Popular Music: The Ancients and the Moderns

In eighteenth century Europe, one of the favorite intellectual debates was the Debate of the Ancients and the Moderns, whether Europe had now exceeded the greatness of the Greco-Roman era or had not yet done so. There is a similar debate about popular music at any given time nowadays.

The Wall Street Journal writer Jim Fusilli has written about older people of my age who think there is nothing worthwhile in today’s music. I have to admit that it’s a lot easier for me just to find the ‘classic rock’ station, yet at the same time there is some good and worthwhile stuff being produced today. I like Coldplay, for example; in fact, their famous song Viva la Vida, coming out at the end of 2008, helped throw me into a serious late midlife crisis. I also enjoy Fleet Foxes and Band of Horses, and some of John Mayer and Jason Mraz. I find out about these things on the plane coming back from London, where I can listen to them; I also get familiar with those tunes played frequently in the background on the speakers at Daily Grill and California Pizza Kitchen. One particularly haunting song I was able to identify [by Googling a lyric line] it turned out was called Chasing Cars by an obscure Northern Irish band called Snow Patrol. [Huh? There’s not much snow to speak of in Northern Ireland!]

About 1999 it was thought that hip hop and rap [for which I have never been able to develop a taste] were going to displace traditional rock altogether. By the grace of God, this did not happen. I’m sure there is probably good and edifying stuff in hip-hop and rap, but I don’t have the patience to look for it.

Another interesting feature of our time is that there is not the generation gap between young people and people of my age that there was when I was young. When I was young, the ‘younger’ people – those born after the Depression – had a completely different music than the people born before, and separate charts and everything. A lot of the older people of that time seemed to have the view that God liked jazz but hated rock and roll. I have not developed much of a taste for jazz; I can tolerate it as background music more than I used to, but it still tends to strike me as ‘cocktail party music.’ Actually, as I understand it, the Silent Generation, the people born between 1930 and 1946, was split; the less educated ones liked the early rock and roll, but the collegiates preferred the likes of David Brubeck. We do well to remember that an old-fashioned tune like I Left My Heart In San Francisco, which even has a recitative at the beginning – I think it was one of the last songs to have one – came out about the time the Beatles arrived, and after the great days of surf music were over. And in 1966, in the midst of folk rock and acid rock, none other than Frank Sinatra was able to break into the pop charts with Strangers in the Night and It Was a Very Good Year. I think New York, New York dates from the same period or even later.

We don’t have that gap now. Most young people who listen to rock at all have an appreciation of classic rock that goes back before I was born. A young acquaintance, hardly older than my son, informed me of the existence of a listener-supported classic rock station in my area called KOCI. Its signal is weak, but it’s at the same channel as a pretty good classic rock station in San Diego with a strong signal, so driving around certain neighborhoods I get to listen to two stations almost simultaneously! On the other hand, when I mentioned to a friend even older than myself that I had discovered Band of Horses, he informed me that he had all three albums! Life is more complex nowadays, it seems.

Related: “Meet the Gee-Bees” by Jim Fusilli at WSJ.com


More Posts