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Memphis Flyer The Little Chill

Why are young people listening to their parents' music?

By Stephen Grimstead

MAY 8, 2000: 

The things they do look awful cold,
Hope I die before I get old
-- "My Generation," The Who

When I was a kid, my father listened to Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra records. At the age of 10 we moved to Tennessee, where I noticed that my buddies' dads were into country stars like Marty Robbins and George Jones. Eventually I grew to appreciate the aforementioned artists, but at the time, my friends and I considered them to be thoroughly uncool.

Soon we started a band, playing -- or trying hard to play -- British Invasion songs and black music by greats like Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding (if you can imagine five pre-pubescent white boys bemoaning the idea of roaming 10,000 miles "just to make this dock my home").

One thing's for sure: None of our band's members ever asked, "What are the words to 'That's Amore'?" or "What are the chords to 'El Paso'?" We would have run away from home before stooping to such depths.

So, what's up with the fact that these days almost all the young dudes' CD collections feature a startlingly large percentage of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and other "classic rock" albums, the very same stuff many of their parents grew up listening to? (Now is a good time to let the reader know that this article is chiefly about the music preferences of young white males, although the social phenomena addressed herein impacts upon other races and females to an appreciable extent.)

As a private music instructor who's been at it for more than 20 years, I've seen and continue to see a great many young people. And I don't think it's inaccurate to say that my position as such affords me a somewhat unique glimpse into their lives. Perhaps my scruffy-assed bohemian/old hippie looks betray a serious case of arrested development. Or maybe it's my Pee Wee's Playhouse domestic environment that loosens their tongues. For one reason or another, these kids open up to me during their weekly lessons. They talk to me about nearly every aspect of themselves; problems at school, problems at home, drug busts, love interests, hopes and dreams of all kinds. But, with a few exceptions, I'll be damned if I can get much out of them regarding the vexing question of their mysterious interest in older rock music -- or newer rock music, for that matter. "I don't know, I just like it, man" is the typical response to a line of inquiry that they find mildly irritating, at best.

These students often point to the fact that they also listen to a lot of contemporary bands like Rage Against the Machine and Korn. But the difference between Korn and the Who is negligible in light of the difference between the Who and Perry Como. What happened to the idea of rejecting the previous generation's aesthetic values and replacing those with something new?

It seems obvious to me that, early on, kids found it much easier to relate to the direct simplicity of R&R (think Chuck Berry) than to the slick sophistication of a Nelson Riddle arrangement on a Sinatra track, for instance. And for some time now, youth culture has been calling the shots as to what passes for predominant aesthetic values.

Do you doubt that?

Okay, let's narrow it down to American society. The generation of Americans who went through the Great Depression and then World War II were determined to make life easier for their children. A hugely significant result of that decision was the unprecedented empowerment of young people. Never before had young Americans' wallets and purses bulged with so much disposable income. As American society embarked upon an astounding period of prosperity (I speak now in general and relative terms, keeping a historical perspective), kids got richer and more powerful. It didn't take long for the entertainment industry (not to mention clothing and other interested industries) to make the courtship of the youth-culture dollar a top priority.

A monstrosity of sorts was created and has been nurtured for five decades.

At this point in my postulation lines start to blur, the buck gets passed, cause and effect become difficult to discern. There's a chicken and egg conundrum to be considered. Here's what I mean: Does modern rock/youth culture drive and control "spin-off" commercial concerns, or do those industries lead youngsters by the nose in a perpetual tail-chasing, trend-oriented trek down a circular "what comes around goes around" path to obedient consumerism?

In all of music there's nothing quite like the sound of a solid-body electric guitar signal shoved through killer distortion escaping through speakers connected to a decent amplifier. And in the hands of a capable youngster, that timbre becomes almost weapon-like, a means by which to deal with all the anger, frustration, damage, and glory of adolescence. Which helps to explain why that particular fixture of rock music enjoys longevity. But fuzz guitar is simply a voice, like the saxophone or the flute. Look at the wildly varied ways those instruments have been used through the years. Surely it's time to take old R&R elements like distorted guitar into new realms.

Regarding pop music (not counting Nashvegas-style country, which suffers from its own pernicious maladies), I come up with only two genres which exhibit even the slightest interest in abandoning rock tradition: hip-hop and electronica. But even these styles owe a debt to traditions at least as old as those established by Gil Scott-Heron and Kraftwerk.

Dear students: The very existence of something called "The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame" should piss you off. And if you're going to function as a walking advertisement for Old Navy, at least get paid.

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