Bucking the Trends


Hey, wanna hear about the hot new trend in pop music? It's called trendlessness.

To be honest, this trend-to-end-all-trends isn't exactly a trend yet, let alone a hot one. I'm hoping to get it started right now.

The premise behind trendlessness has been incubating in my wallet for nearly 20 years, encapsulated in a quotation I keep there to remind myself not to become the sort of arrogant, self-important media know-it-all the general public assumes all our society's scribblers, chatterers and pontificators must be.

The fault I find with our journalism is that it forces us to take an interest in some fresh triviality or other every day, whereas only three or four books in a lifetime give us anything that is of real importance.

Now, don't take these words without a heaping spoonful of salt. I don't, and neither did Marcel Proust, who wrote the sentence about 95 years ago in his novel "Swann's Way." Proust, an insatiable reader of newspapers, put them in the mouth of his character Charles Swann, a highbrow aesthete who, it turns out, could have used some of the clearheaded vision and everyday common sense that a good newspaper can supply.

When it isn't running after trends, that is. Exaggerated as it is, there is a solid core of truth in M. Swann's observation: The trends we journalists keep churning up often reek of hyped-up triviality, not the least in my specialty, pop music.

Remember the ska craze of 1997? Or the swing mania of 1998? This year, we have teen-pop breaking out like acne after a fast-food binge--a "trend" that goes back to bobby-soxers swooning for Sinatra.

Latin music is being hailed as the next big thing--as if audiences haven't taken to pop music with a Latin flavor all along. Witness the careers of Jose Feliciano, Carlos Santana, Gloria Estefan and Julio Iglesias.

As for the hot "new" hip-hop/heavy-metal blend, wasn't that something George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic invented in the '70s? Or was it Run-DMC with Aerosmith in the '80s?

A quote that struck me just last week came from Chris Collingwood, singer in pop-rock band Fountains of Wayne. He said his wife had walked into his home studio while he was listening to music and asked him why he was just sitting there listening and not doing anything else.

"It's incomprehensible that you would just listen and concentrate on a song," he mused. "I wonder how many people are like that?"

Collingwood was talking about the wallpaper school of music consumption, which is vast. But trend-driven listeners are probably the ones record companies are most zealous to reach.

Call it the fashion school of music appreciation, in which a listener gets hip credentials by being at the forefront of trend-spotting. There is a kindred school--call it anti-fashion--in which a listener stays loyal to a less trendy genre and gets a sense of identity from being a contrarian.

Now, just because music is trendy, or runs deliberately contrary to trends, doesn't mean it isn't good. But quality is up to the individual artist; being connected to a trend is just a helpful angle for marketing and publicity.

With the trendlessness trend, I want to draw connections of a different sort. Call it the communitarian school of music-making. It recognizes that the three or four albums--well, make that 300 or 400--most worth hearing in a lifetime rise not from trends, but from communities of influence in which one creative person or band hits upon something significant and original, sparking peers to react in their own highly individualistic ways.

Sometimes these communities are formed by musicians living in the same time and the same place--like early rock 'n' roll in the South during the 1950s, early electric blues in Chicago during the '50s or rock coming out of England from 1964-67.

But community ties of influence and appreciation can form across generations and geographic boundaries: witness Taj Mahal and John Hammond, kids from the Northeast, being fired by the folk-blues of Robert Johnson, a Southerner who died before they were born.

If you want to be in on the trendlessness trend, you have to visit these communities and learn their lore. Trace the blues from Johnson through Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King, and on to the Yardbirds, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and the Allman Brothers Band.

See country musicians speaking to each other across the decades, from the Carter Family to Jimmie Rodgers to Hank Williams and on to Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, George Jones and Emmylou Harris.

Follow the soul and R&B; legacy stretching from Ray Charles through James Brown, Motown, New Orleans music, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Sly and the Family Stone and P-Funk. Hear the folk-rockers and singer-songwriters radiating outward from that massive boulder-splash in the musical pond, Bob Dylan.

The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks and the Who--and all that flowed from their arrival as British Invaders--form an ongoing community. There's Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Aerosmith in heavy-rock, and the underground/alternative rock lineage of the Velvet Underground, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Clash, X, R.E.M., Husker Du and the Replacements.

Don't wall yourself inside a single community. Try to sample classic albums by cornerstone artists crucial to each circle of influence. If you're listening closely, and following those connective strands, the essential artists in each community will teach you that there are, in the end, no trends, but several enduring themes and musical approaches.

The best, most-inspired pioneers and torchbearers infuse them with the vitality and the freedom of mind, the imagination, personality and feeling that can take us out of the predictable ebb and flow of trendiness and onto the solid, sustaining shores of trendlessness, which also can be called timelessness.

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