How do you know you’ve officially entered middle-age? Is it the wrinkles? Is it the grey hair? Is it the socks worn with sandals? No. I believe you’ve officially hit middle-age when you complain about the music of the young generation.
I’ve seen the posts on Facebook: Smug 40-to-50-somethings, no doubt with The Biebs or Miley in mind, proclaiming a generational superiority of music over the teenagers around them. This is nothing new, of course. Each generation believes its music to be vastly better than that “noise” cranked out by the younger generation coming after it. No doubt some adults in Vienna back in the 1770’s thought that new music by that snot-nosed Mozart kid “sucked”. Though they likely said it in German which would’ve sounded even more derisive.
The reality is that our age of pop music has driven musical wedges between generations. We come to associate so much of who we are, what generation we belong to, by the soundtrack that accompanied our youth. Many cling to that music through middle-age and with it clings a sense of it being “real” music, music that mattered, not like the over-produced, pre-packaged crap churned out by no-talent kids and their pushy record companies these days.
Well, as a sometimes smug 40-to-50-something myself, I want to say something to teenagers that maybe they don’t hear so often: “Kids, your music is alright.”
Recently two albums have been in heavy rotation on my playlist. Both albums are created by teenagers. Not twenty-year-olds or thirty-year-olds: teenagers. There are teenage-type themes in both albums but neither is “teeny-bopper” banality. Both are musically satisfying and full of creative energy. Yet the two albums could not sound more different from each other.
The first album is Pure Heroine by the Kiwi ingénue who calls herself Lorde. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last year, you have no doubt heard her song “Royals”. The song has been played so heavily as to almost feel omnipresent. Lorde’s music is extremely minimalist, very electronic, with an emphasis on an hypnotic beat and her surprisingly wide range of vocal expression, given her young age (seventeen, same age as my son!). Guitars are nowhere to be found on her album. This is atmospheric music dealing with teenage themes of alienation, boredom, and cynicism at the adult world; full of critique of her society and culture. This kid sings intelligent, solid stuff.
Then there is Snapshot, the album by a group of young Irish lads who call themselves The Strypes. From the opening blast of feedback to the final thump of foot pedal on bass drum, these boys take off at full speed and leave clouds of dust behind them. These four, aged 16 to 18, play an extremely guitar driven form of electric blues which brings to mind ’60’s British invasion bands like The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds while having the incredible energy of ’70’s English punk rock. This is infectious and highly boogie-able music unapologetically reminiscent of so much great rock-n-roll that came before it. In the song “She’s So Fine”, when they sing one of those great nonsensical blues lines – “She float like a bee but she sting like a butterfly” – I can’t help but smile. Every time. The kids absolutely kick arse.
The kids are alright. The fact is that every generation has produced great music. And every generation has produced drivel. Even the ’60’s generation, a generation that redefined pop music perhaps forever, has to answer for Herman’s Hermits #1 hit, “I’m Henry VIII I Am “. For every classic like Paul Simon’s hit from 1976, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”, there is a “Disco Duck” or a “Muskrat Love”. For every era-defining moment like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” there is a Michael Bolton and his ersatz emoting on his #1 hit cover of “When a Man Loves a Woman”. This is the legacy of popular music: Each generation gives us songs and moments for the ages but also earcandy and earworms that cannot be exorcised from our collective cultural soul.
Why then do grumpy middle-aged folks like myself persist in lambasting the music of the young? I suppose it could be chalked up to revisionist history on our part, conveniently forgetting all the ridiculous music that blared out of our car stereos and cassette-playing boomboxes. It could also be that music moved on and we did not. Pop music is an ever-evolving thing that never really sits still. As you get older, you settle for the music that becomes your “comfort food”, your “happy place”, as you navigate the stresses and harsh realities of adult life. One day you hear some Rap or Emo or Electronica and you scrunch up your face and think, “What the #!@*!# is that???” It’s the sound of music, whether or not it is your generation’s music or not. And it is like a rolling stone; it don’t gather no moss.
So based on my definition to begin this article, have I hit middle-age? Sadly, I think I hit it ages ago as I have always been a multi-generational complainer about popular music. I was griping about young people’s music when I was a young people myself. That’s part of being a music snob, I suppose. So I don’t wear socks with sandals (except if my feet are really cold) but I do most definitely exercise my cranky-old-guy right to rake pop music over the coals when I deem necessary. Guilty as charged.
However, I do keep an ear wide open for what has energy, creativity, insight; for what is pushing boundaries, saying new things, jumping out of the mass of musical mush and screaming, “Here I am!” I love music no matter what the era, no matter what the genre, no matter if it is made by people the same age as my own kids. Even though I’m getting older I don’t want to sit still and miss out on the fun of new music, new expressions, new sounds and new perspectives. Life is too full of great musical opportunities to just gripe at them as they pass by.
So, once again, kids – your music is alright. You’ll contribute your fair share of drivel but don’t believe for a second that you won’t also give us music that is epic, too.
Here’s a link to the Strypes performance of their song “What a Shame” on the Letterman show: