Monday, 5 September 2011
Where Have All the White Guys Gone?
White guys with guitars are in crisis.
The once prevailing species of chart domination is now crawling along the streets of Britain, forlornly congregating outside the decaying doors of record labels, scratching at windows and grunting through letterboxes. They moan like members of the walking dead, seeking a revival of the long gone halcyon days when rock'n'roll music was mainstay in the British charts and insipid urban music was nothing more than an underground niche activity practiced by young offenders.
Times have changed and the smug nature of white guys with guitars has taken a severe beating. Last year saw the number of rock songs in the singles chart fall to its lowest level in half a century, with only three tracks appearing in the top 100 best-selling hits in the UK. The percentage of rock songs plummeted from a lacklustre 13% in 2009 to a despairing 3% in 2010; far behind hip-hop/R'n'B at 47%, pop at 40% and dance 10%.
To add further woe, the most successful rock song of 2010 turned out to be Journey's Don't Stop Believing. This was further indication that the only way to save rock music is to have it filtered through the Glee cast.
So how has it gone so wrong for white guys with guitars? How have they managed to ruin such a great run that's lasted almost 50 years?
15 years ago Britain was in the frenzied grip of a movement known as Britpop. Britpop was seen as a shining moment for the British music industry; a leftfield reaction to the American grunge scene that preceded it and the manufactured pop confections that came after. It was during the Britpop phase we saw bands like Blur, Oasis, Suede, Pulp and countless other guitar groups that cherished both lyricism and melody. Britpop was huge and for the first time in years provided Britain with a cultural backdrop that burrowed its way into film, fashion, journalism, politics and pretty much every aspect of 90s British life. The cornerstone of Britpop's success lay in guitar music and white guys were at the forefront of this mighty force.
Then everything sputtered and stalled. Guitar bands became interchangeable, producing transposable rhythms and styles, making everything sound depressingly familiar and dull. Added to this was the proliferation of illegal filesharing which effectively destroyed the established hegemony of big record companies. Labels became greatly perturbed and sought safer investments, turning to Svengalis like Simon Cowell and Simon Fuller to provide them with reliable products.
Now the music landscape in Britain has altered in ways we never saw coming. Urban music has metamorphosed into pop music, losing much of its perceived danger. Furthermore, generic pop acts sprung from televised talent shows like X Factor and Pop Idol have become the biggest selling sounds, dominating all the top chart places. More importantly, American pop music has become ever more ubiquitous in the British charts; a far cry from the 1990s when even the biggest US acts failed to chart well in the UK top-40.
Despite the doom and gloom there are some guitar acts still flying the flag for British music, but even they are witnessing diminishing returns.
The Arctic Monkeys are arguably the biggest thing in contemporary British alternative music, but their sales have receded badly. 2009's Humbug sold only a fifth of the amount their 2006 debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. Their latest album Suck It and See fared even worse, shifting only 154,000 units worldwide, a far cry from the 360,000 copies their debut amassed in the UK in just its first week of sale.
Arctic Monkeys - The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala
Other guitar acts like The Fratellis, The Rakes, The Twang, The Rascals, The Pigeon Detectives, The Wombats, The View and Hard-Fi have all returned in the last few years with new albums only to see their efforts flop, ultimately convincing some of them to either keep on idly persevering or to get real jobs.
On a cultural note, the death of guitar music certainly bucks the notion that austere times produce more meaningful songs. After all, the economic hardship of the late-1970s produced British bands like the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Joy Division, The Cure and The Smiths.
Despite the British economy suffering its longest period of economic fallout in a generation, there have been no new bands that are creating music that reflects the pained mood the country's feeling. Despite experiencing the worst social riots Britain has seen in a generation there are hardly any songs that echo the brooding unrest and fury the country is obviously feeling.