A look back at the many noteworthy goings-on in the world of music in 2016.
2016: The Year Rock ‘n’ Roll Died (Again)
Can we now safely say that rock music has lost all relevance? At one point of time, well before cell phones and pagers and microwave-ovens and power windows were invented, before Donald Trump was the POTUS-in-waiting, when even the dinosaur apocalypse hadn’t yet struck, rock ‘n’ roll used to be important. In those glory days, it could effect meaningful change, and it could entice listeners with its daring aesthetics.
No more, my friend. Today, the biggest rock bands in the world are Foo Fighters, has-beens who were somewhat cool two decades-ish ago before beginning a steady descent into self-parody, and Muse, who can never be anything more than a guilty pleasure for any self-respecting listener, that too at a stretch (though I should confess to enjoying past works by both). I think the Rolling Stones are still around too.
But that’s only this writer’s opinion. If we’re looking at cold, hard facts, then there’s Coldplay’s debut performance in India, at some much-hyped concert to raise awareness about toilets in November. I want to mention how the worst band in the world played in the worst country in the world… but I will not. Because I love India. That said, 50,000 people singing along passionately to derivative, deceitful, insincere garbage like ‘Ye-Ye-Ye-Yellow’, an unflushable turd if I’ve ever seen one, is all the proof I need that rock music is in dire need of some imagination, otherwise let’s get the Rest in Peace hashtags ready for 2017.
Could the Bollywood invasion mean that indie music is actually important outside of its bubble? Image source:nyoozflix.in
Big Bad Evil Cynical Business As Usual
Bollywood actor and filmmaker Farhan Akhtar released a “film” called Rock On LOL!. Forget about how painfully out of touch with reality the movie is, or the laughably flaccid music it tried to pass off as substantive. Instead, what we witnessed was big business at its cynical best, creeping into the previously insulated world of independent music in India.
Promotions for the film were centred around, as my more successful, more corporate friends tell me, “Vertical Integration”. We got to see Rock On brand consolidation across platforms as Akhtar decided to play real-life “rockstar” by hitting the festival circuit and “performing” “music” to unsuspecting audiences every chance he could get, to maximise box office returns. For what it’s worth, Demonetisation happened at around the same time as the film released, so there’s some schadenfreude to be had at the film’s expense, but not nearly enough. Talented actor he may or may not be, but the fact that Akhtar is a “rockstar” is another confirmation of rock music’s dwindling cultural currency.
The gap left by rock music’s fade into worthlessness was effortlessly filled by hip hop, both in India and internationally
The Hip The Hop The Revolution
That gaping hole in the cultural map, globally, has now been decisively filled by hip hop. It’s been happening for a while now, but 2016 needed strong voices to counter the political climate of hate and oppression. Without getting into it too heavily (because politics is boring and all serious and shit), the year saw a radical right-wing uprising. We’re living in fragile times where the fear of the other, the fear of dissent, has led to a consolidation of regressive values. Individual voices are being aggressively shut down and marginalised — look at Brexit, or that orange clown winning the US elections, or the backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement, or even what’s been happening here. Hip hop, specifically, has taken on the mantle of being the alternative, doing what punk rock did in the ’70s and ’80s, only on a far larger scale given the reach the internet provides.
In India too, there’s been an explosion of hip hop, with acts such as Naezy, Divine, Prabh Deep, Mumbai’s Finest, Swadesi, and countless others, getting considerable attention, not just from the self-aggrandising indie community but in the mainstream space as well, largely because they have something real and relatable to say. It’s one of those rare instances where the musical evolution here somewhat matches the progression in the west.
No Sunburn in Goa this year? How can that be?! Image source: Pdmsunburn
Ain’t No Sunshine
The music isn’t for everyone, but regardless, Sunburn happening at the end of the year in Goa is such a vital event. It’s Sunburn! So imagine my surprise when I discovered last week that for the first time in a billion years, the year-ending Sunburn carnival is going to be held somewhere on the outskirts of Pune, instead of on a beach in Goa. Forget Trump’s election, forget Brexit, forget the National Anthem; this is the real travesty of the year and I will not stand for it. Where the HELL will everyone I know from Delhi and Mumbai go to celebrate the new year?! Yes, change is good. But not all change is good.
If you want to be remembered as an important gig venue, shut down! Image source: blueFROG Mumbai
Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye
For months, there’d been rumours that the Blue Frog in Mumbai was going to shut down since the rents were unsustainable. (All they had to do was make the beer cheaper, but then I’m no restaurateur so I’ll keep my expert opinion to myself.) Finally, it did. An iconic venue that hosted so many memorable gigs, keeping the indie music scene afloat for so many years, had shut down yet again. It’s a great tragedy, and it also means I will now have to find a new place that I can visit regularly and feel all snooty and superior.
But, for now, all I have are fond memories of what Blue Frog used to be, from their massive stage to those ugly Jughead’s-crown-hat-shaped seats to the condescending look the bartenders shot me when I asked for the cheapest item on the menu to the impeccable sound to the overcrowded outside-section where nothing actually ever happened. Here’s the thing: If you want to be remembered as an important gig venue in India, the best way to do it is to shut down. Blue Frog joins Rang Bhawan, Turquoise Cottage, Mezz, Rhazz, and a handful of others. It’s an illustrious list, one that’s been abused to death by nostalgic fuddy-duddies talkin’ ’bout the good ol’ days.
I find myself saying this each year, but festivals in India seem to be getting so fancy. Big names, each one trying to outdo the other, sophisticated production values, waste management graphics, safety, frills and novelty, ease of travel. It’s not just about the music; every single aspect of all the major indie festivals — the NH7 Weekender, Magnetic Fields, Mahindra Blues, Ziro — offers a special experience for its patrons (if you can look past the thousands of sponsor logos, that is). When did we get so professional and competent? Who the hell are all these people shaming our country?
Farewell, old friends. Image source: theatlantic.com
‘Check Ignition And May God’s Love Be With You’
When news of David Bowie dying in January began to circulate, it was a landmark moment. A hero of rock ‘n’ roll had passed away, days after the release of what turned out to be his final album, Blackstar. Bowie’s impact spanned decades and generations, and there was a collective outpouring of grief, setting the tone for what was to follow for the rest of the year. Sir George Martin, one of the people conferred with the prestigious/meaningless title of the “fifth Beatle”, died soon after. There was the shock at Prince’s sudden death. Leonard Cohen’s passing was another great tragedy, keeping obit writers busy. The most recent one is George Michael dying on Christmas, spawning thousands of emotional, imaginative, and totally unique messages about his “last Christmas”. Phife Dawg, Glenn Frey, Greg Lake, Nick Menza, and so many others, all masters who’ve been influential in the world of music, died this year. It’s been a sad year, and also one that makes you believe that curses are real.
‘For The Times They Are A-changing’
The one guy who didn’t die in 2016 is Bob Dylan. It was such a big relief that a committee decided to award him the goddamn Nobel Prize for it. Sure, there’s no prize for excellence in music, so they just decided to crowbar him into the literature category. This was naturally followed by heated debates about the legitimacy of such an award, both for and against the motion.
In the middle of all this, Dylan decided to be quite the cool cat by evading the committee’s phone calls, and then not attending the event even. The cherry on top was the stunning stop-start rendition of some Dylan song by Patti Smith at the ceremony commemorating this year’s winners.
I Am Jack’s Lack of Headphone Jack
Apple got rid of the headphone jack, paving the way for the future — which is apparently overpriced wireless Bluetooth headphones. My sources are telling me that their next laptop will come without a screen or an Enter key or a mousepad or a hard drive. There are rumours that it will just be a card machine, where you enter your debit card details every time you turn it on, and the money automatically gets deposited into Apple’s offshore accounts, and you get a free glow-in-the-dark sticker. (They will next sell stickers without the sticky side on the back as well.)
The Phoenix Rising
Let’s be rebels for a second and talk about something positive and uplifting. A lot of kneejerk obituaries had been written about the ‘album’ and how it doesn’t quite hold the same value in the digital age. Turns out that those proclamations, like literally everything else on the internet, were all a crock of shit. 2016 saw pretty much any and every artist of any note whatsoever release a new album (or die [or both]). Radiohead, Kanye West, Mogwai, Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, Rihanna, Nicolas Jaar, Leonard Cohen, Metallica, David Bowie, Frank Ocean, Bon Iver, Chance The Rapper, Swet Shop Boys, Run The Jewels, Iggy Pop. It’s a long list.
The musicians respected us — the listeners — trusting us to spend time with the music and absorb it. Which we did, and were duly rewarded.
I realise that with each passing year, it becomes easier to disregard contemporary music as dishonest or contrived, as the burden of cynicism on the shoulders of the listener gets heavier and heavier. That it was better in my time. But let’s leave out that tired narrative of pop music briefly and acknowledge that it’s been a great year for music (if not, unfortunately, for musicians).
How to / how not to promote a new album. Image source: oystermag.com
The Hype Machine
Making albums is one thing. But reaching enough, and the right kind of, listeners is a different proposition altogether. The conventional methods of promoting albums — singles, talk-show appearances, a music video, early reviews, a long profile in a major publication — are fast getting redundant. This year, musicians realised that they could interact directly with their fans through social media. Remember Kanye West babbling on incessantly and insufferably on Twitter about Swish, which later turned into The Life of Pablo? Obnoxious, yes, but also very exciting. And also hilarious.
Radiohead removing their entire digital footprint, one Facebook post and one Tweet at a time, was accompanied by a period of frantic over-analysis by the band’s famously obsessive fanbase (of which I’m very much a part), teasing fans by dropping obscure hints and little multimedia snippets before releasing an album within a week of announcing its existence. There was Kendrick Lamar’s surprise release; all the hoopla surrounding Lemonade by Beyonce; the mystery around Frank Ocean’s long-in-the-works Blonde; the rise of the visual album. The year was filled with novelty, as artists belatedly understood that to reach out to a large enough demographic in an age suffering (?) from an excess of media involves a little more than simply writing good music. There’s a need to engage, to stand out among the herd, to be the loudest baby crying on an airplane filled with toddlers, all for the greater purpose of having your music heard by people.
Even in India, where albums don’t offer much in terms of engagement or financial gain for artists (not that the patrons of indie music are cheap; not at all), it was heartening to see the sheer number of releases that came this year. They were patchy at times, exceptional at others, but there seems to be this insistence to put out recorded music by bands here either way.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101india.com
By Akhil Sood
Cover photo credit: telegraph.co.uk