What Happened to the Generation Gap?

One of my nieces, a precocious, bright, and interesting teenager visited recently. In the course of conversation at dinner one night, I made a joke using a quote from a Michael Jackson tune, and I was surprised that she got the joke and knew the reference. She then said how much she loves Michael Jackson, which surprised me even more. When she was born in 1997, Jackson was already long past his prime, and into the “better living through chemistry and surgery” phase of pop stardom. Then I did the math and got even more confused.

Jackson’s greatest success came after the Jackson Five era, beginning with his solo album Off the Wall (1979) and reaching its high point with Thriller (1982), and the also very successful Bad (1987).  He’s been a pop culture icon ever since, and deservedly so. If we use the median year (1984) of these three albums as representing his year of greatest popularity, it means my niece has deep knowledge of a pop star whose height of popularity occurred more than a decade before she was born.

I find that odd. When I was 13, I may have had some knowledge of pop stars from a quarter century earlier, but I certainly didn’t like any of their music. I was listening to pop music of the time–Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Hall and Oates, but mostly others in the progressive rock genre like Genesis, Pink Floyd, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and King Crimson. My friends and I simply didn’t listen to the pop music of the decade before we were born, much less that of two decades prior.

My niece isn’t anomalous in this regard. Since the mid-1990s or so, I’ve noticed similar trends with many college and high school students at institutions in different states and countries, and I’ve heard similar comments from colleagues around the country. This week, my 9-year old daughter asked “Who plays the harmonica solo on Elton John’s I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues?” How does she even know who Elton John is (he hasn’t had a hit for decades)? She sings along with groups like Heart, Eurhythmics, George Michael, Tears for Fears, and others from the ’80s hit parade but she also likes Adele, Lady Gaga, and a few other modern pop acts (she hears all of them on the same radio stations, which is curious in and of itself). But how different are those artists from their predecessors? Well, they’re different, but not like the differences between Bix Beiderbecke and Herb Alpert, or between Ella Fitzgerald and Janis Joplin. (In contrast, the stylistic similarities between Lady Gaga and Madonna are fairly obvious, and have been discussed at length.) There’s nothing inherently wrong with artists whose roots are showing, it’s just odd because it’s impossible to find a pop star from the ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s who sounds and acts so much like a pop star from the ’30s, ’40s, or ’50s (nostalgia or retro groups notwithstanding).

The converse is also true. Older adults are also listening to Lady Gaga. At the 2012 Jazz Education Network Conference, during the Q&A in one of many presentations on building jazz audiences, someone made a disparaging remark about Lady Gaga being “just entertainment” rather than “serious art.” This met with loud disapproval from the mostly middle-aged (and older) jazz people in attendance. One man seated a few rows ahead of me responded with a repeated one-word utterance while shaking his head angrily: “Disagree. DIS-A-GREE!!” And I have to admit that I’m part of this phenomenon–here are the last three concerts I attended: jazz trumpeter Nicholas Payton (I walked out), the Jupiter String Quartet (outstanding concert, one that I will not soon forget), and the german industrial metal band Rammstein (an overwhelming experience, one that I will also not soon forget).

What is going on here? Why are teenagers listening to music that their parents were dancing to 25 years ago instead of rebelling against it? Was the music back then better than today’s pop music?  This trend is also noticeable in film, where it seems that soon every TV show, cartoon, and comic book from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s has been (or will be) made into a feature film (usually a poor film at that).

It seems as if popular music has achieved some kind of unholy inter-generational equilibrium that is, as far as I can tell, unprecedented. In any case, it is highly disconcerting to me. I would understand if the object of affection was Beethoven or Miles Davis or the Beatles (timeless music outside of the brief pop culture time-span), but that is not the case–it’s Michael Jackson, singing “beat it” or “the kid is not my son.” (Both are excellent pop/dance tunes to be sure, but the contrived macho gangland chest thumping and a paternity suit sob story are not likely to wear as well in the decades and centuries to come as, say, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, or the Beatles’ Abbey Road.)

Was Francis Fukuyama right about the “end of history” but wrong about which history it was? I fear that might be case, but I hope I’m wrong.

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3 Responses to “What Happened to the Generation Gap?”

  1. I first noticed this trend five years or so ago, when I was having considerable success programming music of Yes, Peter Gabriel, and Steely Dan alongside the usual jazz standards with the student combo I was coaching. It seems that quality will out, regardless of generation. Despite what we now know about MJ, back in the period from the late 70s through the early 80s his albums represented a high level of musicianship and production. Couple that with the virtually simultaneous rise of music video, and it’s no wonder the material still resonates a generation later. Another 75 years down the road, though…who knows?

    It’s also about access. How much easier is it for your niece and others her age to hear music of 25 years (or more) ago, compared to what we would have to go through when we were that age? And she is literally bombarded with music (or at least fragments) from the 60s onward every time she turns on the television, goes shopping, or even walks in a public area. It’s the insidious concept of “Elevator Music” writ large.

    Zappa talked about the ever-decreasing time span between events or eras and the recognition/recapitulation/regurgitation of those events or eras. He called it “Death by Nostalgia”.

    • Zappa and Fripp were always light years ahead on the music business side of it, and yet both managed to make a good income from it in spite of their disdain for the machinery.

  2. I am blessed that I grew up in the glorious 80s and would not trade those years for anything. I look back at the 80s with great fondness and nostalgia. I find myself wishing I could get into a Delorean right now and drive Back To The Future to the year 1985. Ah, life was grand then. So I can definitely understand why kids of today would be intrigued with the 80s music. I also can understand why the kids of the 80s had no interest in the music of the 60’s and 70’s. The 80s were a very unique experience in which no other time period can compare IMO.

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