Sunday, July 31, 2011

How Young People are Old

Last weekend, I spent several hours pouring sodas at a festival/carnival, in tandem with a rotating cast of teen-agers. This Friday night, I went out to dinner with a 71-year-old man. Yesterday, I was a groomsman in my little brother's wedding, surrounded by young men in their early to mid-20s. Clearly, I have been absorbing the cultures of generations that I do not belong to. And I'm struck by a particular similarity between generations older and younger than me, one that I believe does not extend to my cohort.

One of the teen-agers I worked with had a particularly strong knowledge of contemporary hit singles. As we poured sugar water, we could hear a P.A. system down the way blast out a variety of music. I recognized Lynard Skynard, the Rolling Stones, Def Leppard, and Bon Jovi, but my young colleague had to inform me when I was hearing Katy Perry, Shakira, and, yes, Justin Bieber. Although her knowledge was strongest when dealing with the contemporary, she wasn't wholly ignorant of music that was recorded prior to her birth. She professed a love of the Beatles, as well as an enthusiasm for 1980s hair metal. I couldn't help but interrogate her about the content of her itunes library. She informed me that she had a wide variety of music, but that she didn't have any particularly artist's discography. In fact, when subjected to my relentless quizzing, she revealed that though she knew a number of Beatles songs, she didn't necessarily know any albums.

The 71-year-old I dined with actually started listening to music before Rock and Roll was popularized, so his taste runs more to Sinatra and classical. We didn't talk much music, but we ended up talking about the early days of television. If one wanted to know about popular TV shows of the 1950s, Wikipedia is unnecessary if you are in the presence of this gentleman. He informed me of the geographic origins of popular television entertainers. Actually, I was struck by how so much of his recitation involved names of people (e.g. Bob Hope and Milton Berle), rather than titles of particular shows. I ventured to ask him about networks--which shows were on which networks, whether there was a particular network that was most popular, etc... This proved to be a blind spot for him, as he simply said "If a show was good, we watched it. We didn't care what network it was on."

And finally, while in the back room at the church, waiting to commence my brother's nuptials, I learned that more than one of his friend's consider themselves a DJ, able to remix songs. When discussing how much of the wedding dance music was to consist of such "remixes," I took occasion to rail against the musical ignorance of the Millenial Generation. "The problem with DJs these days is that they don't actually know any songs. They have a small library of core, canonical singles, but lack a true foundational knowledge of the history of music." Of course, one of the groomsen was a DJ himself and objected to my sweeping generalization. I put him on the spot. "Blood on the Tracks is considered by many critics to be the greatest album of the 1970s. Name one track on Blood on the Tracks." Of course, he couldn't do it. He protested that he didn't know albums, that he just possessed a working knowledge of songs. I then challenged him to name a Bob Dylan song, and the first one he said was "Tangled Up In Blue"...which is of course the first song on Blood on the Tracks.

The teen-age soda pourer and the groomsman DJ may lack knowledge of albums, but if they had grown up in the era of the 71-year-old dinner companion, they certainly wouldn't have had a knowledge of albums either. The music industry didn't realize until the mid-1960s that there was money to be made in selling long playing records with more than a couple of songs on them, and it was around the same time that recording artists sought the opportunity to challenge themselves by making a coherent conceptual collection of songs as an artistic statement. And though the album flourished for decades, the itunes generation has now gone back to the roots of the music industry, cherry picking particular songs of interest.

Meanwhile, while talking about television, I thought back to a Chuck Klosterman column I read a few years back. Klosterman is a few years older than me, but I would consider him to be of my generation. He wrote "I have always wondered this: Why am I able to see any random television program, often for less than ten seconds, and immediately recognize which network the show is airing on? To me, the differences seem obvious and undeniable....For reasons I don’t understand, I can identify the look of any major network instantaneously. So can a lot of other people. We can do it without even trying." But in researching it, Klosterman found that his initial hypotheses, that there is a technological difference in the production, was wrong. The fact was that he watches so much television that he has an ability to (in Gladwellian terms) thin-slice an ethos of a network. As he writes: "I am able to deduce differences between networks — but it’s for content-driven reasons that I’ll never be fully aware of."

But I think in the early days of television, such an ability was unlikely to be held. Since everything was so new, all networks were possibly in a state of conformity. Time needed to pass in order for programmers to take chances, for identities to evolve, and for philosophical or ideological differences to emerge. And now, in the DVR era in which people casually time shift their viewing habits, and in an era in which many people watch television shows for the first time on DVD releases, the importance of network identify (at least among over-the-air programming), is again minimized. Like the consumption of music, consumption of television has essentially come full circle.

So the end result is that the older and younger generations consume discrete entities, while the middle came of age looking for a more unified product. And I realize it's awfully easy to have a particular bias about one's own perspective, but I worry that we are losing something by devolving. The groomsman DJ and I ended up having a nice conversation (after he got past the initial shock of the intensity of my pontificating). It turns out that though his Dylan knowledge needs some work, he is expert in Van Halen's discography. He acknowledged that to truly appreciate the career of the band, it's important to know the progression of albums that they produced, the aesthetic feel of each album, and in particular the distinctions between the eras (largely characterized by having different singers). To truly have more than a superficial quotidian knowledge of something, a context and a foundation needs to be acquired.

My advice to then to young people (and perhaps even older people): find somebody of my generation to spend some time with.


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