The Meaning of Muse: How a bombastic rock band explains our fracturing cultures

From Grantland:

As William Goldman once said, when it comes to pop culture prognosticating, nobody knows anything.

It is unwise for me to concede this. As a member of the shadowy, all-powerful cabal of manipulators and charlatans known as the entertainment media, this undermines my livelihood and sells out thousands of industry brethren in the process. I’m doing what Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli did to the male species on Gentlemen, only I’m less magnetic. And yet this statement seems so self-evident at this point that to deny it would require a lethal dose of delusion. We all know that the media has been decentralized in the past three decades and the audience has been carved up among countless, niche-oriented platforms. From a consumer perspective, this is mostly a big improvement. If it were still the bad old days, you wouldn’t be checking this website for pop culture coverage, because it wouldn’t exist. Instead, you’d be stuck with the lifestyle section of your local newspaper and forcing yourself to be interested in a story about Halloween decorating tips. The future is now, and it’s much more readable.

Among other unexpected consequences, the exponential increase in media choices has made our choices less meaningful. Choosing one thing doesn’t necessarily mean not choosing something else a little later on. Technology has allowed us to watch multiple TV shows that air on the same day and time. We can eventually get around to seeing every major Hollywood blockbuster from the summer if that sounds even remotely appealing. We can cherry-pick the best stories from dozens of publications without any single source being favored over the other. We might even prefer things that, in the old-media landscape, would have been depicted as being diametrically opposed to one another. Our heads are full of proverbial dogs and cats, living together in weird non-hysteria.

This is where it gets tricky if you’re in the business of predicting and analyzing “movements” in culture. In 2012, the biggest story being reported in the music media is the rise of EDM, also known as “electronic dance music” or simply “dance pop” or perhaps (depending on your perspective) “that untz-untz bullshit.” EDM has converged on the mainstream from the bottom up and the top down; it started as a grassroots movement of celebrity-averse DJs and illegal rave parties, and is now aggressively marketed by record labels and other corporate interests as the next big live-music trend. In February, Skrillex won three Grammy Awards,1 and in spring EDM’s biggest star generated largely noncritical, even fawning coverage from many of the most prominent music magazines and websites. In April, in a New York Times story about the explosion of EDM festivals like the Electric Daisy Carnival, Live Nation chief executive Michael Rapino declared that “if you’re 15 to 25 years old now, this is your rock ‘n’ roll.”

A couple of things: The phrase “your rock ‘n’ roll” in this context is supposed to mean “the latest form of youth music,” even though rock music hasn’t been the primary signifier of youth culture since (at least) the early ’90s. But Rapino’s point still stands: A lot of people in their teens and early twenties are going to EDM shows. (Which is very good for Michael Rapino.) What’s less clear (and probably less likely) is whether those people are only going to EDM shows. After all, there are practically large-scale rock-oriented festivals every week in the spring and summer, and it’s reasonable to assume that the group of people going to rock festivals isn’t completely separate from the group going to EDM festivals. Any event involving loud, visceral music and the possibility for a preponderance of drugs and/or alcohol and/or willing sexual prospects is going to be popular with the kids. EDM isn’t replacing anything; it’s simply another item on the menu. EDM might be your rock ‘n’ roll today; tomorrow, it might be Justin Bieber, it might be Taylor Swift, it might be Odd Future, it might even be an actual rock record. Or it might be all those things simultaneously, or none of those things simultaneously. Unless you’re some kind of militant entertainment separatist, there’s no need to be an “either/or” person anymore. We choose everything, and therefore choose nothing.

Looking ahead, it’s generally assumed that culture will continue to break down into an infinite series of hyper-specific subsets with finely detailed points of demarcation between micro-genres. But I wonder if we’re actually headed in the opposite direction, where genres will become so jumbled in our heads that they will cease to have meaning as distinctively different properties. Maybe all forms of pop music in the future will basically sound like the same nonsensical mess operating on its own sense of bizarre yet unerring inner logic; the only differences will be the headgear and footwear of the performers.2

If this is where we’re headed — a future where all music sounds like everything at once — the only rock band that appears at all prepared is Muse.

Continue reading the rest of the story on Grantland