It happens far more regularly than one might suspect it would: I’m talking with someone – a younger someone, reasonably close to my age – about what music they listen to and they explain that they only listen to classic rock or some music that they weren’t even ALIVE to listen to when it first came out.
I’m not alone in finding this weird and interesting: all sorts of young people are rejecting the popular music of their time (and even the unpopular music of their time) and are instead embracing the music that their parents listened to. I witnessed this first hand at the Rolling Stones concert in Halifax this past fall, where it felt like more teens were singing along to Alice Cooper than Kanye West. The phenomenon is common enough that USA Today actually wrote an article about it a few years ago.
Now, I’m rarely surprised when grown-up baby boomers ignore contemporary sounds and choose to listen to the oldies, depressing as it might be. In a youth-obsessed culture such as ours – with de-aging creams, diet routines and Happy Days/American Graffiti hallmarks abound – I would hardly expect anything less than for people to cling on to every last shred of their delusional ‘glory days.’ But what on earth to make of an increasing number of young people who are into classic rock, music that predates their own existence?
There’s something depressingly fatalistic about believing that the best music out there is from the past, that the vast majority of sounds worth listening to have already been made. There will never be another Beatles album, after all, nor another Zeppelin album (reinterpretations and shameless repackaging aside). Is there not something lost when the definitive biographies of your favourite bands have all been written? What is there left to get excited about when there’s no new music to impatiently await or concerts to attend (or wish you were attending)?
The USA Today article (which I’m reading for the first time since shortly after it was published) suggests a multitude of simplistic reasons for why this phenomenon might be happening: that young people are tired of hip hop’s dominance of popular music and long for music with more guitars; that classic albums are a remedy to today’s trend of one or two good songs and a lot of filler; that semi-retro bands like The Darkness (remember them?) and the White Stripes have made these sounds cool again; and that downloading and file sharing makes this music more accessible (ie. stealable) than ever before.
But all of these criticisms of popular music are remedied by even the slightest dip into alternative/indie/underground scene, where there are thousands and thousands of bands who are building and reinterpreting these classic sounds and thriving at it, where hip hop and emo don’t dominate the soundscapes and where the Internet is making new music easier to discover than ever before. So why is it that the kids are embracing their parents’ music instead of finding music of their own?
My first response is to simply declare all of this as another example of the Baby Boom force-feeding their cultural watermarks to my generation, a kind of tragic indoctrination that amounts to “wow, you guys really missed out on all that was worth living through.” But I think there’s something more interesting going on here, stemming from the idealistic desire of the teenage mind to change the world.
The whole point of our teenage years is to push boundaries, knock over walls, gaze out over the world and scream at its imperfections at the top of our lungs. Be a cynic and chalk it up to self-indulgence or be an optimist and chalk it up to ambition: teenagers want to feel important, like they’re valued and can truly make a difference. They want to feel empowered on some level, and that goes for what they listen to as much as what they wear, write and believe.
If teenagers don’t like hip hop or emo – and the transformative power of those genres is highly questionable – where else are they going to find music that can make a difference, that can reshape society and can change the world? As much as I like to think that bands like Radiohead and Arcade Fire could be (and should be) loved by anyone and everyone, that’s hardly the case. We live in demassified times, where the music that we listen to is as fractured as the media that surrounds us and the politics that confound us. Blame it on the Children of Reagan, who increasingly worried about themselves and themselves alone, or on Napster, the iPod and the decline of radio, but rock and roll is long since dead as a singular movement.
So it makes sense that teens who love rock music look back to the era of their parents, an incredibly unique time in modern history where two key developments intersected: the Baby Boom generation created a society organized around and catering to young people, and the rise of mass communications in the form of national radio and television let that generation speak in a rather undivided voice. Thus, when rock and roll hit the scene in the 1950s, a backroom fusion of country and blues was transformed into a cultural revolution. From Elvis to Woodstock (and arguably even later), it seemed like there was a singular soundtrack for an entire generation, even if the more complicated reality was only being masked by the limited media channels available at the time.
Nowadays, rock music’s glory days have come and gone, its ability to change the world becoming frail and tattered as its contemporary listeners age alongside. These days, rock and rock can only change the world inside of ourselves. This, I suppose, is still worth a damn.