Rock of ageists

Fleet Foxes live, Seattle - 5/3/2011
There was this panel at South By Southwest in Austin last March that I considered going to. It was moderated by Jim Caligiuri of The Austin Chronicle, and featured some not-unknown names from the world of rock criticism and journalism. Thrust up your devil signs for Geoffrey Himes of The Baltimore City Paper, Chris Morris of Daily Variety, and freelancer Ed Ward, who is the "rock and roll historian" for NPR's Fresh Air With Terry Gross. Sure, we're not talking titans like Greil Marcus or Dave Marsh, or (hushed reverence) Lester Bangs. We're not even talking Michael Azerrad. But they've all spent their lives more or less carving a career in rock theory where absolutely nothing like it existed before, and they knew their stuff. I had to give them respect.

I'm looking at this listing in my handy SXSW Windows Phone app. I notice the panel is entitled, "I'm Not Old, Your Music Does Suck."

Yeah, I think to myself -- that'll help.

The description: "A great deal has been made about the decline of the music business. But few talk about the decline of the music. What if part of the reason the business is in trouble is that the music doesn't touch people that way it once did? How much is the lack or loss of gatekeepers responsible for the state of today's music? From American Idol to, what are the reasons for the state of today's music?"

The most fascinating word in that description is "gatekeepers." As if they're sentries. Palace guards. Maybe your basic minimum-wage rent-a-cops. I wonder if they're armed. You can infer from the word "gatekeepers" that their function is to prevent things from entering whatever hallowed sector lies beyond the gate. Not necessarily people, but surely certain elements, you can further infer, are harmful to this storied area. Gatekeepers have seen the party-crashers before and they have detailed, fully ingested instructions on how to crush them. There is not a laminate or wristband they will not destroy. They may even consume a few just to prove a point. They're the gatekeepers. That's what they do.

And judging from the title of the panel, we're to believe that at least somebody thinks these gatekeepers are, or should be, "old."

I ended up not going to the panel, mainly because it was impossible for me to get into most of the panels at SXSW last March, and my feet were famously killing me. But the name of the panel, while catchy, immediately put me off. Because as much as they assumed you were generalizing that they were "old," they were generalizing you as someone who makes music that "sucks."

Sure, the sassiest of those whose music reportedly sucks could have lobbed back some zingers if they knew their history. "Yeah? Well, your generation gave us 'In The Year 2525.' I believe your hands are dirty with the blood of 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.' Explain that one away, Mr. Brimley." But that would have been stooping to flip off. And playing right into the arrogance of that description.

Talkin' 'bout your g-g-g-g-g....

There is nothing so annoying to me, nothing so reflexively chafing, as the tendency of every generation to lionize their own age's aesthetics. It's not honoring the art of their time or their chronological peers. It's hoarding. The one thing that comes close to annoying me as much is the corollary that those of younger generations are somehow less worthy, too smitten by novelty, or too out-of-the-know to produce art that will last as long as they think theirs will.

That second thing doesn't annoy me quite as much as the first thing because, well, that's human nature, and nobody's figured out how to defeat that. Aesthetics informs every generation's identity, and you have to expect that they will defend that identity. Even I do. It disturbs me that both those things are being legitimized under the cloak of the musical literati.

I have a midlife crisis every other month. This has been going on for about two years. I had a huge one last weekend. I fear the onset of irrelevancy being concurrent with my advancement of age. And how do I usually retreat from it? With the music of my youth, my comfort food. Soul music from the '60s and '70s. Punk from the '70s and '80s. Power pop. Familiarity's a tonic, and I accept that.

But as the man said (actually I think it was a woman), "Nostalgia's not what it used to be."

You can't designate your age as a totem. Romanticism's great, but when tied to an era and not a truth, it spoils quickly. It does not age well. The fact is, time's going to move on long after we've died, when we can no longer program digital timing devices without calling our grandchildren. And just because we don't feel resonance within ourselves upon hearing something new, different and younger, doesn't mean we are free to universally declaim it.


Young people still make rock-based music. And speaking to them these days, I hear a tremendous amount of respect for artists decades older than they. They like you pretty much. None of this was more obvious than earlier this year, when Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers teamed up with Bob Dylan for the greatest Grammy performance I've seen in years, and the first thing in music history to make Dylan almost dance. It was obvious last night when I saw Fleet Foxes play a show that was as musically fluent and disciplined as I'd seen from kids who are still pretty young. These guys work. Surely your lectures about the value of hard work must've landed somewhere with them.

Sure, sure -- you agree those guys are okay, because they're working in folk-based genres. Of course you can appreciate them. But what do you do about James Blake, who's making arch electronic music that is so electronically affected that its humanity has to be compromised? (Hint: Blake is actually working in reverse.) What do you do about the pop diva craze, and its spiraling outrageousness? How are you expected to approve of any part of that? (Hint: That's trickier, but -- well, LaBelle. Grace Jones. Cher.)

The answer is: You're not supposed to do anything, because that's what you expected of your parents. To butt out. But for me, that's not acceptable. I'd rather take the chance that someone 20 years my junior is going to do something that's going to amaze me, than risk looking mean-spirited by beating him up with my cane. After which I'd probably get tazed anyway.

To blame pop cultural phenomenons like American Idol for the depreciation that isn't actually happening is foolish, too. You know they're going to go away someday. They're not Meet The Press. They're probably not even Gunsmoke. Every single rock generation had its unseemly outlets driven by commercialism. Donny & Marie. The hippie episode of Dragnet. Solid Gold. Jefferson Airplane shilling Levi's. Being a preservationist of your ideals means knowing when to stop giving transient forces too much power. They don't affect truth, and therefore shouldn't affect you, but you're spending so much time fearing a cultural boogeyman's effect on your ego that you're afraid it's going to destroy all you believe in. The fortitude of your artistic beliefs stands tall and strong, but you can be felled by a wayward hula hoop. Bullshit.

Yes, you did.

The same goes for Pitchfork. Whether or not you think they're elitist, annoying, horn-rimmed or whatever -- you think they're actually making music worse? I don't read their site out of habit. (I don't really read that much to begin with.) I get why people my age and younger might think they're, I don't know, snotty. I have them in as high a regard as I for with other scions of the online music press, which is, you guessed it, somewhere between "at least someone's trying" and "what's the point of trying?"

But the old gatekeepers have Pitchfork Media on their shitlist for deprecating music? How, exactly? Do they have some sort of militia? Are there codes they enforce? Who's building the robot army? Does an artist make records for Pitchfork these days? If you insist they do, then did rockers of your time make music for Creem? If your answer's "no," then when did you decide that it was acceptable to stem information? Or opinions? If we stemmed your opinions, you'd whack us with your protest signs and tells us Wavy Gravy would never have acted this way.

(That's another one. I'm holding Wavy Gravy over your heads until St. Peter himself tells me to cut it out. I'll have none of your questions about what kind of lady wears a meat dress until you explain to me what that man did and why he was allowed access to amplification systems.)

You're going to run into this no matter what age you are. I'm convinced of that. It would not surprise me at all to learn that Scott Joplin had to sell shaving utensils or was concerned about the reviews he'd get in The Saturday Evening Post. (If they had a music section.) The only thing that changes is the technology. The devil's salesman routine and the crabby press have always been here, and always will. Yours wasn't any better than anyone else's. Neither was mine. It was just how we accessed the information, or the shaving utensils.

Funny story: My dad stopped listening to new music precisely at the time Elvis Presley came to the forefront. That was his dividing line, that was where he got off the train. My dad was 21 years old at the time. Elvis was just one year younger.

When Dad semi-retired -- I confess I have no clue if he's really retired as much as he should be -- he started playing music again. Picked up the trombone for the first time in 40 years, I'm guessing, and redeveloped his skills very, very quickly. He played in New Orleans last summer. But the funny thing happened about five years ago, when he told me he was going back and discovering, for the first time, the music that came immediately after he stopped listening to new music. He was amazed at how much progress was in that music that came so soon after he swore allegiance to big band and Dixieland for his young adulthood and middle age.

I asked him who he was getting into, and he said, "The Beatles. And Cher."

Okay, okay, I figure he'll get around to the Ramones in about ten years, but still, that was encouraging. It kind of validated what I'd decided to do with my life. That you can't realistically keep a closed door on culture for that long.

That's the problem with aging gatekeepers: they're not letting certain people in, but they also can't appreciate how much other people appreciate the stuff they're letting out. The eternal qualities. They are tied to the impermanent, as much as they think any of their descendents are. They hang onto nothing more than a curio of their time. The essence of art-making has never changed. The impulses and inspirations of art have never, ever altered. I'm positive Shakespeare wrote what he wrote to plumb the depths of humanism and to reflect a new layer of dramatic complexity, but he might've also just been trying to pick up girls.

The impulse of your generation's art has not changed at any point in human history. Other people are just using different means to redisplay it. If we're going to divide art into generations and assign merit curves strictly according to the chronological divide, and smite all younger generations with our pride of ownership -- well, we weren't really artists to begin with, were we? We kicked the eternal spirit of art in the balls, and then stole its pants.

You don't have to like new music. I don't like all of it myself. You don't have to appreciate it. You don't even have to listen to it, though it would be nice if you did every once in awhile. You just have to let it exist on its own terms. It might help if you compared it to something you understand, but I don't want to micromanage your tolerance engine. But blanket-judging by virtue of amount of time spent breathing is in direct opposition to the very core of the ideals you proclaim to know so much about.

In short, it's getting old.
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