a kind of sound). And I backed it up with a link to all the Billboard #1 albums of 1973. Not saying all of those were "cool" or "good" but ... well, compare it to 1979 ... where I don't see a single title I'd ever argue for with a entirely straight face (though I should check you that Donna Summer album).

Beyond that, it feels we're just getting even deeper into subjectivity.
posted by philip-random at 1:04 PM on October 13, 2019


... and a quick check of the Billboard album charts for 1970-71-72 tends to reinforce an argument for an era when "cool" long-players were selling comparatively very well. But that said, when you line that era up against what came later, it's pretty clear that either:

A. people just weren't buying that many albums period in the early 70s compared to later, or

B. there were fewer unanimously must-own albums then compared to later (ie: the sales got spread around more, to more different artists), or

C. a combination of A + B.
posted by philip-random at 1:15 PM on October 13, 2019


Cool is always subjective and generally opposed to the popular as a matter of course. The "coolest" records or albums will be those that didn't receive much popular notice in mainstream culture but have fierce loyalists or manage to find interest in later years and have "cool" then attached to them retroactively even as they weren't listened too all that much in their day. Finding an album collection from the 70s that has, say, all the Led Zeppelin albums is less "cool" than one that had all the Parliment albums by that measure as Parliment never found the same level of mainstream popularity as Led Zeppelin did but influenced a sub-culture strongly and grew in recognition over time as that influence was understood and appreciated.

Was it cooler to have Dark Side of the Moon or Tom Waits' Closing Time? What about Roxy Music or Herbie Hancock or Lou Reed or Can? Judging from now is different than judging from then and that's always the case. All bringing "cool" into the conversation does is make the discussion subjective, where any album or song can be chosen as proof of concept should there be some way to claim unrecognized levels of importance to the music. The less recognized in the moment the better and the smaller the group of hardcore fans the greater factor of "cool".
posted by gusottertrout at 1:23 PM on October 13, 2019


philip-random: I'm going to suggest that albums back then had more "legs" and so they might end up on the charts for a while but people continued to purchase them much longer out in time in significant numbers. I remember having to special order albums from my record store even 6 months or longer after they were released because they couldn't get any store stock, well, into the 80s.
posted by hippybear at 1:47 PM on October 13, 2019


gusottertrout - I'm generally in agreement with your position. My initial use of "cool" was to convey the perspective of being a kid (in 1971-72-73 etc) looking around and noting what the older, cooler kids were into.
posted by philip-random at 2:40 PM on October 13, 2019


Yeah, I get that and I know what you mean. I remember well being a kid in grade school and thinking some bands were cool or even dangerous for the associations they tried to draw on for their collective persona. Kiss, for example, when they first came out seemed threatening in some way for drawing on the Alice Cooper death and darkness vibe that garnered legends about their stage shows and potential for unbelievably happenings. Black Sabbath of course preceded them in that too and some of that even seeped into how other "hard rock" bands like Led Zeppelin were viewed by some kids.

It's also worth remembering though that those same bands went on to really different outcomes in collective consciosuness. Kiss releasing that hard rocking single Beth as a big hit and then doing like so many other bands of the time and stealing a little disco energy for I Was Made for Loving You, not to mention appearing in Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park and all sorts of other cross media promotions that turned any initial sense of "cool" or "danger" to kitsch. Alice Cooper appeared on the Muppet Show and faded from the larger cultural memory other than School's Out for Summer and Black Sabbath was swallowed into the cult of Ozzy and eventually kitschified as well, though also influencing a number of metal bands of varying ability and seriousness/kitsch. While Led Zeppelin got so much radio play they became the embodiment of dad rock almost as much as Bruce Springsteen and lost any oppositional element to the culture.

At the same time many of the pop or AM songs of the early seventies got stored farther back in cultural memory, almost forgotten, but sometimes reappearing as "cool" after a long hiatus for striking a different vibe, kinda like Brandy in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 or many of the songs Tarantino used in his movies. The music went from over-played or kitsch to hated to ignored to cool to over-played/kitsch again over the decades. Since the seventies popular music was still often drawing on country and broadway/tin pan alley song writing traditions, there were a lot of "story songs" like Bad, Bad Leroy Brown or Ode to Billy Joe or that weird Helen Reddy song Angie Baby where death or violence is a part of the story because they so narratively inclined and that's a strong hook. Those songs, although or because they're out of favor, are pretty "cool" in their own way for being a less followed path that was a big part of the seventies.
posted by gusottertrout at 4:05 PM on October 13, 2019 [1 favorite]


Or I should have said a path not strongly followed until rap music led to a different kind of return to narrative songs, which also sometimes featured violence or death in some stylings.
posted by gusottertrout at 4:13 PM on October 13, 2019


I remember well being a kid in grade school and thinking some bands were cool or even dangerous for the associations they tried to draw on for their collective persona.

I was the minimally-befriended school fat kid who spent as much of every recess and lunch period as possible in the school library reading, so what most of my peers thought of as cool or fashionable or generally worth getting excited about was cause for anything from indifference to bemusement for me. That same sense of fashion for its own sake as a thing somewhere between incomprehensible and contemptible has stuck with me for life. So much effort wasted on so empty an attempt to seem impressive.

My parents also ran a strict no-commercial-radio and no-TV-at-all policy at home, and the ABC played virtually no popular music. I didn't really start listening to anything beyond my parents' collection of 78rpm shellac and 33rpm vinyl until I was about eight years old and capable of constructing my own crystal set.

So the music I liked as a kid and still like now is music that moves me, music that gives me chills and gets me right in the feels. Having grown up with the Eroica from before birth, that was always only ever going to be music that exposed glimpses of the raw emotional core of the musicians. Music that takes me places where no other music has taken me before. Disobedient music.

Commercial pap deliberately painted by numbers to sound like other stuff that's already selling well is so not that, and that goes double for the output of outfits like Kiss whose music would have sunk without a ripple had it not been presented in disobedience's stolen clothes.
posted by flabdablet at 11:35 PM on October 13, 2019 [1 favorite]


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