Cherish The Classics But Realize That Nostalgia Can Be Blinding
Published: Sunday, October 21, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
What will be the enduring music of our generation? When we look back 20, 30, or 40 years from now, what now-modern music will we still be listening to? These are questions I often ponder and debate with friends, sometimes with a sense of desperation. As someone who was raised on ’60s and ’70s classics, it’s sometimes tempting for me to admit defeat when looking at shifting tastes in popular music. Can our generation really stack up? My parents’ generation had (to name only a few) The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones, and Joni Mitchell—great songwriters and performers, and all popular artists who channeled the energies and causes of their time into their music. Looking at today’s pop charts can sometimes be a disheartening experience by comparison. The most recent installment of the popular Now That’s What I Call Music compilation series, for example, features such artists as Carly Rae Jepsen, Katy Perry, One Direction, and Justin Bieber. The title of the compilation begs the question: is this what we call music?
But I don’t intend this column to be an exercise in musical nostalgia. Despite my occasional nostalgic tendencies, I think it’s too easy to get sucked into the idea that our generation’s music is deficient compared to the glories of the past. It’s an idea that publications like Rolling Stone perpetuate by enshrining the ’60s and ’70s as the Golden Age. (On that magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, 292 of them come from those two decades.) Those who subscribe to this idea are likely to bemoan modern developments like auto-tune and yearn for a time when music was more “real” and “authentic.”
Don’t get me wrong, there is something to these complaints—auto-tune is used far too much, and too lazily, by many performers today, and I’m certainly not about to launch into a defense of someone like Ke$ha. But what bothers me about these comments is their kneejerk reaction against anything new, and their celebration of a glorious past that probably never existed like it’s imagined. Those who hold up Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as a paragon of taste likely miss the fact that it pioneered modern production techniques of dubbing, altering speeds, and the use of sound effects—innovative developments that were, no doubt, criticized by more conservative music critics who didn’t think they were “authentic” or “real” enough. So it goes.
Likewise, those who denounce auto-tune on principle ignore its very real artistic possibilities. One artist who has consistently explored those possibilities is Kanye West. As insufferable as his public persona may be, West is someone who is certain to go down as one of the giants of pop music for our generation. An album like 808s & Heartbreaks or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy shows West utilizing modern production techniques as they should be used—in service of the music’s emotion. The former remains West’s most underrated effort, a devastating album that explores heartbreak in all its forms against an electronic musical soundscape of synthesizers, primal beating drums, and severely distorted vocals. It’s a style that is, in some sense, cold and robotic, but it meshes with the album’s themes of emptiness and isolation, and it cuts deep on tracks like “Heartless” and “Coldest Winter.” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is even more ambitious. The show-stopping, nine-minute track “Runaway” begins with a few simple piano notes and builds to a huge wall of sound as West’s voice becomes a distorted, auto-tuned abstraction in the last few minutes. It may not be a natural sound, but that doesn’t mean the song isn’t carefully constructed or that the song’s emotion is fake. West is using all of the tricks in his arsenal to deliver the song’s emotion, and that’s no less valid or authentic than Marcus Mumford whaling on a banjo and howling.
My point is not to prove the superiority of our generation’s musical tastes to the antiquated forms of the past. Far from it—my iTunes library is undeniably skewed toward classic folk, blues, and rock, and I think that any self-respecting music lover should cherish past classics and musical traditions. But I’ve also come to realize that nostalgia can be blinding: by fetishizing the past, we risk ignoring all the great music that is produced in the present.