I’m sure I’ve written about this before: how all of us tie in our musical taste with our formative teenage years. Whatever we loved at that time becomes “our music,” and many of us go through our lives either never truly listening to any other kind of music, or thoroughly convinced that everything that has come and gone since has sucked in comparison.
Well, most of what has come and gone since then has sucked in comparison. Not all, but a hefty cross section of what gets lauded today as good music tends to be mediocre, derivative nonsense that’s a shadow of the influences it emulates. I don’t need to hear another hipster band from Brooklyn, or Portland, or Austin, with synthesizers doing a poor, poor job of trying to be the Human League. Or a female singer-songwriter singing in that horribly clipped, faked voice that sounds light years away from 70s singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell or Carole King, who seemed to have more talent in their little fingers than this whole scene put together. (For the record, I like Thao Nguyen, that song in particular, but hold her accountable for that horribly phoney vocal phrasing I've heard countless times in the wake of her success. Actually Jolie Holland was the first time I heard this, long before Thao. I like her, too, but that affectation wears on me, man.)
And anything new that has come along, rap/hip-hop for instance … well you can see the wheels of hype forever turning on the trend, as they have decades previously. I will never understand why so many people still feel the need to hype The Beatles, 40 years later. If it’s not obvious to non-fans why they were great, let it go. If something truly is great, there’s no need to hype it, just let it be, so to speak.
I recently got into this issue to a small extent on a musical buddy’s website regarding the new McCartney album which, as expected, is sort of OK, not really bad, but light years from McCartney in his 60s/70s prime. As requested by a few folks on the site, this guy threw together a post-80s McCartney mix featuring his better tracks … and I have to admit, it was pretty damn good. That’s how I’ve been digesting a legend like McCartney since those days: recognizing each album will have at least two or three gems on it, and these pile up over the years.
I realized the same with Paul Westerberg a few years ago when I started wading through his luke-warm solo albums that under-sold in the 90s, and seemed to have caused him to spend the rest of his recording career hiding out in his basement. Whole albums, eh, a lot of filler. But the best from each pulled together, excellent, still has it, undoubtedly. And I’m not kidding myself, those legendary Replacement albums had some serious down time, the difference being Westerberg made his bones with those albums and hit his peaks with the best of those songs. There’s plenty he did afterwards still on that level: I’ve always been particularly fond of this song, remember hearing it weeks in advance of release date at Sounds on St. Marks Place in New York, walking up to the counter, asking if this was the new Westerberg album, the slacker clerk muttering yeah, man, I’m not digging it, I’ll sell it to ya’ for five bucks, just a promo in a cardboard sleeve, man. I dug it, to say the least.
But the main issue I got into with some folks there was this generational thing, with me chafing at that “Baby Boomers blowing their own horn” phenomenon that I’ve been hearing since, really, about 1972. Probably the first time I dug “Crocodile Rock” in the presence of an older rock fan and have that person scoff and say, “This is utter crap compared to the 60s.”
That song probably wasn’t a good place to make a point, but it was no more or less frilly than many 60s pop hits, and just as catchy, to boot. Many of us have come to realize over the decades that the 70s were pretty damn good, too, in any number of ways. This was not necessarily recognized as such at the time. New wave, for how legendary it has become, was a “new wave” at the time and met with a fair level of disdain by the old guard.
A good snapshot of this is Paul Simon’s movie One Trick Pony (fast forward to 10:35 in this clip if you find the whole thing too long) where he plays Jonas, an ageing 60s pop/rock artist (who struck gold as a folkie in the 60s, much like Simon himself) struggling through the late 70s world of clubs and small theaters. At a show at the Agora Ballroom in Cleveland, he opens for The B-52s to middling response (despite having a legendary collection of 70s session players with him, all of whom played on his hit albums in real life at the time). When he leaves the stage, crossing path with The B-52s looking young, vibrant, weird and light years away from his sincere “take me as I am” approaching middle-age artist, it’s clear he doesn’t “get it” with these guys, especially when they take the stage to thunderous applause and launch into one of their quirky numbers. (For the record, I’ll bet anything that Simon was a B-52s fan and thought having them in the movie would provide the best visual illustration of the “changing of the guard” vibe so many 60s artists experienced while still trying to have careers in the 70s.)
I spent the 70s being told that “my music” wasn’t as good as theirs. And it surely didn’t make me hate 60s music – if anything, I loved it, as so much of it still was being played all day long on AOR stations (where I lived, WMMR and WYSP from Philly, and WZZO from Allentown), and where I got a serious musical education hearing The Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, etc. (And unfortunately within the increasingly rigid, marketed playlists, never heard stuff like The Move or The Small Faces until much later in life, mainly because these bands never hit it as big in America.) I couldn’t refute them … this was great music.
But I always chafed against that generational pride … still do, as a few folks over on that web site can tell you! I try not to pawn it off on generations that have followed mine. If I find something deficient in their music, I explain exactly why – it’s deficient more often than not because it’s derivative of what I was listening to in the 70s and 80s, and I can point them directly to bands these newer bands are trying to emulate. Whether they choose to follow-up or not is irrelevant to me. And I don’t hate these new bands – frankly, I love the idea that they’re smart enough to go back and find these cool influences from previous generations. I only wish they were better at not just emulating them, but somehow making them their own, like so many of those legendary 60s bands did with all those disparate musical influences swirling around the culture that decade.
Many of those 70s new-wave artists were simply emulating what came before them. The B-52 clearly had a deep respect for kitschy 50s and 60s clothing and hair, that big twangy guitar sound that folks like Link Wray and Duane Eddy heralded in. I could understand if older fans of those two artists were to say, “Screw The B-52s, Duane Eddy was better.” The thing is, that wasn’t all The B-52s brought to the table. Interesting lyrics, a sense of oddness and fun that most 60s artists never had … they knew what they were doing. Whether we’re talking them, or The Cramps (who successfully mined much the same territory, only darker), or The Ramones, each brought more to the game than their influences. And I can honestly say that higher sense of personal artistry is what I don’t hear in most newer artists. They got the sound, but no soul to back it up.
That title “my music” has always given me trouble, especially in regards to musical generations. It’s not my music. I had nothing to do with the creation of it. I’m not a musician. “My generation” and our music? I can see that, but straddling the 70s as I did as a teenager, that’s always been hazy as to what “my music” was. I loved the 70s iteration of The Kinks (a 60s band) as much as I did The Ramones or Cheap Trick, and then all those indie bands that sprung up and flourished in the early/mid 80s. Somebody like David Bowie? That’s someone who didn’t seem to bear allegiance to any generation, style or time period.
One of the responders to me on that website wrote something mildly negative about “my music” … I guess referring to the 70s and 80s, as opposed to the 60s? I guess that sort of approach would have made sense to me circa 1985 or so where most of what I listened to was simply based on what was in front of me culturally, music that was meant for me and my age group at the time.
But in the nearly three decades since then … I don’t know what a term like “my music” is supposed to mean to someone like me, who expanded his tastes exponentially as he got older and grew as a musical fan. When I think of my music now that entails thousands of CDs, around 28,000 tracks on the iPod, spanning dozens of genres. This is my fucking music! I didn’t have to be born and raised with it, have it tagged to my generation, spend the rest of my days focusing only on that music and those artists I knew from that time of my life.
Part of the reason I branched out the way I did was simple boredom. Pop rock started boring the shit out of me somewhere in the 90s. There were occasional cool artists at the time: Ben Folds Five, Green Day, Beck, Pulp, Flaming Lips, Wilco, etc. Actually, plenty of them in the 90s. But the overall trends, like hip-hop, boy bands and grunge, left me cold, running the gamut from saccharinely sweet to oppressively negative and harsh, with little in between. It seemed like a real shitty time to be a teenager, to me at least, judging by how joyless so much "rock" sounded.
It started with country, and then blues, and then folk, and then Celtic, and then African, and then Brazilian, and then Latin music in general, and then jazz, and then classical … why not? There was so much to learn, and still is. I’ve experienced enough to know how little I know about music, not enough time in the day or the rest of my life to digest all of it floating around out there.
I’d rather not tie myself to “my generation” of music, mostly because I didn’t make it! And also because I don’t know what that means in terms of someone who was in his mid-teens in 1980. And not just straddling the 70s rock and 80s indie worlds, but raised with an undying appreciation of 60s rock that served as a great foundation to move forward from. Never mind side roads like going nuts for 60s soul in college, or reggae in late 80s New York.
Lou Reed just passed on (and you can tune in next week to get my take on this … hard news, for sure). What was he as an artist? Sure, The Velvet Underground … and if you were a Velvet Underground fan in the 60s, you deserve a medal, because most people weren’t. So in theory a 60s artist, as he did his most compelling work at that time, even though hardly anyone was listening. He got big in the early 70s after “Walk on the Wild Side.” Had some pretty good commercial success. Put out a fantastic album with Street Hassle. So … he was a 70s artist? And then in the 80s, he put out a series of very cool, literate adult albums with a great line-up (Robert Quine on guitar, Fernando Saunders on bass) that still sounds fresh and exciting to me. So … he was an 80s artist?
On top of which, I didn’t get into The Velvet Underground until the mid-80s, in college, and when I did, it overwhelmed me, became the focus of my listening life for at least my junior year.
There’s just too much cross-generational shit like that for me to wonder or even worry about who can claim generational ownership for an artist like Lou Reed. Or who would want to. It’s clear that he functioned at a very high level for at least three decades, and surely put out some worthwhile material in the 90s and 00s. I doubt there are many Boomers out there who get all misty eyed over The Velvet Underground, and if they do, it more than likely is not directly linked to their youth in the 60s, but came later in life when the band did receive more appreciation and cultural recognition.
So, I learned … my music is whatever I’m listening to. And trust me, I listen to a lot of music, a lot of different kinds, not worried about whether it came out yesterday or 50 years ago. Or whether people with a much deeper knowledge of a certain genre think I'm a poseur infiltrating their sacred territory. (I honestly don't pick up on that vibe much, but every genre will have its snobs.) Sure, there is music that is intrinsically tied into my teenage memories, but the older I get, the less I feel that pull, that sense of “owning” that music in any sense. I don’t feel any closer to it the farther away I get from it in terms of age.
Besides which, everything has changed. We were raised back in those decades with that sense of all being on roughly the same page musically as teenagers. That’s all gone now. Save for a very sickly sheen of Top 40 acts that most people will not claim ownership for decades down the road, much less a few years from now. And most bands simply aren’t functioning full-gun for albums on end, building a legacy, the way bands did back then. I’d surely understand someone raised in the 00s getting sentimental over a song like “Float On” by Modest Mouse … but what else? Let’s say “Float On” is analogous to Modest Mouse as “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is to The Beatles. Where’s “Help” … or “Yesterday” … or “I Am the Walrus” … or “Let It Be”?
Even if Modest Mouse still was putting out music as catchy and fun as “Float On” (and they’re not), it just doesn’t seem that bands in this century are geared to build legacies, or lasting audiences who will ensure album sales in the millions moving forward. Everything is fragmented now, appeals to much smaller audiences, who may be able to support artists and allow them to make more modest livings as they go along … but the days of the mythical rock star are over, for better and worse.
And maybe it’s time the rest of us, particularly those of us raised in those time periods, recognize this and move on. I know I did … and it was like being set free from a prison of taste.