Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Rock and Roll: A Young Person's Game?



My least favorite lyric in the history of rock music is "Hope I die before I get old" from the Who's "My Generation." Not because it's particularly bad -- in fact, it's great. I admire Pete Townshend's hell-with-it nihilism and despite the fact that he obviously didn't die, I don't doubt that he meant it at the time, at least inasmuch as he intended his old-self-euthanasia as a gigantic, idealistic "fuck you" to the 50s pre-boomer generation and their closed-minded attitudes. It's punk, sure.

No -- I hate it because of its contribution to armchair criticism, especially as regards the notion of rock and roll musicians aging.

It goes like this:

• An older rock musician does something. I don't care what it is -- he played the SuperBowl, say, or released a new album. Doesn't matter what, he just did something.

• Somewhere on the internet, there's a message board or comment thread started about this older rock star event.

• People comment that they thought it was pretty good / great / life-changing.

• Some yahoo -- usually followed by a chorus of imitators -- arrives and starts shouting about how much it sucked, demands that the old rock star "hang it up," and inevitably -- inevitably -- quotes that lyric. Especially if the old rock star is, in fact, Pete Townshend.

Basically, "Hope I Die..." is the Godwin's Law of the "old rock star discussion" -- it prevents coherent discussion of something I find both interesting and utterly false; namely, the notion that rock and roll music is a "young man's game," by allowing the user to just jump to a false conclusion -- that Townshend, as a vital arbiter of cool, has declared for all time what is true regarding the allowable age / continued functionality of rock stars.

I'm here to posit that nothing is a young man's game, really, and that age and avarice are at least equal to youth and enthusiasm, as they say, or at least should be.

There are myriad reasons why rock music is viewed as a young man's game. Let's examine them, shall we?

1. We still canonize the 60s, and in the 60s, when rock was still relatively young, there were no old rock musicians yet. Rock, in the 60s, was 100% viewed as "young people's music" because that was the demographic that was buying the stuff and making the stuff. Because the 60s was rock's formative decade in terms of attitudes, a lot of the attitudes that were born during it carry over to today.

2. Punk rock cemented it: old people suck. This was the first time there was a real serious culture-clash in rock music -- the "youth" rebelled against the "dinosaurs" (who, ironically, were far younger on average than I am now) and the youth won -- Yes disappeared from teh charts (they didn't really) and punk ruled the earf (it didn't really, but for the sake of argument).

3. The 80s were rough for the 60s musicians. I think the way some of the 60s musicians attempted to adapt to the changing climate of the 80s -- by gracelessly trying to update their sound to "fit in," by writing songs about being old as if they were already 80 years old when they were only, like, forty, by churning out awful, formulaic tripe -- effected how we view old people in rock in general. Even though it was only one batch of musicians from one particular era, IN one particular era, which, frankly, was rough for everybody for technological reasons -- even some younger rock bands didn't know what to do or where to turn once MTV and synth-pop hit.

4. Our society doesn't exactly value older people to begin with. It's not just in terms of rock music, is it? I mean, we live in a "pretty young people" culture where youth and beauty are valued far above wisdom and intellect. It makes absolute sense that rock music, as with all arts, would follow along. We just think old people suck in general.

Let's take it out of an artistic context altogether for a moment. A surgeon. Who would you trust more: a guy fresh out of medical school, wet behind the ears, hasn't really done a lot of surgery? Or the older guy who's been a resident for 30 years? You would so clearly trust the guy with a ton of experience under his belt because he's had a chance to hone his skills over the years. You wouldn't think the recent graduate was somehow "closer to the source" because he just got out of school, would you?

Why do we have the opposite notion for artists? Why would the years not hone and season their craft songwriting-wise? Why do we assume that their wet-behind-the-ears work is somehow closer to the source than the later stuff, when the later stuff is done with the benefit of years of experience in songwriting/production/whatever? Do we assume that passion will eventually give way to a sort of genial workmanship? Habits will form that will remove spontaneity? Is that a bad thing, always? We associate a sort of energy/vitality with young people -- does that always vanish with older people? What does that say about our general attitude about age -- are we saying that at a certain age people stop mattering?

Do you think maybe preconceived notions regarding these ideas colors how you view the work of older artists rather than the other way around?

I'd argue that it does. I'd argue that people are more likely to negatively view the work of old people based on their own set of preconceived notions that the work will necessarily be inferior simply because it is done by an older person. I think this frequently leads to the underrating of lots of art, not only music but film and visual art as well.

Let's examine, but let's take it out of the context of pop music for a second. Let's look at the art world. One of my favorite artists is pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. You know his stuff -- he's the guy with the newspaper dots who paints comic strips. Here's a painting done when he was young.



It's full of his typical bright, bold colors, and there's no question it has an energy and a vitality born of youthful hubris -- he was one of the first guys to take comic strips and drag them over into the fine arts arena. It's about as exciting as a painting can get -- it's an explosion, fergodsake, in bright primary colors. It's iconic, it's pop, it's the same kind of destruct-o-art that the Who trafficked in musically.

Now let's look at Lichtenstein when he's older.



It's a far less iconic or explosive work, but what it loses in vitality, it absolutely gains in subtlety. Instead of using comic art as a means in itself, he's taken techniques from comic art -- the newspaper dots, primary colors, bold "ligne clair" -- and applied them instead to a work far more influenced by the cubists (Braque, Picasso) in terms of form and composition. In other words: this ain't pop art, but isn't it damn interesting?

Does somebody want to argue that Beethoven's Ninth ("Ode To Joy") is somehow less good than his First because he was younger and more vital when he write his First?

Let's bring it back to pop music -- specifically Pete Townshend.

Here's Pete when he's younger.



Great song, no? It has a lot of really desirable qualities. It has energy, grit, honesty. Youthful vitality. Power. Potency. It is, however, quite simple -- the chord progression is repetitive, the melody unsubtle, the lyric quite simplistic and blunt, and the structure by no means complex.

Now let's look at Old Pete, from what I think is an exceptional record, the Who's "Endless Wire" from a couple years back:



It is amazing, but for wholly different reasons. That youthful energy and vitality that almost wholly informs "Can't Explain" is no longer present. It is replaced instead by a melodic and chordal complexity and subtlety -- listen to the way the melody/harmony/counter-melody winds itself around one chord on the chorus, especially on the lovely "snowflakes falling" part. The lyrics are tremendously subtle and poetic. And most interestingly, the song uses a synthesizer theme from an older song, "Baba O'Reilly," in an attempt to bridge this album thematically with "Lifehouse," the album "Baba" was intended for. It's a work, I think, of tremendous power, and while it isn't as immediate or in-your-face -- visceral -- much like the work of Older Lichtenstein, it's good for other reasons, no less interesting or vital reasons.

That's all very interesting.

Of course that's not true of every piece of music by an older person, any more than it's true that all young people have youthful energy and vitality -- I could point you to a couple of Dave Matthews albums from when the guy was young where he sounds about as youthful and energetic as the most feeble geriatric. But in terms of development, I think it can safely be said that:

- People's songwriting develops as they get older, and as it evolves, particular qualities are replaced by other qualities, no less desirable.

- Society has been basically trained to prize the earlier qualities because they value youth, almost cultishly

- Therefore, as people's music evolves and youthful qualities are replaced by other qualities, people falsely undervalue this music as they falsely believe that these other qualities are less desirable aesthetically.

What you will find if you visit a Who message board, say, or really any place where music is discussed, is a lot of people quoting "My Generation" rather than examining these qualities. And a lot of discussion about how Pete should "hang it up."

And that's really my least favorite thing about the general prejudice against older people -- the notion that not only are they undervalued, that they should "go away," stop making art and stop contributing to the general cultural landscape when they reach a certain age (probably 40) where their "youthful vitality" starts to fade.

Think about that: This is essentially saying that what these people are saying no longer matters at all, simply by dint of their calendar age. This is ignoring the fact that artists, in general, are compelled to make art -- that they're doing it because they must; not, as in the case of many 9-to-fivers, because they have to. You're basically saying "I don't care if you make art because you love to, I have ceased to find it interesting, so please retire and do not do the thing you love because it makes me uncomfortable/irritated."

That's bloody awful, isn't it? And yet, otherwise intelligent people say this all the time.

Frankly, and I know I'm in the vast minority, I find songwriters more interesting when they get older. I like seeing how they evolve their songwriting skills, and how experience and a new and more intelligent set of feelings, plus a sense of mortality, of course, inform their songwriting. I am especially finding this true of some the boomer artists, who have gone through the 80s growing pains and come out the other side still alive, still making music, and, interestingly, still growing and developing as artists and pushing boundaries, at least within the confines of their own stylistic limitations. I'm also finding that the artists who began in the 80s are having an easier time staying true to themselves, and as they age and develop they're still making albums absolutely as vital as their prime-era work (see: The Cure, et al).

You all know I hate preconceived notions about rock and roll music, right? I hate hang-ups and bullshit and prejudices that keep people from enjoying stuff, because all of those hang-ups and prejudices have to do 100% with the observer and not one jot with the art itself. And as an artist, that bothers me -- that people are approaching my art with a whole mess of preconceived notions that will prevent people from enjoying or even understanding or even listening to what I'm trying to say.

After all, I failed to die before I got old. And I'm getting older, and so are we all. So, as oldie George Michael said, listen without prejudice, and give the old people a chance, will ya?

6 comments:

LAP said...

This is a great post Jon. For some weird reason, Springsteen has been able to avoid the old man rocker criticism, which I find interesting and just thought I would mention.

I think I might prize Pete Townsend above all rock songwriters because he ran the gamut of snarky punk, and thoughtful man at pretty much every decade of his songwriting. More than any other classic rock band, the Who can still surprise me even with songs I already know well. I think moreso than the Rolling Stones, but I might change my mind on that, maybe tomorrow, but for whatever reason I've always thought Pete the ultimate combination of lyrics and music.

Anonymous said...

Jon. i loved this post so much, I can't put into my own words how brilliant and thoughtful i found it. THANK YOU for writing it. seriously. Thank you. and thats not just because it involved Pete or The Endless Wire.(though that didn't hurt either...)Cheers! - kelly

Beckner said...

Yeah, there's also the rock crit mentality about dying fast, and leaving a pretty corpse. Which I think is just an easy way to say it's easier to like an entire artist's work if it can be contained neatly across 3 or 4 CDs. Cheaper for the teen iconoclast to get into and obsess over too, if the artist died young and only put out a few records. Teenagers ain't listening to "Press to Play" or "Off the Ground" anytime soon, when they've still got the White Album to absord, ya know?

And what you liked as a teen is what sticks with ya, for the most part.

Beques said...

Greaaaat. Just when I'm about to get away with snarking that you like grampa rock just to be oppositional and ironic, you get all testifyin' & justifyin' on me. Damn your eyes, Jon.

I love old people, but cringe when I see them compromising their dignity, by choice or not by choice. I hear ya about honing one's craft as one gets older, but I say stick to the studio to do so. Seeing PT's deaf ass trying windmill onstage at the Superbowl looked desperate, pitiful and forced. It made me want to call Adult Protective Services on their promoters and accuse them of elder abuse by overmedication.

Sure, brilliance blossoms with age but there IS a limit to what can be considered mass appeal. Again, thoughtful, complicated and FASCINATINGLY fantastic songwriting happens with plenty of geezers. But after seeing an obese Dave Davies drunkenly mumble his way through a few Kinks hits with buffalo wing stains on his shirt, I say PLEASE stay in the studio, Oldie Olsons of Rock.

Anonymous said...

In response to Beques' comment, I am compelled to mention a couple of my favorite Old Rockers (albeit slightly younger than PT, Mick, Dave Davies, et al)-who are in no way Past It in live performances: X in its original lineup and Robyn Hitchcock. Somehow they both manage to rock like fuck in a way that seems age appropriate and yet, to me, maybe more interesting than what they did when younger.
Really loved this post and all you had to say-I have a feeling I'll be unsuccessfully trying to quote from it in the future-thanks to Kelly for directing me here.

Dan C. said...

Another great example of this is Van der Graaf Generator, a band who died, metaphorically speaking, too young, is now old and full of life, vision, and energy. And they're writing and playing songs that are absolutely contemporary, instead of just playing old chestnuts.