‘Mojo’s’ Amusingly Pathetic 20 Most Important Artists of the Last 20 Years and the End of Cultural Conservatism

It feels somewhat redundant to blame a magazine for the taste of its readers, but it’s hard to believe that the editors of venerable UK music monthly Mojo didn’t feel at least a little uncomfortable at publishing the results of their readers’ poll on the 20 most important artists of the last 20 years. If you fancy a giggle, the results are here. Among the more impressive pieces of revisionism are the presence of precisely one black artist (Kanye West at #10), the fact that the White Stripes (#3) are apparently more “important” than Nirvana (#7) or Björk (#13), and the inevitable presence of noted 1990s and 2000s innovator Bob Dylan at #2. Sigh. Deep, deep sigh.

Clearly, “important” is a pretty subjective term: for these purposes, Mojo defined it as “acts who’ve influenced, the acts who’ve innovated, and a couple who have simply dominated.” The first of these criteria presumably explains the presence of Nick Drake (#19) and Jeff Buckley (#9), both of whom are, y’know, dead, while perhaps the third excuses the presence of Arcade Fire (#11) and U2 (#10). But as far as innovation goes? C’mon, people. You can amuse yourself thinking of artists who should have been on this list instead of Paul freaking Weller: Timbaland, Missy Elliott, The Neptunes, Tupac, Biggie, Dr Dre, RZA, J Dilla… and that’s just the hip hop types. Elsewhere, you could cite Aphex Twin, Richie Hawtin, Kathleen Hanna, Sonic Youth, The Knife, etc, etc, etc.

As I said, you can’t really hold a magazine responsible for its readers’ opinions, so the only reason I’m writing about this is that I think it’s illustrative of a couple of wider trends. The first, of course, is the tendency of the type of old white dudes who read magazines like Mojo to not so much have their heads in the sand as to retreat entirely into elaborate underground edifices that’d make your average ostrich shake its head in amazement and envy. It takes a special sort of tunnel vision to construct a view of the music that completely excludes the existence of vast swathes of our culture.

More generally, though, it’s illustrative of an interesting divide in popular music between what you might call high culture and low culture. When what we now know as rock ‘n’ roll emerged, of course, it was all considered lowbrow culture, in contrast to the refined sounds of classical music. In the decades since, it’s fractured into a million subgenres and catalyzed entirely new sounds, and it’s been around long enough to develop its own cultural conservatism, whereby old dudes venerate “classic” sounds and compare them badly to the terrible noise you hear on the radio these days.

To some extent, this is a trajectory that any cultural trend follows; jazz is now generally considered the preserve of highbrow types, but wind back the clock a few decades and it was the music you’d hear blasting from disreputable bars full of troublesome teens. For a large portion of any generation, a transition from neophilia to neophobia seems to be an inevitable consequence of aging. Suddenly, you’re older, you’ve got kids, you’re too tired to go out to shows or generally investigate new sounds, so you keep listening to the stuff you liked in your youth, and when you do happen to hear whatever the kids are listening to, it sounds confusing and mildly frightening. And suddenly you’re staring at culture across a divide.

The interesting thing is that I don’t think this divide goes both ways so much anymore. Or, in other words, high and low culture — as far as music goes, anyway — are converging again. Poptimism, a reaction to the sort of rockist conservatism that gives us lists like this one in Mojo, is pretty much a critical default these days.

More importantly, though, the way people consume and listen to music has changed drastically over the last decade or so, and it’s made a commensurately dramatic difference in the nature of audiences. For all that people occasionally like to scoff at how Kids These Days haven’t heard of OutKast or whatever else, I feel like they’re actually a whole lot more educated about music — both current trends and the sounds that spawned those trends — than my generation ever was.

Sure, kids still rebel against their parents, and part of doing so often involves rejection of the music your parents enjoy in favor of your own generation’s sounds. And sure, there will be those who decide that a certain genre is their personal salvation and listen to it at the expense of all others. But in general, it’s a whole lot easier to be versed in all sorts of culture than it’s ever been in the past, and the result is that there’s a cultural trend toward maximalist and genre-agnostic consumption of music, driven by the ubiquity of fast internet connections (and, y’know, file-sharing). This isn’t necessarily good news for musicians, but it does make for an audience with impressively broad tastes.

This diversification of taste is a process that started with the iPod generation and the slow decline of genre evangelism — even ten years ago, people were remarking at the wonder of how Kids Those Days might have a Britney Spears song and a Radiohead song on the same playlist! — and has only hastened with the arrival of Spotify and other such facilities for consumption. The result is that, hey, plenty of teen and early-20s types really know their shit — even if this fact is often met with incredulity from older people.

People have argued that this also encourages a more superficial engagement with music — the whole, “people just listen to singles and not albums any more” idea. But in truth, casual listeners have always just listened to singles, while obsessive types have always delved into albums and as much other material as they can find. And again, it’s far easier to do this than it used to be — you’re just as likely to be able to listen to your new interest’s entire back catalog on Spotify.

The point of all this is, I don’t know if, in 30 years’ time, whatever the equivalent of Mojo is will be so completely and hilariously out of touch with whatever’s going on in the world of music as the crew who decided that Bob Dylan was the second most important artist of the last 20 years. I might be completely wrong, of course. But I tend to think that the ubiquity of access to all manner of music — and all of culture, both new and old — is a force against cultural conservatism. And in this respect, at least, it’s a very good thing indeed.