I’m Not Saying Modern Music Sucks, But …

From time to time, I am given the task of training probationary police officers fresh out of the academy. It will surprise no-one to learn my probes wind up learning about a lot more than just policing.

If you ride in my car and I’m training you, I  have one steadfast rule: my car, my music. If I’m going to spend several weeks walking you through Policing 101 (and doing the mountain of paperwork that comes with it), then I deserve a little something for the effort. And so, my young and eager pups learn both the importance of “tactical distance” during traffic stops AND the music of Jazz Sunday.

I recently adopted a new trainee, and we’re getting to know each other. Luckily, he’s a bright kid, eager to learn and willing to follow instruction. He has also managed to get through a couple of days worth of music from beyond, if you will, and has done so with a  bit of enthusiasm.

Having noticed my penchant for “music not of the radio,” my young charge asked me what seemed like a simple question: Are there any contemporary commercial artists I enjoy? “You mean artists on the radio?” I asked, to which he confirmed. I took a moment to mull over the question. And then I took another moment. And another. Before I knew it, I had taken TWO DAYS to consider my answer.

I had nothing. I couldn’t come up with a single artist. I STILL can’t.

The last time I took my cues from commercial radio — and that music actually consistently found its way into my collection — was in the 1990s, when the “Alternative” movement was running full-throttle. Sure, I liked the “Grunge” acts like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden, but I also dug Radiohead and Tool in a big way. I was all set to use these bands as the answer to the question. But then I realized many of those acts came to the fore nearly 30 years ago! They would be of no help.

Now I’ve given up being one of those old fogies who spends his time grumbling, “There’s no good new music out there any more,” because I know that’s not true. There’s plenty of good new music out there. Problem is, almost none of it is one the radio. Beyonce and Jay-Z release a new album, and I shrug. Lady Gaga? Pink? I’ll pass. The only radio station I can tolerate for an extended period is our local Alternative station, KPNT. And even they are sounding more and more like a Top 40 station every day. I rarely go more than three songs without having an overwhelming urge to change the station.

Modern commercial music simply doesn’t reach me. In their never-ending quest to make a hit, modern bands (to say nothing of their labels and producers) have taken pandering to all-time lows. I prefer a band aiming to generate art over hits. And yes, I feel like I can tell the difference. To say nothing of remembering what Adrian Belew taught me: “Most good songs are not hits,” he said. “And most hits are not good songs.” Sublime. And highly accurate.

Sure Christina Aguilera has a powerful singing voice, but I much prefer the voice of Courtney Swain and Bent Knee:

Why would I concern myself with Greta Van Fleet when I already have Led Zeppelin? That’s just redundant. I did buy a CD from Royal Blood a couple of years ago. I think I’ve played it twice. I don’t hate the album. It just failed to hold my interest any longer. Maybe I’ll come back around to it some day. Or maybe not.

I’m still trying to figure out how or why Tool hasn’t sued Seether for lifting one of Tool’s more popular licks and turning it into a new song. Don’t believe me? Well, listen to this:

Now tell me the main riff from that song doesn’t sound just. Like. THIS:

As my guys on ESPN would say, “C’MON, man!!!”

My teenage daughter has tried to expose me to the likes of Twenty-One Pilots, Panic! At the Disco, and other “emo” bands like them. Meh. I can take it in short doses. But they don’t excite me. I guess I went through my emo phase with bands like The Cure, Joy Division, and Depeche Mode.

Modern hip-hop is lost on me. I miss the days of Public Enemy and KRS-One, when rappers were not only entertaining, they were teaching. These days, all I can hear is a bunch of non-sensical babble about stuff I couldn’t care less about. There is one HIGHLY notable exception, however. That goes to Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” one of the most stunning hip-hop songs I’ve ever heard. But even this tune needs a video to truly drive its point home, which it does in powerful fashion:

And even with all that, I’m not in a hurry to buy it.

I’d like to be enthusiastic about modern commercial music. But I refuse to be pandered or talked down to, musically. I prefer to be challenged and mentally stimulated. My friend Abbi Telander pointed out that my kind of music can be simple, but it is never simplistic. I get much more excited to see and hear a band like Grizzly Bear, who have clearly put a great deal of thought into their music, while keeping it commercially appealing. Not that commercial radio has really noticed.

Rhianna? No, thank you. She’s a fine entertainer, but when I’m ready for a powerful female voice, my mind and ears go directly to Rhiannon Giddens, who melts my musical heart every single time.

I suppose the closest I can come to answering my young charge’s question is to profess my enjoyment of Jack White’s solo releases, even if he has been around for some time via the White Stripes. I was never a huge fan of that band, but what White has been doing since those days continues to turn my head and perk up my ears. I would have been happy to see him on his last tour had the show not been in a basketball arena. I really, really HATE big rooms. Instead, I sit at home and relish a sound that rocks my socks, gives me the blues, and takes me to church, often at the same time.

So I guess that’s the answer, kid. I like Jack White, even though I only hear him sporadically on the radio.

I understand when people view me as a musical snob. Hell, I embrace it! And believe me when I tell you that Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and Rhianna aren’t the least bit concerned about me not liking their music. I’m sure they cry all the way to the bank, as Liberace once said. Let’s just say we have all taken on a “live and let listen to something else” approach to modern music.

I’ve said all that to say this: I won’t say modern music sucks, but it doesn’t do much for me.

And I don’t see that changing any time soon.


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My new book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book outlets.


  1. A lot of this is things I think and feel as well. Commercial radio drives me crazy pretty quickly for a few reasons… annoying DJs, puny playlists and well… commercials. Thankfully, there are still a handful of great listener-supported stations out there, and the internet makes them more accessible than ever. I’m in the Seattle area, so I pretty much follow KEXP. But I don’t live in the city (can’t afford to), so reception is spotty for those weak-signal listener-supported operations. Now, I can just listen to the app when the radio signal is bad.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. …funny…watched an old episode of “Classic Albums” over the weekend…Deep Purple’s Machine Head was the topic. Going back to what Adrian said about hits, none of the members of Deep Purple felt “Smoke on the Water” was all that good – very simple riff, typical 4/4 beat…nothing special at all and definitely not the best song on the album….but it has become one of the most well known riffs/songs in Rock history.

    Just goes to show how everyone interprets music in a different way…one mans Rembrandt is another mans garbage…and since art is in the eye of the beholder, who’s to say who’s right but the person listening?

    Personally, I’m with you regarding new music..not a lot of new ideas / sounds / songs coming out now in the Rock/Alt Rock genre…but I felt that way 15-ish years ago and then Porcupine Tree released “In Absentia”, so I know there’s hope…it’s just getting harder to find these gems in the vastness that is now the music industry

    Liked by 1 person

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