Today, a new CD struggles to attract a focused target group of urban college aged men or 30 year old suburban housewives, but nothing approaches the mass audience of Thriller and its progeny a quarter century ago. We are instead in the age of choice, where my love for classic Philadelphia or Detroit soul vocal groups can be satisfied 24/7 and in an exclusive fashion. Not only can I ignore fringe or temporal acts like Maktub or Arcade Fire, I don't even have to waste my time on the biggest stars of the era such as Kanye West or Maroon 5. Instead I can focus exclusively on what I already know I like, as I listen to XM in the car on the way home to plug in my iPod.
If music serves a cultural purpose, if there really is a message in the music (good or bad), the big issue is the price we pay for gratifying our insular tastes at all times. While the purveyors of profanity-laced or violent music love to argue that music simply reflects the culture, the true power of music is its ability to shape culture. The 60s and 70s illustrate this point. Music's power at one end advanced racial equality and changed public sentiment against a no-win war in Southeast Asia. At the other end it healed culture's open wounds by singing that "Love's In Need of Love Today" and "You've Got A Friend." We understood these together. What would we have lost if Curtis Mayfield or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had instead been narrowcast to only their most obvious audiences?
Pop radio, while imperfect (political messengers like Mayfield were often forced to become more opaque to get airplay), was one of the great methods of mass communication during the last century. Even beyond the question of its political effect, popular music served to unify, or at a minimum provide the common language that spanned races, genders and ages.
I love what the Internet has made possible - infinite choice and information available for my satisfaction 24/7. But I also miss the experience of a song or album transcending barriers of race, class, gender and age. Maybe such a thing is still possible with the right song and/or artist. I prefer to think it is - despite much evidence to the contrary.