The Curmudgeon: Generations

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During the recent hoopla surrounding the 50th anniversary of The Beatles coming to America, I got to thinking, “Would I have fallen in love with The Beatles quite the same way if I had been 31 in early 1964 rather than 11? If I had known about Muddy Waters, Thelonious Monk, Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash, would I have been quite so impressed by ‘She Loves You’ and ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’?”

Probably not. I think I would have liked The Beatles, for their sound was so new and stimulating, but I don’t think I would have loved them the same way—not if they had to fight with Miles Davis and Elvis Presley for playing time on my phonograph. My appreciation for The Beatles would no doubt have grown as their songwriting and production matured, but it never would have reached the giddy heights it climbed when I was an actual teenager between 1964 and 1970.

This got me thinking some more. Is a certain level of ignorance a prerequisite for falling head over heels for a singer or a band? Do you have to be unaware of all the great music in the recent past to be convinced that a new act is beyond comparison, the greatest thing to ever hit the planet? Do you have to be so inexperienced that you don’t notice the weaknesses in your new hero? Does it follow, then, that we can be totally overwhelmed by a new act only once, only in our teens?

I guess it could happen twice while you’re a teenager. If, for example, you were born in 1996 and fell in love with Katy Perry as a 12-year-old in 2008, the experience would not spoil your chances for falling in love with Arcade Fire as a 14-year-old in 2010. An infatuation with Perry is not going to give you enough knowledge nor raise your standards sufficiently to rob you of your innocence before you encounter Arcade Fire.

But once you do, your innocence is gone, and the next time you discover something of quality, say San Fermin in 2013, you’ll have a context to put them in. You’ll say they’re better than Arcade Fire at some things and not as good at others, the same with Vampire Weekend. You’ll know too much to give yourself body and soul to a new band.

If you’re 60, as I was when I first heard San Fermin, if you actually have some acquaintance with the classical and jazz traditions the band is referencing, you’ll have a completely different view. You’ll better appreciate some things, but instead of being the 10th rock band you’ve loved, they’ll be the 300th—and that makes a difference.

All of us lucky enough to live into our 60s will go through all these perspectives in sequence: 12 years old, 16 years old, 20 years old, 30 years old, 50 years old. Each one has its advantages and disadvantages. The 12- and 16-year-olds may be handicapped by ignorance, but that innocence makes possible a pure fire of passion. The 30- and 50-year-olds may be handicapped by a skepticism necessitated by experience, but that knowledge allows a greater appreciation of the actual music—as opposed to the personality performing it.

The challenge comes in comparing acts across decades. Do The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Bob Dylan really tower over the 20th century? Or do I feel that way only because I first encountered them in the fresh flush of adolescent innocence? Does the 16-year-old today who believes that Jay-Z and Kanye West are much better than The Beatles and Aretha Franklin have a credible case? Or does she believe that only because the rappers were the first major artists to make an impression on her blank slate?

Is everyone’s view of musical history distorted by the accidental fact of when they turned 12? Ask anyone who’s not a music critic to draw up a list of the 10 best albums of all time and there’s a good chance that eight or nine of them will have been released after the listmaker turned 10 and before he or she turned 30. Every listmaker, no matter when they were born, will believe that that 20-year stretch was the unparalleled golden age of recorded music.

These are important questions for anyone who cares about the full time span of recorded music. Our picture of the past should tell us more than who sold the most records in any decade or who was considered the hippest at the time; it should tell us who made the highest quality music. After all, artists such as Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie and Julie Miller were neither best-sellers nor hipster icons when they recorded their best work. And a music history that doesn’t give that trio its due isn’t very useful. And a music history that gives wildly disproportionate emphasis to one era isn’t too helpful either.

Given the warping effect of each listener’s generational perspective, how do we compare the artists of the ‘60s against those of the ‘40s, ‘80s and ‘00s? By recognizing that distorting perspective and trying to correct for it. When we go back and listen to the music we loved at 15, we have to dissociate it from the hormonal reasons for loving and try to listen to it as something unknown. We have to ask ourselves, “Is the marriage of propulsive rhythm and thickened harmony really enough to compensate for the mistake-filled playing and the lyric about wanting to hold a girl’s hand?”

We have to go back to last year’s poll winner and ask, “Did I dismiss Kanye West simply because hip-hop methodology is too far removed from my teenage introduction to music? Is there something about the way the iconoclastic words fit into the rousing rhythm that’s the equivalent of John Lennon? Or does this simply lack the musical and verbal invention for greatness?”

We have to allow ourselves to be as open to music released when we were 40 as we are to music released when we were 15. And we have to be as skeptical of records released when we were 15 as we are of records released when we were 40.