Cross Generational Music Appreciation

By James Wallace Harris, March 14, 2016

In his new book, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, John Seabrook begins by telling how his young son took over the car radio during their morning ride to school. Seabrook loves music and wanted his son to love his music, but the kid was adamant that he wanted his own music. I remember doing this to my dad back in the late 1950s. I’m sure all of us have been on both sides of that divide of music generations. Seabrook decided to get into his son’s music, and ended up writing a fascinating book.

How much cross generation listening goes on? Don’t most people bond with the music from their teenage and college years and then essentially stop listening to new stuff when the next generation annoys them with their music? In recent years though, I’ve noticed that some kids have embraced a few bands, songs and albums from my generation, the 1960s. I belong to their grandparents’ times. Are these kids rebelling against their parents’ by listening to the music their parents rejected?

My generation (who knew the Who could be so prophetic) has become terribly nostalgic for music history, seemingly to never tire of documentaries like, The Wrecking Crew, Muscle Shoals, 20 Feet From Stardom, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Searching For Sugar Man, Atlantic Records, and Respect Yourself: The Stax Years. Just last week I watched documentaries on Fats Domino and Carole King. I’d watch more if I could find them. It’s funny, but this music is the one bridge I have with my Fox News watching conservative friends. We hate each other for our politics but commune over music.

But if I tell my peers I have Katy Perry or Nicki Minaj on my playlists they laugh at me. But if I tell them I’ve been listening to Ronnie Spector or Dionne Warwick it sparks a memory fest. And if tell them I’m been playing Peggy Lee or Lena Horne, a few of them will perk up. Among my music loving buddies who do cross generations, they generally travel backwards. I guess the young people I meet with Jimi Hendrix T-shirts are traveling backwards in time too. I don’t know why older folks look down on the music of younger generations. I have a number of friends who stopped listening to new music around 1975, and no matter what I play for them, I can’t seem to get them to move forward in time.

That’s a shame because musical creativity didn’t stop in the 1970s. Seabrook writes specifically about pop music (Katy Perry, Ke$ha, Rihanna, KPOP, American Idol, Denniz Pop, Max Martin, Dr. Luke, Ester Dean) and how they make hits with computers and teams of creative personnel that collaborate with the performing artist. There are no singer-songwriters here. No bands that play all their instruments. Producers are the emperors of the studio, hiring up to a dozen people to write a song. But wouldn’t that be true back in the Motown era if everyone who added anything to a song got credit? The Song Machine was absolutely fascinating to me, even though I’m not from that generation. It annoys me that my friends won’t give new music a chance, and probably refuse to read this book.


All this cogitation about cross generation listening has made wonder about many things. How do kids today choose what they listen to from past generations? And why? Are they mesmerized by tunes in movies and end up chasing them down? Have they found LPs at Granny’s or Goodwill, which inspired them to dig up an old record player, curious about the tunes on those strange black discs? This morning I was wondering why young people remember The Beatles, but not The Byrds. Is there any reason for one generation to remember the pop culture from another generation? Has classic rock become the elevator music of today, and Beatles songs became ear worms boring into young brains? Do they teach The Beatles in school? Maybe kids clicked past nostalgia shows on PBS and got hooked. I don’t know what percentage of today’s generation discover old music, but is there any reason to expect them know about my music, or even like it? And why don’t I ever hear them express their love for The Byrds—my favorite band from the 1960s?

Mr Tamborine Man - The ByrdsTurn Turn Turn - The Byrds

At the moment I’m listening to a collection of 1950s songs on Spotify because I caught an episode of American Masters on PBS about Fats Domino. One thing I didn’t know, Fats was as popular as Elvis for a short while during the 1950s, but people now remember the 1950s belonging to Elvis. That makes me think there are some people like me, who remember their decade of music differently. I hardly play The Beatles anymore, but I play music from the 1960s constantly. Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Motown, San Francisco rock and pre-1965 Brill Building pop dominate my memories. If I made list of my favorite songs, I bet there would be a couple hundred songs from the 1960s at the top of my list before I even listed my first Beatles tune.

And I loved The Beatles, but I loved other artists from the 1960s more. Should I encourage young people to discover their music? Should schools teach 1960s music like they teach classical music in music appreciation courses? As I got older I sought out popular music that came out before the 1960s, going back into the 1950s, 1940s, 1930s and even the 1920s. I crossed genres into jazz, country, big band, folk, pop, world, opera and classical. I suppose some of the kids who are discovering The Beatles are doing that today.

Fifth Dimension - The ByrdsYounger Than Yesterday - The Byrds

When does pop culture become history? When does memory become nostalgia? They used to play Fats Domino songs like I’m listening to as I write on the weekends in 1962, on WQAM and WFUN, and called them “Oldie Goldies” even though they were less than ten years old. Now they’re over sixty. People from my generation go to concerts today performed by acts they grew up with, even though those artists are even a generation older than us. I’m not keen on seeing dinosaur rock. I love remembering those performers when they were young, vibrant and in their times. On Facebook I have friends who post photos from parties where they act like they are still in high school. That’s cool. But should they listen to some new music too? It’s really hard to give up the pop culture that imprinted on us as teens.

I’m not sure there are reasons to require listeners to cross generational divides. When I watch “People Are Awesome” videos on YouTube I realize the current generation have plenty to keep them busy, more than I ever had. Now is always more important than the past—or the future. On the other hand, I’ve switched from Fats to “Jealous” by Ester Dean, playing it over and over. It’s definitely not from the 1950s! I’m too old to live in the times in which this song belongs, but Dean’s voice and melody touches my heart in a way that I wish I could.

Nortorious Byrd Brothers - The Byrds Sweetheart of the Rodeo - The Byrds

Do the young today long to visit my era in the same way I wish I could be young now? The Beatles were tremendously exciting, but were they more exciting than the groups now? Why are the sounds of The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and Jefferson Airplane still siren calls that hold me back in time? If I stopped listening to the songs that tie me to the past, could I modernize my brain by only playing new songs on Spotify?

I often think about my future when my body will be fading out of existence and my mind barely floats in reality. I’ve often thought listening to music on headphones while I die would be a great way to go. Will I be listening to seventy year old songs? More and more, the songs on my main Spotify list are newer ones. I play my tunes on random play. Will I leave reality hearing 1965, or 2037? Wouldn’t it be weird if I lived long enough to live The Sixties again?


Katy Perry vs. The Beatles

There is a kind of age prejudice in pop music that I’d like to explore.  When I was growing I thought Perry Como and Dean Martin were for over the hill folks, like my parents.  The Beatles and Bob Dylan defined my generation, even though older college kids looked down on us teens from their folk music purity.  And let’s not forget the smugness of classical music fans or jazz aficionados who sneer at three chord rock and roll from their hipster highs.

But I have to admit, we baby boomers are terrible music snobs.  Many of my generation stopped listening to music after 1975.  For people coming of age in the 1960s, The Beatles are the yardstick that all other pop music is measured.  To many of us the art of music has been in sharp decline since 1969’s Abbey Road.  But has the music declined, or just our youthful enthusiasm?

I’m now a generation older than my parents were when we all first watched The Beatles on Ed Sullivan back in February of 1964.  The Beatles, The Byrds and Bob Dylan have become my Perry Como, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.

When I tell friends my age that I’m listening to Katy Perry most of them do not have a clue to who she is, and if they do, they think of her as some kind of under-aged, under-dressed young woman who doesn’t really sing but flaunts her body to loud noise.  “Oh those girls don’t sing they sell sex.”  But what emotional response were all those screaming teenage girls buying when they heard:

Oh please say to me

You’ll let me be your man

And please say to me

You’ll let me hold your hand

Now, let me hold your hand

I want to hold your hand

Almost a half-century from when the Beatles sang to little girls, girl singers now dominate the pop charts, and sing songs like “Pearl,” that rebels against the tyranny of love and men,

Oh, she used to be a pearl, oh

Yeah, she used to rule the world, oh

Can’t believe she’s become a shell of herself

Cause she used to be a pearl

She was unstoppable

Moved fast as light, like an avalanche

But now she’s stuck deep in cement

Wishing that they’d never ever met

When we were young we were more than willing to accept the wisdom of Lennon and McCartney, who were no older than Katy Perry now.  Why, when we’re two or three times older than Paul and John in 1964, do we cling to their music and reject the artistic expression of today’s youth?  You’d think we’d be listening to something old and fuddy-duddy by now, like our version of Perry Como.  Do The Beatles sound square to the modern listener?

Do we all get stuck in our own teenage dreams?

Pop music has never been that deep and I don’t think Katy Perry’s album Teenage Dream is that different any of the Fab Four’s early LPs.  We are told Perry is involved with the writing of her songs, but that could be PR, but don’t the lyrics represent the young of 2010?  Her hit song “Teenage Dream” does not show the poetical sophistication of “Eleanor Rigby” but it’s sentiments are far more sophisticated than the early Lennon-McCartney love songs when they were her age.  Remember, in 1964, things were much more innocent than this video.

What does this say about this generation?  And what if you heard your answer back when you were a teen – don’t you sound like our parents?  My Mom and Dad hated The Beatles and thought they were vulgar, lacking in talent.  My father claimed they played noise.  But we thought The Beatles were cutting edge brilliant.  They expressed our desires and dreams – but don’t those dreams and desires seem so innocent and unsophisticated now?  Children under ten today love The Beatles.  Older kids want Jack White, whose anger is hard to fathom to us, but obvious to them.

Of course, I wonder if today’s high school and college kids are really more mature than we were?  The Beatles were living what we see in this Katy Perry video, we just didn’t see it.  And we were no angels either.

And if we graying baby boomers, now over the hill by our earlier philosophy of not trusting people over thirty, stop listening to twenty-something art, doesn’t that put us out of touch like we thought our parents were back then?

Or maybe pop music encapsulates every emerging generation, and the normal mature thing to do is to hate the music of young?

I listen to music like it’s a drug.  When all The Beatles albums were recently remastered I went out and bought most of them, but I only played them once.  Their potency as a musical stimulant has worn off.  But I’m playing the Katy Perry songs over and over again because they get me high with restless energy.  To me its new music that thrills.  As I’ve gotten older it’s gotten much harder to connect to the young, so I return to my old favorite albums, but it’s a nostalgic thrill, not a let’s go out and conquer the world defiant dance.

Just being current doesn’t make music powerful.  There is something else.  I think the powerful emotion I crave in music is the strong emotions of ambitious artists.  I think we loved The Beatles music because of the passion of John, Paul, George and Ringo to succeed.  And I think the reason Katy Perry is popular now is because of her passion to be on top of the world musically.  She expresses that desire in her song “Firework.”

Do you ever feel already buried deep

Six feet under scream

But no one seems to hear a thing

Do you know that there’s still a chance for you

Cause there’s a spark in you

You just gotta ignite the light

And let it shine

Just own the night

Like the Forth of July

Cause baby you’re a firework

Come on show ‘em what your worth

Make ‘em go “oh, oh, oh!”

As you shoot across the sky-y-y

In the song she is singing these sentiments to someone else, but she’s talking about herself.

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