On Feb. 9, 1964, the Beatles played on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Or as Steven Van Zandt remembers the moment: "It was the beginning of my life."
Van Zandt fell for the Beatles and discovered the blues and early rock music that inspired them. He played in a series of bands on the Jersey shore, and when a friend wanted to draw on his encyclopedic blues knowledge for a song called "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," Van Zandt wound up as a guitarist for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
The 1970s were a great moment for musical integration. Artists like the Rolling Stones and Springsteen drew on a range of musical influences and produced songs that might be country-influenced, soul-influenced, blues-influenced or a combination of all three. These mega-groups attracted gigantic followings and can still fill huge arenas.
But cultural history has pivot moments, and at some point toward the end of the 1970s or the early 1980s, the era of integration gave way to the era of fragmentation. There are now dozens of niche musical genres where there used to be this thing called rock. There are many bands that can fill 5,000-seat theaters, but there are almost no new groups with the broad following or longevity of the Rolling Stones, Springsteen or U2.
People have been writing about the fragmentation of American music for decades. Back in the Feb. 18, 1982, issue of Time, Jay Cocks wrote that American music was in splinters. But year after year, the segmentation builds.
Last month, for example, Sasha Frere-Jones wrote an essay in The New Yorker noting that indie rock is now almost completely white, lacking even the motifs of African-American popular music. Carl Wilson countered in Slate that indie rock's real wall is social; it's the genre for the liberal-arts-college upper-middle class.
Technology drives some of the fragmentation. Computers allow musicians to produce a broader range of sounds. Top 40 radio no longer serves as the gateway for the listening public. Music industry executives can use market research to divide consumers into narrower and narrower slices.
But other causes flow from the temper of the times. It's considered inappropriate or even immoral for white musicians to appropriate African-American styles. And there's the rise of the mass educated class.
People who have built up cultural capital and pride themselves on their superior discernment are naturally going to cultivate ever more obscure musical tastes. I'm not sure they enjoy music more than the throngs who sat around listening to Led Zeppelin, but they can certainly feel more individualistic and special.
Van Zandt grew up in one era and now thrives in the other, but how long can mega-groups like the E Street Band still tour?
"This could be the last time," he says.
He argues that if the Rolling Stones came along now, they wouldn't be able to get mass airtime because there is no broadcast vehicle for all-purpose rock. And he says that most young musicians don't know the roots and traditions of their music. They don't have broad musical vocabularies to draw on when they are writing songs.
As a result, much of their music (and here I'm bowdlerizing his language) stinks.
He describes a musical culture that has lost touch with its common roots. And as he speaks, I hear the echoes of thousands of other interviews concerning dozens of other spheres.
It seems that whatever story I cover, people are anxious about fragmentation and longing for cohesion. This is the driving fear behind the inequality and immigration debates, behind worries of polarization and behind the entire Obama candidacy.
If you go to marketing conferences, you realize we really are in the era of the long tail. In any given industry, companies are dividing the marketplace into narrower and more segmented lifestyle niches.
Van Zandt has a way to counter all this, at least where music is concerned. He's drawn up a high school music curriculum that tells American history through music. It would introduce students to Muddy Waters, the Mississippi Sheiks, Bob Dylan and the Allman Brothers. He's trying to use music to motivate and engage students, but most of all, he is trying to establish a canon, a common tradition that reminds students that they are inheritors of a long conversation.
And Van Zandt is doing something that is going to be increasingly necessary for foundations and civic groups. We live in an age in which the technological and commercial momentum drives fragmentation. It's going to be necessary to set up countervailing forces — institutions that span social, class and ethnic lines.
Music used to do this. Not so much anymore.
c.2007 New York Times News Service