The Latest Tectonic Shift in Music

Colombian singer Juanes performs during a show in Montevideo, Uruguay,Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)
Colombian singer Juanes performs during a show in Montevideo, Uruguay,Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)

So the Grammy nominations were announced recently. The nominations follow on the heels of several interesting weeks in terms of what's at the top of the charts. A quick perusal of both the nominations and the charts leads to only one conclusion: The music business is in one of its periodic re-imagining phases.

Take a look at the list of nominees for Album of the Year. The Black Keys (a scruffy, neo-traditionalist duo from Akron who look like they woke up in the Greyhound station); fun. (indie rockers, who a year or so ago were establishing their hip bona fides via opening for Panic at the Disco); Jack White (color-coordinated, neo-traditionalist (ex of another duo) from Detroit who looks like he drove the Greyhound bus to pick up the Black Keys); Frank Ocean (supremely talented New Orleans-ian who is a neo-traditionalist as well, but from the tradition of Stevie Wonder rather than John Lee Hooker); and, finally, Mumford & Sons.

In addition to being nominated for Album of the Year, Mumford recently beating out, among others, Green Day, No Doubt, Pink, and Diana Krall for the top spot on the album sales chart, which the band held for three weeks.

While the nominees for Album of the Year easily fall into some form of neo-traditionalist qualification, it's Mumford who most assertively fit the description. Their acoustic guitar/banjo/mando earnestness traces a direct lineage from Old Crow Medicine Show, to Dylan, and all the way back to Dock Boggs and Jimmy Rodgers, with a good dash of Steinbeck thrown in for good measure (see their songs "Tisdhel" and "Dust Bowl Dance"). The difference between their traditionalism and that of the other nominees is, of course, what's stamped on their passport: UK.

So, just how does a bunch of banjo-slinging dudes from the UK end up being nominated for Album of the Year, holding the number one album sales position for three weeks, and smashing the record for the number of Spotify streams?

The question is answered via a theory that I have that I've seen play out several times before; call it "George's Law of the Ultimate Reaction Against Musical Douchebaggery." In a nutshell this law states that the music industry always tilts inexorably towards a state of entropic awfulness, until such an extreme state of douchebaggery is reached that the system collapses upon its state of uselessness, and then -- unexpectedly -- something useful emerges.

Anyone denying that the musical landscape pre-Mumford and their ilk's ascendance wasn't largely a wasteland of musical douchebaggery either isn't listening or doesn't care.

Remember, these past years have been dominated -- DOMINATED -- by the likes of Katy Perry, Justin Beiber, Maroon 5, Carly Rae Jepsen, that girl who sang "Friday," various forgettable American Idol/Voice "winners," One Direction, and, of course, the apotheosis of musical douchebaggery: Psy.

Before you (justifiably) take me to task for conveniently omitting the biggest start of the past several years, Adele, I'll simply say that she's a once-in-a-generation talent that could be inserted into any period of time, and make everyone else releasing records at that time sort of embarrassed to be doing so.

Aside from Adele, what the artists delineated above are united by is just plain bad music. I have a six-year-old son, and an eight-year-old daughter, and so I've been (over) exposed to Beiber, Jepsen, Maroon 5, Psy, et al. It's bad. This is not me being a snob. It's bad "music." Full stop.

We haven't seen this degree of just plain bad music since.... Just before the last tectonic shift in music occurred. Mumford's unlikely ascent is most closely mirrored by another band's emergence at the top of the charts that -- absent my theory -- seems equally improbable: Nirvana.

While history is never as neatly arrayed as any theorist would like, it is clear that Nirvana's arrival, at least temporarily, disrupted a music business that had swung way too far towards an awfulness similar to what we've recently been living through. If you don't believe me, let me just toss a few names at you of artists who were dominating at the time: Garth Brooks, Billy Ray Cyrus (isn't "Gangnam Style" really just K-Pop's answer "Achey Breaky Heart?"), Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men, Amy Grant, C&C Music Factory, Marky Mark & the Funky Bunch, MC Hammer, etc. And, of course, there was all the hair metal that had reigned up to that point. Like now, music had swung to such a terrible state that eventually a collective heaving occurs. This heave is always prompted by some externality that cuts through the awfulness and reminds people of why they listen to music in the first place.

This heaving has occurred throughout history. In some respects it's almost too neat and easy to say that hip-hop was the externality that caused the heave that displaced the era of Huey Lewis and the News, or that punk was the externality that displaced the saccharine of America, et al. Of course, why stop there? Was it not The Beatles (or, better, The Stones) who disrupted in their day?

Of course it was.

So, now we have a moment in time in which we can all agree that the music being made by the Grammy nominees resonates with us on some deeper level than what we've been consuming for the past decade or so. Sadly, as my theory goes, it won't last.

Earnestness and music authentically made and performed won't continue to hold the mass-populous' attention. It will be denigrated and mass-manufactured and diluted until it no longer has any meaning beyond that of a disposable confection. And, to a certain degree, that's OK. That's what "pop" music ultimately is: something for eight-year-olds to dance around the house in their PJs to, and then quickly forget about whoever is currently making them dance.

But we all know that there's something more elemental and profound to music.

This is why we must celebrate moments when music that truly is transformative and soul-touching is embraced by a mass populous (in the same way we embrace the fact that the Harry Potter books have sold a billion copies).

These moments don't happen often, but when they do, they provide a brief period of time when the level of discourse is raised, and the music more enduring.

Of course, this luminous moment occurs just prior to the music beginning a descent to another nadir. Which, upon being reached, according to George's Law (yet unbroken), another Mumford, Nirvana, Public Enemy, Talking Heads, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones will emerge, and remind us again why we listen.

For now, go ahead and listen to some of these great artists on a site that is constantly unearthing the next disrupters prior to their moment of tectonic change, Daytrotter. Here are links to sessions from Grammy nominees: