‘Twas Ever Thus

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(Above: The technology with which we listen to music grows and changes over time. Why doesn’t our taste in music do the same?)

A few years ago I wrote about the experience of seeing James Taylor in concert and noticing how it seemed less like people listening to music and more like a piece of baby-boomer performance art staged by the participants for their own enjoyment. A commenter happened by that old post recently and made a point that I have been noodling with ever since:

[W]hat I find perplexing is why so few of [the] baby boomers, of which I am one, have not graduated to more serious music. Where is Shostakovich or John Adams? There is music being made that does not just reflect our self image, but [asks] more of us. This I find to be one of the big disappointment of the boomer generation. We are stuck in a self reflective swamp.

That boomers are stuck in self-reflection is news on par with the sunrise—and as we begin to observe various 50th anniversaries from The Sixties, it’s only going to get worse. Anything that happens in our lives we find interesting partly because it happened to us. The critical mass of boomers and the position they occupy, especially in the media (which is the message today to an extent McLuhan could scarcely have imagined) multiplies this effect. I suspect that this is going to happen to every generation now as they take their turn at the wheel of the media’s culture machine, although maybe not to the extent it has with the boomers, since boomer culture is relatively homogenous while succeeding generations grow every more atomized.

As to why boomers “have not graduated to more serious music”—I don’t believe that’s the normal course of things, and it never has been. True, 19th century working classes adored Shakespeare, but often in settings that were considered lowbrow by more “cultured” classes, who eventually opened theaters of their own for the sort of art they preferred. During the 30s, jazz, more complicated and sophisticated than pop, was ascendant, but its fans and players weren’t necessarily taken seriously as artists by those who appointed themselves arbiter of such things. Young jazz fans of the 1930s who had kids in the 40s were wondering by the 1960s why their kids were listening to such frivolous crap, Elvis, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and so forth, just as those same kids wonder now what their children find appealing about hip-hop. Dial it back to the ragtime era of the early 20th century and it’s the same pattern. Why won’t the kids grow up and have better taste?

‘Twas ever thus.

We haven’t graduated to more serious music because we don’t listen the same way we take classes in school, with the goal of becoming ever more accomplished in a particular subject as time goes by—even when we take music seriously. Music is not information we acquire and on which we build additional structures of information, the way we do when we’re learning algebra or Spanish. It can be, but if it commonly was, we would indeed graduate from pop to jazz to classical—from the Beatles to Miles Davis to Shostakovich, perhaps. But music is, for most people, a diversion, a piece of the broader fabric of daily life. We don’t want it to “ask more of us” any more than we want sriracha to dominate whatever we’re eating. It’s a garnish, or a condiment. If we choose to do more with it or go different places with it, that’s a choice we make—but it’s not something we should expect of anyone, including ourselves, because life doesn’t work that way.

That’s just my opinion, and I could be completely wrong. And there may be dimensions to this discussion that I haven’t considered. What do you think?

2 thoughts on “‘Twas Ever Thus

  1. Brian

    I generally agree, but I wonder if there has been a decline in musical literacy. At one time, a piano was commonly considered an essential element of a middle class home, and upwardly mobile types went to the symphony or opera as social engagements. I don’t know about listenership for classical music stations, but attendance and support for live musical presentations of this nature appears to have diminished over time.

  2. Mark CDproject

    Music doesn’t have to be classical art music to ask more of us. As a pre-teen, I was fully unprepared to handle Kraftwerk, Joy Division, or Bowie’s “Berlin trilogy.” Now middle-aged, I am giving these and other works a chance and am enjoying the learning process.

    I started listening to jazz as a teenager – not in an effort to “graduate” to something more serious than pop music but because I liked it. However, I realize that I am an outlier in that respect. Many of my fellow middle-agers come to me these days and say something like, “I want to start listening to jazz.” So there are people who at least show a desire to move to something new. I tell them to buy Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, listen to it at least once a week for six months, then come back and talk to me. Admittedly, my method of jazz music indoctrination has met with varying results, but what method wouldn’t?

    But in the end, does it really matter? The ear wants what the ear wants (to paraphrase the idiots on Maury), and we should listen to whatever we enjoy listening to. People change, tastes change, music changes. If someone wants to listen to Philip Glass? Fine by me. If my students enjoy Justin Beiber? Let ’em! If I want to drink bourbon and cry over lost loves perusing my high school yearbook while listening to Simple Minds? What’s it to ya? In my book, there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure. The world would be a better place if we spent more time listening to what we enjoy and less time worrying about what others are listening to. An even better place if we created stuff we enjoy and offered it up to others.

    And hell yeah I’d go to hear Shostakovitch on Monday and James Taylor on Tuesday and Pharrell Williams on Wednesday and open mike night on Thursday.

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