It's obvious that history repeats itself, and any astute observer of popular music can tell you that every once in a while something remarkable happens that changes the face of popular music.
We've seen this phenomenon in the 50's with the advent of rock and roll. The late 60's, with it's changing mores and social unrest, brought us the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, psychedelic rock and lots of other great music. The economic decline of the late 70's and early 80's brought punk and new wave. And the angst of the early 90's brought us Nirvana and the grunge/alternative rock genre.
Therefore, i'll make a prediction. I predict that the next revolution in popular music will come within the next two years.
My basis for this claim? About two years ago, a writer for CMJ New Music Monthly wrote an article on the same subject. His theory was that there is roughly a 7 year gap between significant events in popular music. Although I think 7 years is a bit too short, the theory that it occurs every so often is one worth building on.
Another factor is that we are entering a period of economic downturn and potential social strife. The long period of relative economic prosperity that just ended has spawned a batch of sound-alike pop, rap, and metal bands. Artistic vision seems to thrive most in times of struggle. Witness the Vietnam war in the 60's, the economic downturns of the 70's and early 90's, and the Reagan-Bush policies of the 80's. All of these eras spawned a resurgence in underground pop culture and it's attendant effects on the mainstream. Even Marilyn Manson said as much when he proclaimed that he wanted Bush to be president: "I think music and all art really flourishes and becomes much more exciting under a conservative president because there's a need to react against limitations"
And going on my earlier claim that today's music is about the same as it was in 1989, the time period between 1989 and 1991 (the rise of grunge) was approximately two years.
So what will be the next big sound? It's hard to tell. No one anticipated that Nirvana would sell millions of albums in such a short time, nor did anyone think that punk bands would make the British charts and spawn a vibrant underground music scene. But whatever it may be, the next revolution in popular music will spring full-fledged from the underground. This should not be news to anyone who follows independent music.
Great bands aren't just "discovered" and signed to a record label by some sharp A&R guy. Truly great music gets recognised simply on it's own merit. Nirvana acheived success in that very manner. Even if the artist receives little recognition at the time, history will eventually recognize them. The Velvet Underground and Nick Drake sold far more albums after their time than they did when they existed.
Almost every significant revolution in popular music comes about when the sounds of the underground become the mainstream. This happened especially in the early 90's, when little-known bands such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, Janes Addiction, Green Day and others ushered in a sound that became the predominant form of popular music for the next few years. Even the legendary artists of the 60's came from a largely underground milieu, especially those from the psychedelic scene.
Baby boomers will assert that the music of the late 60's was the greatest, and that very little music since can compare to that time period. While there is no doubt that a lot of great music came from that short period in history, it is obvious that one tends to prefer music from whatever time period they grew up in.
I myself came of age in the early 90's and I've noticed the peculiar parallels between the late 60's and the early 90's, music-wise. Both covered relatively short periods of time (about 3 or 4 years), and came about during or on the heels of a war (Vietnam and the Persian Gulf). Both were sparked by the remarkable success of one band that wrote great, loud pop tunes (the Beatles and Nirvana). And both ended with Woodstock and the sudden deaths of it's most gifted musicians. Now while the original Woodstock culminated the 60's and it's "peace and love" ethos, Woodstock '94 culminated in the complete commercialization of what was briefly a vital and original movement in popular music. And both eras ended in toto with the deaths of Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Cobain, and the breakup of the Beatles and Nirvana.)
Unfortunately with such things, the allure of success and the glare of the public eye tends to water-down the music and it's meaning, until it eventually becomes another musical commodity to be bought and sold by the major label record industry. Inferior copycats are signed in droves, and eventually today's big sound becomes tomorrow's bargain-bin CD. But such resurgences in popular music provide a brief respite from the manufactured corporate rock we've gotten all too used to hearing. Many otherwise unknown or unrecognized bands get a shot at recognition or perhaps even stardom.
If anything, the next revolution in rock music may be along the lines of the punk era of the late 70's and early 80's. Although most observers place the end of the punk era with the breakup of the Sex Pistols, the fact is that punk expanded greatly as an underground movement throughout the 80's and is still active today. Bands like Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, Fugazi, Misfits, Black Flag and many others fueled an ethos that greatly influenced many bands that came afterward. Although punk didn't make a huge dent in the mainstream (unless you count pop punk like Green Day, Offspring and Blink 182), it's significance in the underground and it's vitality contributed much to the grunge and alternative movement of the early 90's. In fact, many artists who came to prominence in the early 90's were active for years in the 80's indie underground.
So perhaps there's hope yet that Generation Y (or whatever the hell they're calling them) will get their own Nirvana, Sex Pistols or Beatles, and rail against banal pop culture and suburban conformity. Although the underground never really stops creating great music, it too experiences occasional lulls in creativity. But before too long, the teenagers of today will be anxious to hear something new.