A Funny Thing
Music is a funny thing. Although it can be shared with others, enjoyed in concerts and parties and other gatherings, it is a very personal thing. Music lovers cherish their favorite bands and albums and will even become defensive when those favorites come under attack or criticism. The merits of this or that band become the subject of heated debate, especially among friends who share this passion for music.
“That band sucks.”
“How can you say the Beat is better than the Knack?”
“Are you deaf? The Fabulous Poodles is the worst band in the history of music!”
And so on.
I am not a professional critic, and yet, like almost everybody, I do have strong opinions about music in general and artists in particular. As in all matters and questions of aesthetics, it really just comes down to personal taste.
A long time ago, as a teenager just beginning to discover what I like, I believed that a piece of art can be judged against some kind of objective ideal, a golden rule against which any piece can be measured, be it musical composition, painting, cinema, or what have you. I would tell my sisters, who loved Duran Duran, Tears For Fears and the Thompson Twins, that those groups were far inferior to the groups I listened to, such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull. In my mind, my groups were serious art, and their superiority over my sisters’ bands could be absolutely proven in the Court of Awesomeness. I am here to tell you that my outlook has changed dramatically since those long-ago years. (Today I will say that I prefer Led Zeppelin over the Thompson Twins, but is Zeppelin “better”…who knows?)
I’m sure many of you have held similar beliefs. Teenagers tend to polarize things: good and bad, right and wrong, true and false. It’s a way of making sense of a complex world, and more importantly: finding one’s place and stance in it. But things do get better as we mature. Black and white becomes gray, we gain the capacity to hold two contrasting ideas simultaneously, and a very complex palette of possibilities becomes available for our pleasure.
But still, music is a funny thing. “Most people identify most closely with the music they grew up with,” my high school psychology teacher told us. Now after all these years I really believe he was on to something. Most of us stick to the music of our youth even as we age and new musical styles come and go. I am no different. I was ages 11 to 30 from 1978 to 1997, and I still prefer the music of those years. Now, I may not be typical because I have studied music, I play music, and I am constantly seeking out new sounds and educating myself about music, so my experience is probably a little different than the average Joe Music Lover. But if I found myself stuck on a desert island and having to choose only ten albums to listen to, I’m sure that almost all of those albums will be from the 80s or 90s.
My psychology teacher’s remark really rang true, though, when I started noticing certain comments on You Tube videos. Watching a doo wop group from the 50s, I’ll read a comment like, “I remember hearing this while making out in the back seat of my ‘57 Chevy. This is real music, real talent, real singing. Not like what passes for pop music these days.” Then I’ll be watching a rock tune from the 60s and see a similar comment, about how “music was so much better when we were kids. I feel sorry for the kids growing up today having to listen to the crap they play.” And so on, for each generation feels that the music they grew up with is better than anything that came after, up to and especially including the most current. One of the most absurd comments of this type was one I found on a video from a song written in the late 90s/early 2000s. The song is less than twenty years old, and yet the commentator was bemoaning the fact that “they don’t write ‘em like that anymore!”
Now that I think of it, people who grew up in the 60s were saying the same thing about the music coming out in the early 80s: bands like the Police, the Cars, U2 and others were really looked down upon by people who grew up with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Cream. Those new bands were considered processed, “new wave” (used in the pejorative way, akin to “disco”), and viewed in much the same way as I viewed my sister’s Duran Duran. But for the past twenty-five years now, classic rock radio has been playing the Police, Cars and U2 right alongside Jimi, Janis and Cream. Funny.
I want to believe that the best music is the music being produced right now. I say this because the music written and produced now is vital. It is born from life as it is lived at this very moment. It comes from the struggles, the trials, the contradictions and joys of living in the here and now. Great music, as all great art, is made during all times and eras. There is no reason to believe that “music was so much better back when…”
In his book Full House, the author Stephen Jay Gould explains why there has been no batter in baseball to average over .400 since Ted Williams did it in 1941. His explanation stems from the idea that the disappearance of .400 hitting is due to the overall general improvement in play, not a sign of the worsening of hitting. Gould very eloquently and meticulously shows, in a scientific way, how the bell curve of variation has changed in such a way that the extreme examples, such as Ted Williams, have disappeared. Gould uses a mathematical model to prove this. I believe that a similar phenomenon is taking shape in music. “Where are the Mozarts (or Hendrix’s) of today?”
Like all great music of the past, the great music of the 2000s will eventually stand the test of time and become appreciated for its qualities and contributions to history. The process may take longer than it has in the past, mainly due to the sheer volume of product and because the outlets of dissemination have changed so radically. But I have faith that one day we will be able to discern the merits and relative value among the nearly infinite listening choices among us.