Growing Old Gracefully

As I guessed it might, last week’s post about what one reader calls “music death,” or the point at which we stop caring about the stuff on the radio, generated lots of interesting commentary from the readership.

New styles gaining popularity seem to have chased a lot of us away: for some it was grunge, for others it was hip-hop and/or rap. That such a thing happens is news on par with the sunrise. What we’re really talking about is the passage of time. Every new style is welcomed by a new generation that loves it and loathed by an older generation that doesn’t. Failing to keep up with the next big thing is not some sort of existential crisis; it’s the norm.

Music goes through cycles of quality, too, although those cycles are highly subjective. To me, the best of the 1970s was past by 1978—the year I graduated from high school, and I bet that’s not a coincidence—and it wasn’t until 1984 that the Top 40 started sounding good to me again. I vividly remember doing a year-end countdown show on the AC station long about 1992 and thinking that most of the big hits of the year were pretty awful. But there’s also data showing that some years are better than others. I have heard that from a radio-research point of view, music from the 1990s does not test as well with adult audiences as stuff from the 70s and 80s does—even among those who grew up with it.

The fragmentation of styles and formats doesn’t make it any easier to stay current, either. Back in the mid 00s, I started subscribing to Paste (which included a CD of new material every month) in hopes of learning about new stuff I should be listening to. But I knew I was in trouble when Paste praised one band as being heavily influenced by Built to Spill, a band I did not know, and I realized that to get hip with the mid 00s, I was going to have to get hip with generations of earlier hipness just to speak the language. And while I tried to listen to the Paste CDs with an open mind, some of the stuff was as foreign as Tuvan throat singing. I knew it must appeal to somebody, but I couldn’t explain why, and that somebody sure as hell wasn’t me.

What our friends like has always been an important aspect of musical discovery, so the glory days of mp3 blogging, between about 2006 and 2010, was great for guys like me, who had been left behind by the scene, to discover new music. I learned about Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. Amy Winehouse, and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, among others, from fellow music bloggers, a 21st century update to the way friends swapped albums back in the day.

I haven’t discovered many new artists since about 2010, however. I’ve been exploring the back catalog of styles I like—there is one hell of a lot of post-World War II jazz I have yet to discover—and listening closely to the catalogs of familiar artists. I am a much bigger fan of Fleetwood Mac and the Rolling Stones now than I was in the 1970s and 1980s because I’ve dug deeper into their catalogs than the radio ever did. And I’m listening to new releases by people I have always loved. As Ryan put it in his comment, “I would much rather dig into a new effort from an artist from my past because it is like reuniting with a friend and sharing our experiences as we’ve grown older.”

Liking what we like no matter what comes next can be seen as a way of growing old gracefully, with musical accompaniment. It requires us to be true to who we are. It’s fine to try and incorporate some of whatever’s hip right now, but impossible to take in all of it, because we’re not the people we used to be.

Shorter: If you are 40 or over, you should not twerk.

2 responses

  1. I had long-since stopped ‘relating’ to it—had hit the big 30 fall ’83—but actually enjoyed a lot of what I was hearing, at least on FM, during the 80’s-mid 90’s. I wasn’t really going out buying it, because I now longer felt owning music was all that important or relevant.

    By the time my second child was born–’97–forget it, it became all kids’ animation movies and accompanying soundtracks. Too tired for anything else.

  2. I agree with most of your post but we live in a world where almost all recorded music is available at your fingertips, there’s no need to wait for the next “good” thing to come along. Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd t-shirts are seen at most high schools today. I remember breaking out my dad’s Glen Miller t-shirt when I was in high school; the looks I got!

    My friend from high school had to laugh when his son bought a “retro” Rush concert tee that listed their tour itinerary and his dad was at one of those 1976 shows.

    As far as old artists releasing new music it’s hit or miss. Many of those are larded down with “current” or guest artists to try and snag a younger audience. The things Jack White did to Wanda Jackson….ugh.

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