Column: Critical Curmudgeon
Young Rebels Without A Musical Cause
Published: Wednesday, September 4, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 01:09
Another year! Welcome back to my former readers and former ignorers, as well as to the freshmen who picked up this newspaper to hide the fact that you are completely lost. Yes, the people in the Chocolate Bar bought your little charade, but you’ll have to keep reading now or they’ll begin to suspect. Screw up your eyes a bit, so you look like you’re absorbing the information. Tremendous! Very convincing. You’re going to do fine here, I can already tell.
Seriously, though, welcome one and all.
I thought it would be fitting in these days of renewal and new beginnings that our theme should be the role of youth in music. What exactly does it mean to be a young musician, to appeal to “young audiences,” to have a “young look?” While my column’s name, the “Critical Curmudgeon,” implies I’m an old fart who hates everything, I’m actually a rather young fart who only hates most things, and I honestly believe that young, dirt-broke folks across history have been responsible for some of the greatest music ever made. The trend continues today: young artists pretty consistently have the most energy, vitriol, and creativity in the studio and onstage. Limited resources force musicians to be inventive and sincere, so it’s frequently within a group’s first few albums (think Odelay, Weezer (Blue Album), and Nevermind) that it conveys its message most strikingly. Young people freaking rule, not just at making music but also at determining what becomes popular, and consequently what defines the sound of a generation.
If anything, I hate when gifted musicians who have gotten older capitalize on the brilliance of their early years with cheesy, over-produced, underwhelming, made-for-radio junk that defies everything they used to be about when they were in their 20s and pissed-the-heck-off. While experience may be an older man’s forte, I’d personally take the scrappy, absolutist, arrogant, and mad-as-hell Pete Townshend from 1967 over the “experienced” schlub who wrote lackluster hit songs in the ’80s like Face Dances and “Let My Love Open the Door.” Part of it’s obviously an issue of shared perspective, but it runs deeper too: music made by young, talented people often has something very urgent to say.
Here’s where “young” music gets tricky, though: another element of its appeal is “edginess,” pushing the envelope to get those oh-so-valuable “parents hate this song” points. While edginess is a longstanding tradition in pop, it can go terribly wrong. Or worse: it can just not mean anything at all.
Take this year’s VMAs, for instance. Just a couple of days ago, the first filmed interview with Miley Cyrus about her polarizing act was released. In it, she cheerfully explains that the negative reactions to her quote-unquote “controversial” performance with Robin “Beetlejuice” Thicke don’t bother her, because she knew all along they were “making history.” She also points out that her risque MTV appearance wasn’t really any different from Britney Spears’ or Madonna’s before her. However, she fails to note the delicious irony: how can something be groundbreaking, historic and, at the same time, not really any different from its predecessors? How can something be young and hip and new and also just like Madonna, who is quite literally old enough to be Miley’s mother?
In my warped, desensitized, and backward young mind, twerking in a flesh-colored bikini on MTV isn’t really controversial at all. Sure, it’s dancey fun-time music that scares middle-aged people, but historic? Shocking? Not really. Sexualized dancing as part of the pop-music generational gap is a tale as old as time. Young people do it, but the act itself is old as balls. Screw Madonna, just think of Elvis: all of that diabolical hip gyrating, surely he must be turning our children into card-carrying Communists!
What I’m saying is, having a “young” image in music shouldn’t just be about all of that sexy stuff (though that is a part of it). It should be more about rebelling in meaningful, unexpected ways, capsizing social norms to make people feel liberated and uncomfortable, rather than just horny and a little confused. There’s another dimension of youth in music, a frustrated, desperate, and breathtaking potential for greatness, which goofy trends like twerking can only distract from.
So don’t get distracted by what the media wants you to think “young people music” is. Youth in music has always been a driving force behind progressive music everywhere, from rock and roll to hip-hop and everything in between. Have a great first week of classes everybody!