Tuesday, January 9, 2007

You call that music?!?!

Never one to shy away from controversy, I’ve decided to tackle one of the most persistent issues affecting popular music: the generation gap. Let’s take a look at some of the prevalent attitudes about the subject and see what I think of them.

1. “Today’s music doesn’t have the same kinds of melodies, harmonies, and attitude that the music of my youth had!”

It’s not supposed to. If it did, it wouldn’t be today’s music. And if you can relate to the sentiment in quotation marks, let me ask you this: exactly what good does it do to harp on the fact that today’s music is different from yesterday’s music? If you grew up in the ‘50s and your parents complained that Bill Haley didn’t sound like Glenn Miller, that didn’t make Bill Haley sound like Glenn Miller. If you grew up in the ‘70s and your parents complained that Aerosmith didn’t sound like Bill Haley, that didn’t make Aerosmith sound like Bill Haley. In fact, in such cases all your parents did was judge your generation’s music based on what it wasn’t. They made no attempt to evaluate it on its own terms and thus completely missed the point of it. If they had taken it at face value, they may still have disliked it, but the simple fact of the matter is that they were too narrow-minded to give it a fair chance. Don’t be just as narrow-minded with today’s music.

2. “It seems like you no longer need talent to make it!”

It’s been a long time since anyone needed talent to make it. As much as it pains me to say this, I think early rock ‘n’ roll was to blame. In the 1950s, rock ‘n’ roll appealed mostly to teenagers; furthermore, many adults at the time thought of rock ‘n’ roll as nothing but a bunch of noise with a pounding beat. It was only a matter of time until enterprising businessmen realized that you could take a cute kid, have him or her make some records with a beat, and watch as smitten teenagers bought that artist’s records and gazed amorously at him or her during live performances—even if he or she had no talent. Fabian was the original archetype of the teen idol who couldn’t sing. For crying out loud, Fabian himself admitted that he couldn’t sing!

Today, the problem has indeed gotten worse because of technology. There was only so much doctoring that could be done to Fabian’s voice in 1959; have a good listen to any of his records and you can instantly sense his lack of vocal skill. But now, recording technology is so advanced that one could conceivably record a song one note at a time, apply electronic pitch correction to every note, string the notes together, and end up with a seamless mix sounding like one perfect take. Thus, a singer who can’t sing can nonetheless sound good on record. But ultimately, talent is still a vital asset. Look at what happened to Ashlee Simpson, for example: one little goof on Saturday Night Live and suddenly everyone knew that she lip-synched to pre-recorded vocal tracks when she performed “live.” From that point onward, she had to actually sing live in order to prove that she could. Unfortunately, these actual live performances proved nothing except that she had a limited range and poor breath control. Whenever she was introduced on television, many audience members would greet her by booing. By means of damage control, she had to rush out a follow-up album and make an apologetic second appearance on Saturday Night Live. That was back in 2005, but even now her name is still bandied about as a joke in and of itself.

3. “How can young people listen to this stuff?”

Because we genuinely like what's out there today. Not everyone likes everything that’s currently on the charts, but that’s always been (and always will be) the case. The point is that we like at least some of today’s music because it speaks to us on a different level than anything else; it was made for us and, in many cases, by us. From my writing you can tell that I like oldies, but oldies were made for someone else and I just so happened to discover them and enjoy them. When I find something contemporary that I really dig, it reaffirms my youth more than anything else. It also makes me feel confident that great music is still being made and that I don’t have to reach into the past to find high levels of quality.

4. If you like today’s music, you don’t like older music, and vice versa.

In my experience, this is not something that a lot of people say; it’s something that they imply. I’ve lost track of how many times it has happened that someone learns of my affinity for oldies and then proceeds to trash my generation’s music as if I am not a member of my own generation! Well, if you doubt that someone can love music from more than one era, just look through One Note Ahead.

5. “Contemporary music doesn’t appeal to me, but since I’m over the age of 40, I know it’s not supposed to.”

Actually, that’s just a matter of personal taste. A few years ago I had a friend who was in his late 40s and he happily owned at least one Backstreet Boys CD and was gushing about how Incubus' "Drive" was one of his favorite songs at the time. My mother is almost 60 and she constantly puts me to shame with her knowledge of contemporary rock—admittedly my rock ‘n’ roll IQ is more “yesterday” than “today.” And I’ll never forget one particular appearance by Liza Minnelli on Tony Danza’s now-departed daytime talk show. Danza asked Minnelli whom she admires and without hesitation she replied, "Maroon 5." She then went on and on about how great a singer that band's Adam Levine is. I could cite plenty more examples, but you get my point.

6. There’s such a thing as being too young to know about a certain artist.

Like when an unsuspecting concertgoer told a 21-year-old musician friend of mine that she’s too young to be influenced by Led Zeppelin. I rubbed his face in the fact that I dressed up as Roy Orbison for Halloween in 1997, when I was merely 16 years old. He became visibly uncomfortable; needless to say, I was pleased. There really is a definite double standard at play when it comes to this philosophy of being “too young.” After all, young musicians all the time say that they’re influenced by The Beatles or The Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan, and that’s perfectly acceptable. But Led Zeppelin? Nope, sorry.

The truth is that you simply have no way of knowing what people have been exposed to in their youth. Last year I saw ‘50s pop pianist Roger Williams on the public television special Moments To Remember, explaining how amazed he gets when young people tell him they know his music. I can only quote from memory, but he said that he responds, “You’re too young to even know who I am! After all, I am 81 years old!” The young people then reply, “Oh, no, my grandparents played your records all the time when I was growing up.” As of the taping of that program, he still got floored by such statements.

7. “I hate today’s music! That is, if you can even CALL it music! I just don’t get how anybody can like this crap!”

Music touches people on a profoundly personal level. There's just no arguing matters of taste. If you don’t like something, don’t listen to it. If it’s a song you can’t get away from no matter how you try, learn to tune it out. And if you miss the way music used to sound, listen to older music.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, my soapbox is caving in.

Copyright © 2007 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

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