Recession sessions

Can bad economic times really lead to better music? <em>Time Out</em> investigates

Near the Space Needle in Seattle, USA, the Experience Music Project sits like a massive pile of Xmas-morning refuse – a wad of tinsel and gaudy metallic prints. Started by Microsoft’s Paul Allen and designed by Frank Gehry, the museum opened in 2000 as an impressionist temple to rock ’n’ roll. If ever there was a relic of bygone economic good fortune, it’s the EMP. Nine years since its construction, it’s hard to imagine people purchasing physical album releases, let alone constructing a 140,000-square-foot ode to guitar noise. Which might explain why, in 2004, the space became the co-home of the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame.

So it was a little ironic to hear EMP curator and music historian Eric Weisbard on New York Public Radio last October, discussing the correlation between poor economies and great music. It’s a theory that has popped up frequently in places like Shelby Lynne’s Huffington Post blogs ( and’s New Year’s Day post predicting the end of ‘credit bubblegum’ pop among others as cultural folk look for a silver lining in plummeting markets.

Weisbard explained that hard times lead to ‘more compelling music’. In his estimation, recessions spur a ‘national convulsion against pop music’ when ‘images of the working class’ are an easier sell. To boot, two months later, in December 2008, lifestyle columnist Christina Binkley ran a piece in The Wall Street Journal on the rise of beards in bleak eras. If there’s anything that proliferates with certainty in tough markets, it’s essays marking the trends of tough markets.

Frankly, the notion that our financial problems will usher in another renaissance on the pop charts is hogwash. Data can be bent to suit any hypothesis. The two go-to examples in Weisbard’s postulation are punk and grunge, two loud and angsty movements that sprouted while people waited in line for gas or fought in the Persian Gulf to prevent such queues. The Sex Pistols and Nirvana burst onto the scene in 1977 and 1991, respectively. Yet check out the UK and US top 10s from those years: Rod Stewart, Andy Gibb, Barbra Streisand, Bryan Adams, C+C Music Factory, Color Me Badd and Paula Abdul.

Furthermore, the highest unemployment rate in the USA since World War II came in late ’82, just as slick synth pop, schmaltzy sax solos and hair metal exploded. Of course, all of this musical assessment is completely subjective. Kurt Cobain and Johnny Rotten reacted more to Poison and Pink Floyd than the price index. Now we’re back to Mickey Rourke bemoaning Nirvana and spitting ‘the ’90s sucked’ in The Wrestler. Critics reviled disco, massively popular throughout the slumps of the late ’70s and early ’80s, before succumbing to its merit. In 2003, boogie-woogie fever even got its own exhibit, Disco: A Decade Of Saturday Nights, at the EMP, right across the building from a concurrent Nirvana tribute.

The fact is that music both gilded and crap is constantly being produced. A steady stream of bad news, internationally and personally, flows eternally to inspire musicians. Rock scribes’ savoured scenes and genres, such as hip-hop, Seattle fuzz-rock, mod, trip-hop, DC hardcore and Baltimore art, were born of specific micro-economic conditions – cheap Wicker Park real estate, miners’ strikes, housing projects, etc – if any. And as UK paper The Guardian noted last October, AC/DC have a knack for hitting the top of the charts in recessions. We’d be unlikely to find a consensus that this is a good thing.

Besides, after all the depressing monetary news of the last few months, Lil Wayne’s ‘Got Money’ rubs our noses in the rapper’s success, while Lady GaGa asks us to ‘Just Dance’. Pop stars dominate, and until Britney Spears lines up for stale bread, it’s unrealistic to expect her to reflect reality or to count on the major labels to go looking for Tom Joad troubadours.

Our last great economic boom coincided with the proliferation of the internet (take your pick: at the peak of both Radiohead and boy-band popularity), and the web’s Babel-like power just might be another obstacle to a cultural transformation. Because of new media, pop culture has splintered; everything is popular somewhere with someone. We’re past the days of sweeping, united societal trends, be they facial hair or hard riffs. Sorry, a revolution of the top 40 may not be in store, but take heart – there’s something out there in the world to move you, and it’s easier than ever to find it free, right now. No longer need we fly into Seattle airport to experience brilliant music. Which is good. We can’t afford it.

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