I’m embarrassed in retrospect by much of what I write, but nothing sickens quite like the music criticism published in my college newspaper. I railed against the students who dared to question the choice of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah for a campus concert. I tore so ferociously into a late-career record by Echo & The Bunnymen — a favorite band to this day — that Dad sent a transatlantic email just to express his sympathy for them. Once, when mocked by a classmate for the unimaginable idiocy of confusing Grace Slick and Janis Joplin in print, I refused to admit the blunder.
Why did I care so much, and so recklessly? When did I anoint myself an expert on instruments I could never play, on genres and scenes twice as mature as I was? Did I believe that arguing about Joy Division and the Lost in Translation soundtrack on message boards would land me a permanent job at Pitchfork? Deep down, I did harbor an inkling of fraud, suppressed only, I suppose, by the sheer force of youth. Every song was a matter of life or death, as I had no idea of true life, or real death. That’s also why, in a mellower phase of adulthood, I still care.
Music is one of the first things we’re allowed to choose for ourselves; it stands to reason that (too) much of one’s identity gets bound up in lyrics, rhythms, and chord changes. This is a historically novel phenomenon, which helps to explain why the youth have embraced it, yet we already take it for granted, along with the staggering variety of recorded music available to a curious teenager today. Well before Napster and iTunes, a paper titled “Music and identity among European youth” indicated how rapidly the audience relationship to music had changed since the early days of pop and rock, mirroring in many ways the hyperspeed evolution of our entertainment technology:
In the 1950s and 1960s music was generally perceived to be salient to youth in terms of a more or less homogeneous generational identity. During the 1970s, however, subcultural and feminist researchers, amongst others, showed the music audience to be more heterogeneous. As a result, in the 1980s, research came to be dominated by a perspective which stressed the importance of music in the construction of various distinct group identities. … [I]ncreasingly children and adults actively incorporate music into their identity self-definitions. In recent years research has increasingly been framed in terms of “lifestyles” and, more specifically, to the ways in which music is used in the construction of individual identity.
The proliferation of choice, the specialization of sound, conspire to give every listener more side alleys than she can hope to explore. If one such detour proves appealing, you won’t soon find your way back out: select bands give rise to narrow or slight ideologies, from drugged psychedelia to nihilist no-wave, rarely because they intended to but rather as an upcoming generation decides to look deeply into their work. Most of all, the youth identify with musicians as a function of their simultaneous youth — they enact a fantasy that is technically available. Whereas even basketball prodigies are drafted at the ripe age of 18, pop stars have been known to peak in pubescence, setting the stage for a late-teens meltdown and midtwenties comeback tour. As for the late twenties, you’re meant to be dead by then: being a popular musician doesn’t increase your chances of kicking the bucket at 27, but this won’t stop the fans from positing a mystic rule.
The dissonance of an elder in the rock god role is captured in a gag from The Simpsons: stoking the crowd at a Gen X music festival, Homer bellows, “Don’t trust anyone over 30!” before introducing middle-aged Peter Frampton. There was also that derogatory Daily Mail article last year about Mick Jagger’s 70th birthday. “Back in the mid-Seventies,” it sneered, “Jagger had vowed to retire at the age of 33. A few years later he declared, ‘I’d rather be dead than sing ‘Satisfaction’ when I’m 45.” (Is it any wonder that Frampton, who yells at the “kids” of Sonic Youth in that Simpsons episode despite being just a few years older, recently destroyed an obnoxious concert-goer’s smartphone?)
To be touring at 70 is enough to earn Jagger ridicule, no matter how many hours of satisfaction he’s brought his listeners over that lifetime, because he once took the stance required of defiant, callous youth. Such attitudes are what orients popular music against adults, feeding the vanguard’s fear and revulsion for aesthetic revolutions they can’t hope to comprehend. “Pop music has been very controversial at least since the 1950s,” remarked the authors of It’s Not Only Rock and Roll, a study of the interplay between music and adolescent existence, “but even Plato complained about the influence of music on youth.”
A real crisis on that front, those writers concluded, is when one group understands certain music as indicative of another’s lifestyle or essential character — for example, when white fans of rap construe it as key to black identity:
The authors are troubled by one implication of white use of rap music. To the extent it is the primary source of information about African Americans and that music companies intentionally distort the urban African American experience, “the impact of crossover rap listening may be more to cultivate negative racial stereotypes than to advance cross-cultural understanding.”
In a way, this is the classic adult mistake: the kids aren’t all right, they’re listening to music that’s shocking, culturally taboo — the kind that requires a warning label, though good luck applying stickers to digitally pirated material — and what enters their ears becomes their worldview. But just as often, kids are testing a range of extremes. When I think of my grade school friend who had a Smashing Pumpkins CD confiscated by his parents, or the muted level at which a few of us listened to Eminem’s psychotically violent Slim Shady LP in a basement, I reflect on how cartoonish both albums seemed even then.
I’m not the only one, either, who recalls his formative years of music fandom with nostalgic horror, aghast at what I didn’t or couldn’t know. Spotify offers private browsing precisely to mitigate the shame of enjoying what we enjoyed in our naïvité, and because we may yet regret association with an artist insufficiently cool at the moment. I wonder if anyone under 20 uses this feature — whether they remain too proud of their tastes to censor them, or occasionally fear to telegraph how they’re thinking and feeling right then. Personally, I have no use for it. The cliché, pretentious, and antagonizing music that lit us up in youth is perhaps the strongest link we have to our earlier selves, and not to be lightly discarded.