by Bruce Morganti
The other night, while driving home with my seventeen-year-old son, I turned on the radio. For a moment we played the dial-dominance game, tapping through the preset stations in turn, fiddling with the SEEK and SCAN buttons, trying, like we do every night, to find some common musical ground.
We have fairly compatible musical tastes, my son and I. He appreciates much of the music of his middle-aged father's generation, as do most of his peers. They call it "classic rock," which may or may not have meant something once upon a time, some reference to the mysterious, timeless quality of the popular music of a past era.
When I was seventeen, the music of my parents' generation, however great they told me it was, only appealed to me as novelty, like old cartoons or silent films. I confess that a similar gulf exists between myself and the stuff that comes out of the modern radio speaker, although, as a music teacher, I feel it is important to know what my students are listening to, so I spend a fair amount of time trying to bridge that gulf. It isn't easy sometimes, but I'm probably more abreast of trends and trendsetters than most guys my age.
In both old and new music, I hear quality and plenty of artistic merit. Some of the virtuosi of the Jazz and Swing eras, along with current pop heroes like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Audioslave, were and are great musicians.
But something is missing.
Those of us who laid out hard-earned cash to buy records in the 1960s and 70s, before they became "classic," take pride in the staying power of this part of our popular culture. It belonged to us (we paid for it, didn't we?) and still does, and shows that if nothing else, we had good taste. It's no secret that most of what's "new" on the radio isn't really; it's an extension of a no-holds-barred creative explosion that started around forty years ago and is still growing, nova-like, through popular expression.
So there we were, fighting over the tuner. It never lasts long. We settled on "After the Gold Rush" by Neil Young, mostly because my son was driving and had to watch the road. But I probably would have insisted. You can never hear too much Neil.
My son, who is a gifted musician, listened to the enigmatic lyrics roll from the radio via Neil's plaintive, sincere whine. At the French horn break, he turned to me and said, "Cool song. But what the heck is he talking about?"
What an opportunity! It isn't every day that your teenage child willingly admits there are still things you know that he doesn't. Perhaps a bit too enthusiastically, I launched into a knowing lecture about how Neil was using dreams as a vehicle for expressing an Apocalyptic vision, how he was essentially prophesying, based on the direction he saw humanity heading, a man-made end of the planet. Even so, I said, he sees humanity carrying on its less charitable traditions, as a select, privileged few are loaded into space ships and allowed to flee the dying earth while poor people and drug addicts get left behind—
At this point, I realized my son was dialing his cell phone. I had lost him. The music of my generation interested him but the message was Greek. Or maybe the idea of any message at all was foreign.
It would be unfair to say that none of the music before or after the "classic rock" era was message-driven. The songs of the Greek satirists, Chaucer, the court jesters and minstrels, Shakespeare and Molière, African slaves and Woody Guthrie's road warriors, are all examples of agitators using music to make their messages both palatable and pervasive, not to mention safe. And certainly artists like U2 and Pearl Jam continue to sing about more than heartache and moonlight to anyone who will listen.
But there is no mistaking the fact that something happened in the time between the late 50s and the late 70s, something that made demonstrations commonplace, espousal of causes fashionable, and artists responsible for more than entertainment. It was as if everyone who sang was required to voice their opinions on things like the environment, war, politics, gender roles—and they apparently spoke for their audience. Protest songs, nature laments, generational anthems—even a bad one would do in a pinch—were prerequisites to legitimacy for popular musicians.
Why? I'm not sure. Books and books have been written exploring the upheaval of that time, and smarter people than yours truly have mused endlessly about what made it different from other historically tumultuous periods. All I know is what I observed, then and now: music was, for a time, one of the primary, practically essential, means for spreading cause consciousness.
The real question is: Why are things different now? Why do popular musicians, for the most part, avoid singing about issues and causes? Music is certainly no less effective a tool for communicating passion. The world is still rife with things to take issue with. War is still an ugly exercise in greed and death. The less fortunate and the voiceless among us, including the multitude other species with which we share the earth, are as disenfranchised and endangered as ever. Maybe more so.
Do young people care less than they did a couple of generations ago? My son's theory, which I believe has merit, is that what was once fashionable behavior has gone the way of powder-blue tuxedos and giant afros. Caring about world issues was once hip; now it simply isn't.
I have my own thesis. The burst of activism in the mid-20th century that found expression in such magnificent songs as "The Times They Are A-Changin'," "Eve of Destruction," and "Out in the Country," was at first a movement of genuine concern and deeply-felt idealism, and some of us actually continued to believe things would change, even after the movement lost momentum and sincerity by becoming fashionable and (like everything else in our capital-driven society) profitable. Music, that naïve and loving art, took longer to knuckle under to cynicism than did the rest of culture. By the time Lynyrd Skynyrd sang "Now, Watergate does not bother me; does your conscience bother you?" most of the world was more interested in People magazine, Entertainment Tonight, and a right-wing extremist ex-actor in the early stages of Alzheimer's named Ronald Reagan.
Is it far-fetched to propose that profit spelled the demise of protest? That the bottom line demands apathy over activism? The music business, once infused with the spirit of individualism and the search for creativity, has become a trillion-dollar industry. (John Mellencamp says that when he got his first recording contract in the mid-70s, artists were encouraged to "be themselves, be unique." Now, he says, they are pressured to try to sound like someone else, to "get in line.")
What motivates industry besides profit? How profitable would it be to promote awareness of industry-caused pollution, poverty, and extinction when most of the larger media conglomerates count chemical, mining, and manufacturing interests among their mammoth holdings? Hardly the venue, you'd think, for singing about anything as banal and ephemeral as global warming.
My son, after seeing Fahrenheit 9/11, wrote a song which includes the line, "This clown without makeup is fooling all of you." You can draw your own inferences, but I, as an idealist-environmentalist-activist-musician, am proud of that kid. He inspires me, helps me to believe that the flame of musical unrest still burns. I may be old, but I'm no less angry than I was as a young man. And I'll never stop, whether it's hip or not, singing my anger. There's an old hymn called "How Can I Keep From Singing?"
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