Near the end of last school year, one of my seniors gave me a mixed CD she had made, songs she thought I should listen to, and on a half-folded index card inside was the handwritten title “The ‘There’s Hope for this Generation’s Music’ Playlist.” She and I had often talked about music during the four years she was in my classes, and she knew that most of my disappointment in current music came from seeing a steady procession of (mostly bad) new groups or singers on Saturday Night Live! Without malicious resentment or in-your-face stubbornness, she laid this shiny metallic offering on the desk of a cynical, forty-year-old Generation X-er, and just asked me give it a fair listen. I can do that, I agreed.
My musical tastes are really eclectic, rooted in the days before corporate A&R men co-opted the term “alternative”— back when “alternative music” really was an alternative to pop radio. Down here in Alabama in the 1970s, 1980 and 1990s, we grew up on the quasi-country music of Kenny Rogers and Jerry Reed, on the synth-pop championed by early MTV, and on the latter-day radio hits of once-almost admirable folks like Chicago and Steve Miller. We were there when rap appeared on the scene, though most of didn’t really know what to do with it. We graduated later to our older brothers’ Led Zeppelin, Van Halen and KISS records, only to discover Suicidal Tendencies, The Cult, Sonic Youth and the Pixies for ourselves through mixed tapes made by friends. In the two decades since college, I’ve also developed a real affection for the musics of Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, Victoria Williams, and Willie Nelson. I’ve still got places in heart (and on my iPod) for the Purple Rain soundtrack and for “Come On, Eileen” even though I’m mostly a Bob Dylan/Neil Young/Widespread Panic kind of guy now— though with strong leanings lately toward Gary Clark, Jr., the Derek Trucks Band and North Mississippi All-Stars.
So this homemade CD. I could give it a fair shake. But I warned this young lady that I listen to music like I read books— this was going to take a while. Music does not sit in the background with me; I hear the music everywhere I go, and bad music really gets on my nerves. When I get new music, I go somewhere, alone, and let each song be an individual work of art. I get the lyrics and follow along. I play the whole album over and over to pick up on the nuances that the producers and engineers threw in there. (There’s an old anecdote I read once about Al Kooper waiting until Lynyrd Skynyrd left the studio to put horns on “Don’t Ask Me No Questions,” and also how Kooper also thought that Ed King’s solo on “Sweet Home Alabama” was in the wrong key.) I listen to a song in the same way your English teacher made you analyze poetry in class— then I decide whether each one on the album is any good.
The playlist – I’m still having trouble with the term, since I still think of them as mixed tapes – had variety, mostly groups I’d never heard of, though a few I had: Frank Ocean, Florence + the Machine, Robin Thicke. Of the twenty tracks, the only folks I knew beyond a name were Radiohead and Tony Bennett (on a duet with Lady Gaga). Not keying in to the spelling difference, I asked her as I looked over the card if Regina Spektor was any kin to Phil Spector, and she said, “Who?” I tried to explain: you know, the Wall of Sound . . . [nothing] He was the drug dealer in the beginning of Easy Rider . . . [nothing] OK, I would be starting from scratch with her just like she was starting from scratch with me.
Good news first. My favorite tracks were easily the rock and post-punk tunes: “Do I Wanna Know” by the Arctic Monkeys, “This Head I Hold” by Electric Guest, “Blue Blood Blues” by The Dead Weather and “DNA” by The Kills— tracks two, seven, ten and thirteen. Guitars riff with heavy distortion, vocals tinged with resentment— That I understand. I also liked Julie London’s “Cry Me a River,” which was welcome jazzy surprise at track three.
Bad news now. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are terrible. Whoever gave them a record deal – and a Grammy! – needs to leave the music industry forever. (I feel the same way about Florida-Georgia line, frankly.) I was willing, up to the point of their song at track eight, to concede that there really might be hope for this generation’s music, but their rude intrusion on my listening experience was offensive. The other major failure of the playlist was the crowd favorite Robin Thicke. I don’t see how anyone likes that stuff. Crooners don’t have to be cheesy. I have to be honest, too: I don’t like Frank Ocean (“Sweet Life”), Florence + the Machine (“Bird Song”) or Maxwell (“Pretty Wings”), though I see why other people might. Maybe I’m too just old . . . That’s very possible.
As a last word, I felt a lot of pressure from all of the students who knew I had this CD to react to Earl Sweatshirt’s “Chum,” which came next to last. I listened to it, assuming from the giggles and snickers that this song would somehow stand out. It didn’t. To me, it sounded like something a guy would do in his bedroom with one of those cheap keyboards that loop beats and short musical phrases. Yea, sure, he threw out some cursing and racial slurs, but overall the song was unimpressive in multiple ways: style, music, lyrics.
Yet, my former student did succeed in convincing me that, yes, there is hope for this generation’s music. The Dirty Projectors’ “Gun Has No Trigger” sounded like a mix between ’90s U2 and ’80s David Bowie, which while not showing much originality did draw on credible influences. However, Lady Gaga, for all the hype around her, added nothing to Tony Bennett’s “The Lady is a Tramp.” I see Lady Gaga as either a stepped-up Madonna imitator or a toned-down Marilyn Manson.
Generationally, I’m very biased. It’s really sad that my generation had Nirvana and Pearl Jam to sweep aside hair metal, and this generation has Nickelback and Foo Fighters, who are basically grunge-influenced hair metal. Pitiful. Somehow, cheesy music never dies: Mumford & Sons is just a new incarnation of Creed, dump the electric guitars and go Americana. Green Day held up for a little while. Where the male singers of my generation perfected the angsty scream, this new crop somehow thought that high-pitched was the way to go: Adam Levine, Justin Timberlake, et al. Personally, I can’t stand it.
I’ll tell you where I see some hope for this generation’s music. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros— they’re unique and energetic and their songs are really solid. The Lumineers are another one, taking something old and making it new. Benjamin Booker, too— he sounds to me like a cross between electric blues and skate punk.
What’s missing, though, if you ask me, are those groups so good that we’ll still be talking about them in thirty or forty or fifty years. In the ’50s, we had Elvis and the Motown sound; in the ’60s, we had the Beatles and the Stones; in the ’70s, The Clash; in the ’80s, Prince. Undeniable brilliance. Who are those groups among this crowd? I think about a time when we’d see Paul Simon or even the Grateful Dead on Saturday Night Live! Who do we see now? Hosier, and people like this.
And it isn’t just pop music. In country music, we’ve had Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, George Strait . . . who is going to continue that tradition? Luke Bryan— I don’t hardly think so. Little Big Town reminds me so much of ABBA that I don’t know whether laugh or get angry. And rap— it has hardly evolved at all since the ’90s. Twenty or twenty-five years of virtual stagnation (required by safe-bet corporate record deals) have churned out a long succession of cookie-cutter same-old same-old.
I have to think that there’s underground music going on that’s just poised to appear. Something going on in the streets or at house parties or garages— that’s where it always comes from. Whatever it is, it won’t be Five Seconds of Summer doing a cover of “What I Like About You,” I’ll tell you that.