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“Everything Has Changed”–A Rock Lifer Looks Back

During his 35 years as pop music critic for the Los Angeles Times, Robert Hilburn saw rock mutate from countercultural force to mass artform to the fantastically indescribable thing it is now. During that time he had the chance to talk at length with artists who lived through and exemplified those changes, a diverse group that includes Johnny Cash, Kurt Cobain, and Jack White. Those experiences, and others, are recounted in Hilburn's new memoir, Cornflakes With John Lennon (Rodale), due out October 13.

Speaking from his home in Sherman Oaks, California, I chatted with Hilburn about the massive shifts he's seen shake the music world.

Boomers and Gen X and Yers: prepare to agree to disagree with what the dude has to say.

What do you think has been the biggest change in the music industry since you started writing about music?

Everything has changed. The American Idol-ization of the music business is probably the biggest thing. Someone at a record company told me recently that you can count on the major labels breaking four or five acts every year--and three of those are going to come from American Idol. That might be a terrific show but I think it's been bad for pop music. Great artists have a hard time getting exposure because radio and television aren't geared towards them anymore. The net effect is that the good artists are underexposed. The mass public isn't aware of them like they were in the '60s and '70s.

But as long as great artists are still making music, why should we care how famous they are relative to the contestants from American Idol?

When I started writing in the '70s, there was a sense that people really looked to Dylan and Joni Mitchell and the Beatles; that they were important on a wide scale. That feeling helps the artists. It's good for them to have a supportive audience and one that wants them to grow. Artists like those I mentioned had a sense that they were changing the world. I think that's different today. I thought Jack White was the next great thing after Kurt Cobain--had the charisma and the talent and the message--but he's frustrated that he can't get the attention of a mass audience. In the '60s, '70s, and early '90s, great artists like the White Stripes, Arcade Fire, and Conor Oberst would've been huge. Instead people are celebrating Kelly Clarkson.

Do you think that a kid today who loves Conor Oberst is less passionate than a kid from 40 years ago who loved Dylan?

Oh no. I'm talking in generalities. I'm just saying that music is not as important to people overall. It's competing with video games, MySpace, and Twitter as a tool for bonding. Rock 'n' roll isn't really needed as a social network. But I still think the kid who is really into Conor Oberst has just as strong a connection to that artist as a kid who loved Jackson Brown in the '70s. The love is still there, but it's a much smaller scale.

Who have you seen since Jack White that you think has the potential for greatness?

The one record I really like right now is the Avett Brothers' I And Love And You (American). I really think there's greatness in this record. It reminds me of the Band a little bit. That's my latest joy.

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