I am not going to grouse about the younger generation and its music. Rather, I plan on grousing about the very idea of generations as isolatable and intrinsically meaningful subdivisions of people in time. Generations and decades have always seemed to me the weakest, coarsest form of association and history, and the most overused in our interpretive groping. Decades, in particular, are demonstrably garbage when it comes to explaining anything: pure wishful numerology and prefab vehicles for the pooling of our nostalgia. Truth does not recognize your bar lines, Mr. Decade; and if you, reader, wish to hear the actual musical phrases of history and culture playing through time, you’ll need to be able to follow the tunes across the zeroes.
There is no reset button. But decade resets, alas, are often all we have for the telling of our cultural narrative. We have the ’60s (hooray). We have the ’80s (boooo). We think we know what they mean. They are thus meaningful to the extent that we believe they are. Decades reveal the power of the frame itself to make coherent whatever falls within its borders, to make art of the damnedest random sh*t ever thrown up against a wall. It is the power of the frame to make us make the connections, the same way that many spiritually inclined people imagine that everything that happens to them is an encoded message and lesson from the Higher Power. And so it is, via the interpretive act itself. I am sure that we could do better than decade-based history, but we probably won’t. Decades are too much fun, with their crazy dances and sweaters.
If decades are analogous to what we call the “horizontal” dimension of music – the X axis, melodies and rhythms as they play forward in time – then generations are the vertical dimension, the Y axis. Generations are harmony: the stacks, clusters, consonances and dissonances and the harmonic colors of all the people vertically aligned, alive and squawking at one moment in musical/cultural time. Generations are struck chords.
We all know, intuitively if not theoretically, that the “meaning” of a given chord in music depends entirely on its context: the chords that come before and the chords that come after. A generation, like an isolated chord, has its own attributes, an analyzable constitution; but its functional meaning exists entirely in its passing. Thus, the current “hot” generation – meaning the young (always the young) – has a lot more authority regarding the past than regarding the present. My son’s generation is pretty spot-on about me, but about itself it is as clueless as we all must be. The present chord can’t be functionally defined until the next chord strikes.
The other great fallacy regarding generational thought is that one bows out and makes room for the next. No one is bowing out or making room that I can tell. Boomers, Gen X, Millennial, Generation Next, whatever! We’re all still here, man. We’re all still squawking. If this is the Millennial generation, then I – at 55, and much to my chagrin – am a Millennial too. And that cabal of powerful white men ten years my senior on average who are currently and giddily screwing us over in every way they can think of? Goddamned Millennials as well.
When I was young – a Gapper, for what it is worth, part of a nameless squad between the Boomers and X-Generation – labels seemed like something thrust by the news media upon a heterogenous blob of young people for the purpose of harvesting and commodifying style. Now, due perhaps to the accelerants of social media, and the lessons of cultural theory sunk deep in the educational groundwater, young people seem much more into naming themselves before what we used to call Madison Avenue beats them to it; “Self-defining, they are,” says Yoda.
So, what does music say about the generations and the generations about music? In my shabby musical life, I am privileged to play with and write about older folks and younger. To overgeneralize (for what else is there to do when you open your mouth?), here is what I see.
Older musicians tend to be more proficient on their instruments, or at least freer: more likely to improvise and more likely to regard improvisation as a higher-order value, musically and culturally. Yet, while they go off-script more readily than younger players, they also tend to be more bound by the traditional roles of ensemble interaction. Bass and drums do this; guitars do that. As long as those roles are observed, on style, anyone can play with anyone, with a minimum of preparation. Because of this, older-person rock, for all of its comparative freedom of movement, can seem “samey” in a way that the sui generis and ad hoc forms of younger-person rock seldom do. The Grateful Dead, for all their libertarian anarchy, kinda sound the same a lot of the time. But you never know what’s coming in a St. Vincent tune.
Younger players do not embrace the traditional roles. They are, famously, all about renegotiating roles and identities, redistributing power arrangements and smashing the guitariarchy. Young players on every instrument think more like arrangers, think big-picture: What sound would be useful or outrageous here? Not “What should I play on my guitar here?” but “What should I have the guitar do here?” They are less concerned with their own instrumental personalities, more cognizant at all times of how their parts relate to and define the whole; there’s a composer/arranger in every chair in the modern indie-rock band. They are pure naturals in the recording studio in the way that older players are often not.
Think of older players as ones who have already spent their time in the city actively defining their generation’s values, and have now moved up-country to procreate amongst the streams and mountains, the communities of children and grandparents and gardens. The pressure of self-definition is off, and the timeless values of nature and song have a way of asserting themselves.
Older players tend to believe in the romantic concept of “true voice.” You have one, and it is your life’s work to discover it – to come ever-closer to its essence and its perfection. Older players tend to get comfortable with one sound: their sound. A true voice has numerous modes, mind you, and needs to be conversant and versatile in many different situations; but at its heart is the irreducible essence of the individual. And when we fail and flail, it is because we have strayed from this true voice.
Younger players, perhaps echoing the polyglot neighborhoods of Brooklyn where they congregate, tend to have a much more complex and socially constructed sense of their own voices: situational, defined in relation to others. All sounds are available to them. They are meatware samplers. “True voice” is, most likely, a patriarchal Western cliché. The sonic palette of young-person rock is limitless. Every one of them seems to know how to mangle, effect, drop colors like bombs into their arrangements. Younger rock bands have a highly visual approach to music, less logical in some ways. They are suspicious of “It’s all one” hippie platitudes and inclined to think that it is, in fact, not all one.
Older players like to rehearse a little and gig a lot. The good stuff is what happens when it is fresh in the moment. Younger players really love to rehearse and to record. Their relative ambivalence toward performance is easy to understand when you consider the standard 35-minute New York City set dispensation. Their sets tend to be the same night after night.
As part of the radical renegotiation of rock, young-person bands are marked by the prevalence of non-players in the fold: real naïfsand innocents, oftentimes playing alongside highly trained academy musicians, the Purchase Music and Art Departments forming potent bands together in which everyone is empowered to make a useful noise. Non-players become quite good at playing their parts with wit, feel and exuberance (they are humans, after all); but of course, they are also bound to those parts and virtually incapable of going off-road, and their presence helps account for why younger bands are more locked into their arrangements than older bands. You can almost hear the older bands grousing, “Should everyone be allowed to design our bridges, or should that perhaps be left to professionals?”
But I am not here to grouse about this generation and its music.