I had the opportunity last weekend to catch a performance by Graham Parker, one of my favorite pub-wave acts, right here in Minneapolis. (If you don’t know Parker’s work, I recommend starting with Stick to Me and Squeezing Out Sparks, late-70s offerings made with the help of unofficial Stiff Records house band, The Rumour.) He played tunes in what seemed like a pretty even distribution from throughout his career, all superb, but I don’t think I’d be zooming him to suggest that his older numbers were received with even greater warmth than his newer ones got. Surely this is par for the course with rockers of a certain vintage: Given the generational asymmetry that characterizes the consumption and imprinting, so to speak, of pop music—which I imagine we could quantify if we had the right market data in front of us—it shouldn’t be surprising that a rock musician’s early material holds a special value to fans who associate that music with late adolescence and early adulthood. As this crossed my mind during Parker’s set, I entertained a thought that only someone in the field of contemporary music would entertain: What if he had stopped writing songs in 1985? What if he had played a set of old tunes and suitable covers, excluding new material altogether?
Indulge me in a thought-experiment. Let’s assume, even though we know it’s a gross oversimplification, that the value of a piece of popular music rests solely in how much it’s loved by the people who love it—in other words, how highly it’s regarded by genuine fans. After two to four records, then, it follows that songwriting suffers from diminishing returns: Our hypothetical rocker would be better served to keep playing his older songs and, importantly, the older songs of other songwriters. The “standard repertoire” of postwar Anglophone pop music—which, if you think about it, starts off compact and becomes diffuse as the decades tick past—would begin to consolidate itself. A rich possibility-space of interpretation would open up.
But this rather neat setup doesn’t take into account the mechanisms of production and consumption that set the real value of pieces of popular music with no direct regard for how much the fans love them. If pop musicians played and recorded nothing but covers and older chestnuts, how could they make a living? The entire economy of pop music would have to change radically to bring about this wonderland of covers and classics. But I like to daydream about it, because I think it would avail pop music of one of small-C classical music’s most fascinating potentials—the possibility that a particular rendition of a song could be at once the same as another rendition and different from it.