Music News

Dookie and the Peak of Profitable Cheap Plastic, Not Music or Culture

One of the things I like most about New Times Music Editor Martin Cizmar is disagreeing with him. We've had some fun arguments and discussions on music, culture, the role of the press and even Eazy E.

Which is why I felt compelled to write this post completely and unequivocally disagreeing with his latest column "An Ode To 1994: Green Day's Dookie and the Peak of Western Civilization."

Dookie, while a milestone, was not in any way the peak of Western Civilization. It was the peak of one specific physical product: the CD. It was the right record in the right place and right time. To understand why it was a huge success one has to look at the context. It came out as the CD format was finally becoming the universal standard music format, after slowly building for over a decade. It was not until the early 90s that this was cemented as the standard. Before that, there had been a long and confusing transition from record to cassette tape to CD.

Today we are going through a similar transition in media. In the 90s there was one way to consume music, the way the big labels forced you to, and there was one price you paid, the price they told you. Today there are an infinite number of ways one can consume and interact with music. When Dookie came out you bought and then listened to the CD and maybe you started a band in your garage and played bad covers of "Longview." That was the only way one interacted with the album and everyone did it. With one neatly-scaled product the profits were astronomical. The reason sales numbers are so impressive is they represented every interaction with that album in one neat number. 

Today we have options. We can buy the single on Guitar Hero, we can download the song we like from bit torrent and make our own mash-ups and remixes, we can buy those old CDs or we can cherry pick the tracks on iTunes and take it with us on our iPhone or stream the video online, and we can even buy an old fashioned 45.

Its now hard, if not impossible, for the media to measure the successes of one record against the next. Nine Inch Nails can release an album for free on their website and be the number on one seller on Amazon for the year and yet not be anywhere near the top of Billboard. Radiohead had one of the most culturally significant albums of the year (if not the decade) last year, but looking at the same charts that tell us how important Dookie was and you will not find it anywhere to be seen. Its hard to say that Dookie is more significant than In Rainbows, and, unfortunately, we no longer have the metrics to tell us how popular a record is. In '94 there was one metric and every reporter and music critic knew how to read it. Today Susan Boyle can be a worldwide phenomenon for three-and-a-half seconds, but will she have the staying power of a Girl Talk who has yet to have a hit and most mainstream reporters have yet to even hear of? Will she be discussed in six months, let alone six decades?

We are watching a fundamental shift in culture that has already changed us more in the last nine years than all the changes from the 60s to the 90s. It took Radio 38 years to hit 50 million listeners, TV took 13 years to hit that milestone, and in a nine month period Facebook added 100 million users, and it took only nine months for Apple to sell one BILLION iPhone apps. So far this decade in our spare time we have compiled the worlds knowledge into over 13 million articles on Wikipedia, and most studies have shown did a more accurate job that traditional printed encyclopedias. Independent freelance bloggers have been responsible for breaking some of the biggest news stories of the decade where the traditional media missed them (like the firing of the U.S. Attorneys by Gorge W Bush, or a Baseball statistician doing better primary predictions than any news network). In the 70s we had two paid reporters trying to break the story of Watergate, today we have an army of individuals breaking stories daily that would have never come to life in the 90s. In Iran we are still witnessing what could become a pro democratic revolution that so far has been relatively peaceful and was entirely made possible by social media and the Internet. We still have to wait and see how Iran fairs in the coming months to know how much impact twitter will have on world history, I hope it irreversibly changed it for the world for the better. And just last year we watched a black man with a funny name raise $650 Million in his campaign to become President, a far large total than any politically connected white man had ever done before him and it mostly came from online donations of less than $200 from individuals who had never donated to a campaign before. In the 90's teenagers watched Bill Clinton on MTV, last year teenagers donated money and created their own online videos to spread Obamas message online despite not being old enough to vote for him themselves.

In the 90's people wore plad, drank Starbucks and got day jobs. In the first decade of the new millennium an individual in Montana can challenge the accuracy of a speech of a sitting president, help fight for democracy in foreign repressive régime, or share and create their own art with children in China, all with out leaving their home. All of this has been accomplished by those of us who had to learn how to work these tools as we watched the tools we knew as kids fall apart around us. Many of us still have not adapted to the death of the CD even thought CDs started their decline in 2001. There is a whole generation of kids who knew how to do these things when they were eight, no one ever had to tell them what they could do with these tools because they new before we did. Right now they still might be reading about Hanna Montana on Perez Hilton (not like Backstreet Boys were any better), but in a few years they will grow out of it and they will have a deeper knowledge of these tools than we ever will.

I cannot wait to see what the next generation does with the tools they have inherited this decade. When these kids hit maturity they will blow anything Nirvana, The Beatles, Elvis or  Green Day ever did out of the water. They will not ask our permission, they will not ask for our help or ever try and "get discovered," they will just do it on their own. I don't know who will do it, or where they will be in the world, but I know they will do it.

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Stephen Chilton