Each generation tends to follow a similar script—rebel, grow up, get a residence of some sort, and maybe have some kids. Then come the pronouncements about how the younger generation is a bunch of lazy, immature bums. Also, their music is pointless noise made by talentless hacks. The Greatest Generation said it, the Baby Boomers said it, and now we Gen Xers are saying it. And we’re all wrong.
It’s true that each successive generation delivers some garbage. They can’t all be classics. Each generation delivers a fair amount of pablum, as well, but, hey, they’re just following in their ancestors’ footsteps. So when we, whether Gen X or Boomer or enlightened millennial, disparage the latest hotness, we’re actually adhering to a rich tradition known as “get off my lawn.”
But is it different this time? Does the current crop of artists dish out nothing but terribleness, thus dishonoring the rich pool left to us to draw from? Led Zeppelin was completely original, after all, and everything since is purely derivative.
Except Led Zeppelin wasn’t exactly original. The acts that have come since, while offering a logical progression, aren’t replicas, but the inspiration shows. It’s how music works, much as people, even the young ones, don’t change that much, nor does what entertains them.
Always Evolving, But with an Eye to the Past
Back in the ’70s, the Sex Pistols offered something new, if not steeped in musicianship, if your definition of new is “louder and more distorted.” Van Halen reminded us we could tap our collective psyche and embrace joyous anti-profundity. Pet Shop Boys and Soft Cell went farther with the synth than Eddie Van Halen cared to.
The ’80s also had its “supposed” shameful moments, what with hair metal and hard rock. But show me a crowd that’s hearing “Living on a Prayer” and I will show you a group that is rocking along, even as many of those same people gave up the lighthearted fun of ’80s rock and pop for the ennui of Morrissey or the darker and not yet royalty-free Metallica—and Iron Maiden and Megadeth and the other metal bands that gave us something to bang our heads to when we weren’t holding off sleep until we got to Brooklyn with the Beastie Boys.
Then, in the early ’90s, Led Zeppelin’s influence really returned. Grunge, which tapped into those blues-infused lotharios of the past and fused that style with even more overt politics than in the ’60s, moved the pendulum back from the glamorous side to the more rugged, if often emo, one. Billy Corgan, via the Smashing Pumpkins, took Jimi Hendrix’s studio experiments and turned them up to 11.
Along the way, that studio magic birthed new creatures, those wholly dependent on technology, buttons, knobs, and then autotune. As they rose in capitalistic splendor, they consumed all the raw talent around them, leaving a barren wasteland populated only by the lowest common denominator.
Or so the story goes, just as it has for decades and decades. Before all the buttons and knobs and autotune, however, the first studio and Les Pauls’ multitrack recordings killed the live musicians. I mean, all those jazz and blues greats totally weren’t relegated to dark clubs while the radio played songs that were really saccharine and easily digestible.
The Death of the Buggy Whip Industry and the Rise of the Independents
So maybe, just maybe, same as it ever was—a fertile patch of earth. Even better, now it’s a disaggregated place from which anyone can bloom. If you open your ears, that is what’s happened. For just as Les Paul freed musicians to record individually and Jimi Hendrix helped show how those tracks could be put to use, the digital revolution means that anyone—anyone!—can record and release an album. This isn’t a guaranteed good, but it does mean we get Lorde.
Regardless, it’s tempting, natural even, to stand athwart the evolving scene yelling “Stop,” bemoaning the horrors arising around us, unfettered by studio dons holding the purse strings much as patrons held the purse strings back when Beethoven was a low-class man struggling to pick up ladies. To do so, though, is to ignore the talent abounding around us.
‘Tis true, there are true Beliebers, but the chanteuse Lana Del Rey inspires legions to put flowers in their hair. Iggy Azalea pretends to rap while Aesop Rock paints lyrical pictures. Speedy Ortiz and Metz and Cheetahs and Aoife O’Donovan and Banks and Japandroids and myriad electronic and blues and jazz artists keep producing interesting and enjoyable work, work that isn’t being featured in commercials for pasta strainers and strollers.
A Dazzling Array of Light of Sound
It’s also all right at our fingertips, from Chvrches reminding us of the ’80s to Lindsay Stirling making kids remember that the violin is cool, from the auspices of the new Old Russia we get Pinkshinyultrablast and a fresh take on shoegaze. Wavves and Alpines emerged from home studios with the former offering reimagined surf punk and the latter a panoply of soulful electronic and pop jams. Beck remains the dynamic one and may just return to funky showman form. Eagles of Death Metal rocks without apology. But it’s all so lowbrow, plus the pop, man, the pop.
Well, we have to talk pop, and that means we have to talk about Ellie Goulding. She is produced and packaged, but the thing is, she can sing. She isn’t crescendoing on auto-tuned wings. Whether or not she’s your thing is immaterial, because if you’re saying “Mr. Postman” is better than “Something in the Way You Move” just because, perhaps you’re being overly nostalgic.
Of course, this is all subjective, as is most art. But to objectively claim that today’s subjective music is hot garbage just because—well, remember what we discussed about telling those youngsters to get off our lawns?
Music as a motivator, as a source of inspiration and nostalgia, tends to stall out some once we reach our sexual awakening. As a result, the music becomes less formative than it was back when we were young and stupid hormone-filled balls of impulse looking for meaning. But that doesn’t mean that music now has gotten worse.
Passing the Crown
Just recently, we mourned the passing of Prince Rogers Nelson. It can be argued that he doesn’t count as a true prodigy, moreover one who began in the ’70s. That prodigy never packed it in, threw in the towel, and said it was over. He kept right on going, performing and making new music right up until the end.
If Prince wasn’t ready to call it a night and declare art dead, but instead continue to thrive and treat it as vibrant, then maybe we shouldn’t either. He was royalty, after all, unlike the starving artists and crazies who used to make high art for money back in the days of real royalty. As the man once proclaimed, “We are gathered here together to get through this thing called life,” and music definitely helps us get through it, because it stirs us, not because of how difficult it is to diagram.
Maybe G.K. Chesterton said it better, when discussing detective novels. “By a curious confusion, many modern critics have passed from the proposition that a masterpiece may be unpopular to the other proposition that unless it is unpopular it cannot be a masterpiece.” Tomorrow’s masterpiece may be today’s hit, but we won’t know until we get to tomorrow. Until then, we’re just yelling “Get off my lawn!”