Music fans are fond of thinking about the past. Ask anyone. We like to go dewy-eyed over some decade or year which we would give anything to have lived through, and which the present ‘just cannot compare with’. But whilst we might have access to the music from those years, we don’t have the experience. What it means to us – and how we consume it – is different to what it meant to those who listened to it in the years when it was released. Nostalgia is a powerful force in music, but it will never be as good as the experience itself.
If it had not been for the pandemic, 2021 probably wouldn’t have held much musical esteem. We live in an epoch where the defining character of music is its extreme lack of character, splintered and decentralised as it is by the internet. It was a trend that was only set to continue in the 2020s, not marking an end to good music but instead fragmenting it in such a way that it ceased to be recognisable, at least compared to the more coherent genre structures of decades gone by.
Hand in hand with this strange homogenisation of the countless spectrum of heterogeneous music genres is the fact that a lot of recent music is less ‘in the moment’ than that which came before. In the past, iconic and mould-breaking genres – and I use the term purely as a simple umbrella – could be identified. What’s more, they could be linked to serious political and social changes, providing a context both for the creation of that music and for explaining why it had such dramatic effects upon vast groups of people.
We are a generation that is more self-aware and inter-connected than any before – something which we are painfully aware of!
It is perhaps a good thing nowadays that music is no longer discernible as something divided and linear. It is perfectly normal for someone to be at once a fan of Kanye West, Phoebe Bridgers, Black Midi, and Taylor Swift – although it might turn into a headache. Before, music could perhaps be looked upon as existing in a duality, with the sound itself and the context from which it came making up the experience of listeners. But now, the internet has done away with such binary notions. All recorded music and information are up for grabs, and it is no surprise that we cannot even begin to comprehend that – hence the gen-z existentialism.
One way we can consider older music is through zeitgeists, the trends and movements that ‘define’ each musical generation. However, any zeitgeist in music that we can identify now is broader. It is more impactful and can often easily blend in with the ‘genres’ that appropriate it, and it can be challenging to properly identify it.
Often such massive forces are only properly identified in retrospect. However, we can now say for sure that the 2021 zeitgeist will have some link to the pandemic. COVID hasn’t just shaped how music is being released, made, and consumed, but it has also laid the groundwork for a far more meaningful and deep-seated listening experience unique to a generation of internet natives.
The musical zeitgeist of the 2020s will be nothing like the sea changes of punk or hip hop that came before it in terms of its physical and immediate impact on us. It will, however, prove to have a far more meaningful effect in the longer term, especially when we look back upon this year. After all, we are a generation that is more self-aware and inter-connected than any before – something which we are painfully aware of!
Our musical experience of 2021 – a year of pandemic – is unique to each one of us.
Zeitgeists are still separate from the real thing though, being products of nostalgia and retrospect most of the time. Context, then, is as important in experiencing music as the sound and quality of the music itself. How else to explain the disdain or embarrassment many of us now hold for artists we once listened to? Or, in reverse, how much we cherish them now as sonic windows to simpler times? In some ways, this leaves us with remarkably little choice over what music we like – it depends upon so much. Albums or tracks which once hit the spot might suddenly sound jarring or immature, and songs that may harm a reputation for good taste might become guilty pleasures stowed away for secret listening.
It may also mean that some songs exist that you prefer not to listen to, skipping them and erasing the moment as if they don’t exist. For years after a close relative died, my brother and I would always skip one particular song that coincidentally bore her name. It became an unconscious act, one I only realised I was doing when I was in the car with people who were not my brother. Music that gets us through hard times in one stage of life may become unpalatable within a space of months.
Our musical experience of 2021 – a year of pandemic – is unique to each one of us. How we remember it is more dependent upon our future selves than now. It may be something we look back upon with fondness or that we attempt to jettison, both from our minds and our playlists. For me, 2021 was something of a musical awakening. In part, it was because some amazing albums were released – but that only shaped the tip of the iceberg that was my listening experience. The pandemic might have taken away a lot but in some ways, it has given me something that can now never be taken away. Whether I feel the same way in the future though, who can say?