Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The death of pop and other good tidings


It happened right about now, the cold of January, exactly fifty years ago. It happened in a car full of guys, my 16-gauge double-barrel in my hands, all of us heading out to some woodland somewhere to hunt. Was it just rabbits? or fox?--I don't even remember.

I have no idea who else was in the car or where we were; all I remember about a moment in time an entire half-century ago is that it was January-cold and the disc jockey on WOKY, Milwaukee, 920 on your dial, was doling out fair warning that the brand new 45 he was about to spin--"in just a little while," "coming up soon," "don't touch that dial"--was turning the entire listening world stark, raving mad, a tune that was really something, a record cut by a new group called, strangely enough, The Beatles," with a sort of mad English twist, as in "the Bay-tils."

We listened. It was "I Want to Hold Your Hand." I was in the back seat in a car full of high school buddies, and we were hunting--what, where, is lost. But hearing that tune is a memory forever alive. 


I missed the Ed Sullivan Show. Sunday nights we went to church. But I didn't miss "the Bay-tils."

That whole world is irretrievable, but the world of pop music, a cultural phenomenon that had so much to do with creating the era in which I grew up, the Sixties, has altered so drastically that it's as if there is no such thing anymore, Justin Bieber and his misdemeanors notwithstanding.

Such an immense cultural alteration has people scratching their heads. There are no more Beach Boys; or, one might say, there are, but there are probably a couple hundred of them, even thousands in garages all over the world. Pop music isn't a racket anymore.  Once upon a time, it dictated taste as if the industry was run by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Joseph Goebbels. 

And I played along.  And loved it, even though my parents hated it, just hated it. And, as I remember, even their hatred was just fine with me.

Technology is the major difference. Pandora plays most of the day and night in our house, piped in genre-favs, one after another; and for a few pennies a day, I don't even have to hear commercials. If I hear some interesting group on All Things Considered, I'll look 'em up on Amazon. Sometimes I'll even buy, and add the album, just like that, to my Amazon Cloud Player. In less than a minute the voices are here in the basement.

I lost the passion for pop in the fall of 1970, just out of college, when I broke ranks with kids to become their teacher. I remember the James Gang, but I also remember thinking they belonged to the kids on the other side of my desk. They let me have Simon and Garfunkel, but the a great chasm began to open when took the job of trying to give them an ear for Ralph Waldo Emerson, when I became what we used to call "the establishment." That's when I probably stopped buying in.

I have no idea who's hot with the college students I left behind a year or so ago, but I know that in the last decade or more, no single performer or genre could possibly capture all of them. What they were playing on those iPods was as all over the map as they were because things were different somehow, the change so widespread today that it leads some to believe that there will never be any more Rolling Stones because there can't be. Oh, my, listen to this--there will never be another Dylan.

Neal Davenport, in a Spiked review of Bob Stanley's Yeah, Yeah, Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop, claims blaming mp3 downloads for the end of pop (which is to say popular) music is to miss a much broader societal change. "For previous generations, pop music was as much about the social side of music as it was about seven-inch singles and chart rundowns," he says, I think accurately. And then this:

Today, when young people are encouraged to hunker down in the bosom of the family well into adulthood, and with the outside world presented as a fearsome place to be, pop music is no longer quite so resonant as a symbol of excitement and independence, sex and romance.
For better or worse, it seems to me he's in tune with something here. "The desirability of pop music has faded," he says, "not because of MP3s and free downloads, but because the desire to be extraordinary, independent and free is less of a smash hit today."

I think he's right.

As she grew older, my mother became more and more convinced that we were living in "the end times." The signs, after all, were plenteous: abortion, gay marriage, drug use, young people losing their way. I used to tell her that the college students I knew were vastly more spiritual, more steady and trustworthy, more dedicated, more studious, more guarded in their behavior and far less rebellious than was her son and his old bell-bottomed circle. She wouldn't believe me; she really wanted to believe Beck, Limbaugh, and some shock jock appropriately named Savage.

But it's true.

For sure, all that glitters from the Sixties is not gold. My now-retiring generation left sad desolation in its wake, no question, including children hungry to be the kinds of parents we weren't, children famished, even driven to love better than they were loved. There ain't no "golden age."

But I have to laugh at how it sticks, that Saturday in January, fifty years ago--"I Want to Hold Your Hand"--I can belt out a few bars if you'd like.

Free will be hanged, saith the voice of the old sourpuss in me: we're all nothing more than creeping creatures of our age. 

The therapy I need is little more than a good stiff shot of the olden days.  Go ahead, listen in. I will.

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