Monday, February 29, 2016

Generational Bias: Run to Me When You Need a Shoulder

Well, I have to give it to Jim Fusilli who writes for The Wall Street Journal: he did a great job of hyping his new book by running with the “generational bias” story line and giving it the acronym “Gee Bee” for short, most likely as a play on The Bee Gees.

This Salon article is where he expounds on his theories regarding generational bias, in his view the act of older music fans stubbornly clinging to the music of their teenage years at the expense of ever learning about, much less appreciating, any new music that has come along since then.
He makes a lot of valid points, most of which I agree with: beyond obvious outlets like NPR, local college radio and tasteful Sirius channels, the recording industry has very little idea how to market new music to older listeners, other than to bang the shit out of the reissue market and over-charge fans for attending live events, mostly on the premise that this could be the last time we see these artists onstage.  The Stones have been milking that cash cow since the 1980’s, but it was up to The Eagles to really capitalize on the practice with their first reunion tour in 1994, possibly the first tour with officially three-digit ticket prices.

Ultimately, Fusilli is a bit of a bullshit artist, and I mean that as a compliment.  I think that’s a requirement in our culture these days to make a living in any media.  He stated something in a Billboard interview last week that I found a bit troubling and showed his hand a little more clearly: “A Gee Bee is someone who likes only old music and rejects new music without listening to it – and will go so far as to criticize new music and new musicians they know nothing about. Gee Bees are really vile. A virus. When you meet one, walk away. But people of good intent and healthy self-regard -- meaning the opposite of Gee Bees -- get caught up in the acceleration of life: career begins, marriage, children, mortgage, caring for elderly parents. Free time is limited; so is discretionary income. Instead of spending a Saturday night at a club, they are decompressing from a hectic week. In those circumstances, it’s hard to keep up with new trends and new bands. So it’s understandable that they tend to stay with music they already know and enjoy.”

Here’s my take on the type of person Fusilli would consider a wonderful human being existing on higher spiritual and emotional planes than the rest of us.

I’ve spent way too much time around people like Fusilli who “get” everything but their own vanity.

So, while Fusilli presents a more sympathetic picture of the “Gee Bee” ethos in his Salon interview, the ugly truth comes out in Billboard.  Vile?  Virus?  Walk away?  As opposed to being a real adult and apparently having little or no interest in listening to any music at all, old or new.  You’ll have to forgive me, but the world isn’t that simple, and adults never fall into such polar opposite camps.  A lot of time with older fans, forget about “old music” as a concept, they’re usually zoned in on one or only a few particular artists from their youth.  Think Neil Diamond fans.  Or Springsteen fans.  And forget about getting them interested in Bob Seger or James Taylor, much less Bon Iver or The Gaslight Anthem.  They tend to overly identify with a small handful of artists from their youth at the expense of any other artists from their youth.  In even more cases, they focus on one genre: there are millions of 50-60 year-old heavy metal fans out there who are convinced everything else from their generation is bullshit.  Never mind ensuing generations, although they'll grant some of the newer metal bands aren't completely bogus.

The problem Fusilli and a lot of other critics have is use of the word “great.”  To me, greatness implies both an immense generational appeal, and enough of a broader appeal that older and younger people than that generation agree with this.  That’s not happening so much anymore, if at all, thanks more so to the intense marketing strictures that took root in the 70’s and sub-divided music forever after.  Age is part of that, if not the whole.

Older people carrying on about Beyonce or Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus tend to be jackasses.  Pardon my French, but I’ve done that dance one time too many.  The only older people you saw carrying on about The Beatles in their time did so because they could make money off them, or they were usually musicians themselves who sensed greatness forming as the band progressed through the 60’s.  Recently, I saw on a musical website a Beatles fan getting upset because a younger fan wouldn't acknowledge their greatness.  In 1964?  I want to hold your fucking hand?  She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah?  I've got lips that long to kiss you and keep you satisfied ... oooooohhhhh!  Man, come on.  If you were 42 back then and going for that shit, you needed your head examined.  (I'd wager that "Yesterday" was the song that made older fans stop and say wait a minute ...)
That catholic sense of taste a lot of these older fans have now tends to come with a salary dependent on embracing musical diversity in ways most sane people would find loathesome.  In the past, critics were not expected to embrace or get everything in music.  If they weren’t openly disdainful of Top 40 pap, they were smart enough to just ignore what they had no urge to waste time on.  For every Top 40 act they got wrong, who actually had enduring talent, there were 35 hey were dead right about.  If you don't get stuff historically wrong with your taste in music in real time, you're a liar.  I've done it dozens of times.  I'm doing it now!  When the time is right for me, I'll wake up on certain artists I'm not getting now.  Maybe I never will (cough, Radiohead Kid A, cough).

“Great” is a subjective cliché, when the word “good” really gets to the heart of the matter and puts things into a better context.  In my opinion, there is a ton of good music being made now.  I went through that phase in the 90’s when I thought new music sucked, it was all over, what a horrible decade.  I look back now and realize there was a lot of good music being made then, stuff I still listen to now: Wilco and Flaming Lips come most readily to mind but there are dozens of others.  I’ve even doubled-back on artists like Kid Rock and Eminem, both of whom I despised at the time.  I’m still not crazy about a lot of Eminem’s 90’s material, but I can hear how he’s grown as an artist and gets into some really interesting topics in his music now.  Kid Rock always had an affinity for rock that I didn’t fully grasp at the time, and if anything, his more recent straight rock/country albums are bit more dull than what he was doing then.

Which is neither here nor there.  I can look back now and realize there was a lot to love in the 90’s, despite the stifling preponderance of hiphop, boy bands and divas swarming over pop culture.  I think I was put off at the time because it became clear rock was no longer the dominant force it once was, and it made me feel “old” for the first time in that what I was interested in was no longer the driving force in that larger culture.

I’ve since come to realize what a blessing that was, how much this new rock subculture reflected my shift to indie music in the 80’s and the 90’s were simply an extension of that, at least for the music I loved.  When Brit Pop came along, with songs like “Creep” by Radiohead and “Live Forever” by Oasis, I was floored by what was going on in the U.K., came to love Pulp, a band that surely affected me as much as any 60’s or 70’s rock icon.  But in a much more adult way.

The 90’s were when I also got fully entrenched in alt. country, not the fanatical extent of people who embraced the “No Depression” way of life but pretty damn near.  Which is why I have trouble with a critic like Fusilli shitting on Don Henley’s last album while trumpeting Chris Stapleton’s.  I like both albums.  They’re good albums (not great).  I think Henley’s is better.  He writes undeniably good lyrics and has great taste in cowriters: those songs sound genuine and original to me, much better than I could have hoped for with most aging rock/country artists.  Stapleton’s lyrics are bland.  He’s a very good singer, surely has the feel, fully understands country, but a lot of his music feels slightly clichéd to me.  I'll listen to it, but in the back of my mind, I know, heard it all before.

I’m with Fusilli in that there’s a whole raft of artists from the 90’s onwards who picked up the alt. country flag and ran with it, leaving mainstream country to devolve into bad 80’s rock pastiches with steel guitars.  I’ve been a huge fan of The Gourds almost from their inception, for me the best American band to come along in the past 25 years.  They’re adventurous, write intriguingly off-kilter songs, have a world-class country vocalist in Kevin Russell and a wild card in Jimmy Smith who provides a rambling, fun edge to their music.  (Of course, the band has been “on hiatus” for a few years now and may never re-group, each with their solo projects that are always good, but not quite The Gourds).  So you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t herald Stapleton as the musical savior of country authenticity.  I’ve seen dozens of artists in this genre who are just as deserving of the hype he’s receiving now but never received.  Just last month I went on a big Bad Livers/Danny Barnes kick after hearing “Death Trip” on an episode of True Blood.

That’s another thing that I find happening all the time as an older music fan: I find myself doubling back to flesh out a band or artist I didn’t fully grasp at the time, or was completely unaware of.  The past month I stumbled over John Grant (and his previous band, The Czars), Benji Hughes and The Suburbs.  The first two are newer indie pop/rock guys with great pop sense, the third a Minneapolis band from the turn of the 80’s who were ahead of the curve on synth pop and got washed away by the huge MTV/British wave of bands that swept in a year or two later.

In my mind, the appreciation for these three bands/artists is roughly the same.  I don’t differentiate that two are relatively new and one is decades old.  The Suburbs have music that sounds like it could have come out last week.  Let me clarify: there’s been a whole raft of critic’s darling bands in the 00’s and now who are replicating the same kind of music The Suburbs were doing close to 30 years ago.  Save The Suburbs were better at it and non-derivative.

This is another thing that drives older music fans nuts: critics raving about music that is completely derivative of better music that came out in the 70’s and 80’s.  It’s a mistake to play “match the new artist to the old artist that you know someone loves to get him to like new music” game.  It never works.  Never. 

And you know why?  Because a vast majority of the time, simply stated, the older artist did it better the first time around with the luxury of having done it first.  Never mind the emotions tied in with that music, intertwined with that person’s life in ways that still serve as a source of self identity.  Critics like Fusilli aren’t taking the emotional context of a music fan, new or old, into their assessment.  It’s not a qualitative analysis for the fan: he’s attached to that music in more ways than one.  You can play him a newer artist who sounds exactly like an older artist with genuinely good songs, and the older fan will reject the new music.  He already “has it” in a sense of having that emotional attachment to the older artist he’s gone through life with. 
That doesn’t make him an asshole.  We also need to take into consideration adult emotions, i.e., having life kick the shit out of you a few times over and how that affects your ability to feel.  I wouldn't say we shut down as we age so much as we protect ourselves after going through some of the rougher things life has to offer: the deaths of parents, siblings, friends.  Divorce.  Work-related bullshit.  Things that should have happened and didn't.  Things that happened that never should happen to anyone.  We all have our lists, some longer than others.  Once upon a time we were so open and trusting that a song could win us over in three minutes and stay with us for the rest of our lives.  It's fucking hard, if not impossible, to be that open after cycling through decades of hard, sometimes negative emotions that are life altering no matter when they occur.

It’s hard to quantify or qualify any of this.  Having been a big Vonnegut fan, I’m fond of the phrase he used in The Slaughterhouse Five of Billy Pilgrim becoming “unstuck in time” where the past, present and future play into his life, in ways that he can’t grasp or control.  That’s how I feel as a music fan now, with decades of experience and no intention of stopping any time soon.  There are oceans of jazz and classical music I’ve yet to discover, plenty of artists from the past 50 years that I could easily double-back on and learn from, and of course, dozens of new artists who will enter my life usually through a song or two, but sometimes with a great woosh of a multiple-album find and an hour or so of intense downloading to get my bearings with this artist.  Sometimes, it’s overwhelming: if anything, I don’t’ have enough time to fully absorb all of it.  The traditional way we had of becoming attached to an artist -- buying one album being floored by it, memorizing lyrics and liner notes, legendary album cover art and photographs, then going back and buying catalog albums over the course of weeks, months or years and slowly assimilating the full impact of the artist -- is gone.

In other words, I’m too fucking busy to worry about whether new artists are “good” or “great” and feel no need to judge people my age or older based on my “superior” musical taste.  Most of them probably think I’m a dick who never properly grew up!  And in some respect, they’re right.  But I’ve not grown up in a very good way, in a way that respects imagination and possibility, and thrives on constant creativity.  Music has always gone hand-in-hand with any writing aspirations I’ve had, and both surely feed each other.  To me, an ongoing love of music, any type of music, demonstrates a profound and healthy curiosity about life.  I want to believe something better is going to come along ... and maybe my firm belief in that actually prevents it from ever happening.

Frankly, anyone who listens to music in any way, passionately, really cares about it, I respect that.  If they’re stuck in a time machine set to 1974?  1994?  2004?  So what.  If their appreciation in music is wrapped up in nostalgia?  Again, so what.  Does Fusilli really think there’s some new paradigm here, that fans of current cutting-edge bands will somehow rise above their fate and embrace all new music that comes after their generation?

Most of them won’t.  Most of mine hasn’t.  Most of my generation was in no way into the cutting edge music of the 70’s and 80’s.  They went with what they knew, rock music being jack-hammered into their collective consciousness via AOR radio.  The X Factor of emotional involvement with the music remains a constant throughout their lives.  I know I can’t replicate that emotional intensity I felt towards music in my teens and early 20’s.  Part of that is experiencing musical firsts, but part is also experiencing emotional firsts, especially as a teenager.  If you want to simplify it all and make believe older people don’t like newer music just because they’re narrow-minded assholes … have at it, apparently The Wall Street Journal is looking for a few great thinkers like you.

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