Ta-Nehisi Coates has put up a couple of interesting blog posts lately about Barack Obama’s (at least somewhat) faux bashing of video game consoles and iPods, which seems for all the world to be a kind of proud old-fogeyism that we all have encountered. Of course, the exemplar of the form is Andy Rooney, who, as Ta-Nehisi notes, is right on cue with a rant about how he doesn’t get young people and their music. He seems genuinely surprised that, as time goes on, pop music changes. (And even then it kind of doesn’t. The overwhelming power of the Baby Boomers as a giant demographic is such that artists from the 60s and 70s can still chart by repackaging their old stuff in handy new forms to give as gifts.)
It’s a pretty standard issue use of self-deprecation in order to conceal what’s really an implication that Kids These Days are stupid, which is why he rounds the piece off by saying that he may not know who Lady Gaga is, but Kids These Days don’t know who Ella Fitzgerald is. Which caused me to roll my eyes, and I was glad that Ta-Nehisi saw it the same way:
When I was a kid at Howard, I used to go into Ben’s Chili Bowl and hit the jukebox. I always played Otis Redding, The JBs, or Sam and Dave. I knew this music for two reasons: 1.) It was what my parents played, and on long road trips their music, not mine, was the soundtrack. It’s like being black in America—I knew that part of their world in a way that they could not know mine. 2.) Hip-Hop created a culture of Digging In The Crates. The notion was that digging through crates and crates of records to find a gem was something to be prized.
Whatever you think of the music, no self-respecting hip-hop head, at that time, could ever get away with saying, “Man, I don’t be listening to no Ella Fitzgerald!” Your friends would have looked at you like you were crazy. Knowledge—not the kind of ignorance Rooney evinces here—was prized. I remember going into Ben’s and the old heads looking over and going, “Son, what you know about that?”
I rolled my eyes because just last week I spent the entire week burning my CD collection, and it spanned the 1920s through the 2000s. (With some Ella Fitzgerald mixed in—both original recordings and remixes from our era.) And, like with Ta-Nehisi, this isn’t some thing that has come over me in my 30s, some desire to get in touch with my past, but it goes back to my whole life, for similar reasons to his. This isn’t really unusual with my generation or the generation that came after us, the ones that are being dubbed Generation Y or the millenials.
I think Rooney probably just doesn’t know that. I think what happened is he dusted off a rant that he’s being keeping in circulation since the Boomers were the Kids These Days he was ranting about. I remember being a kid, probably in junior high, and coming across a piece he wrote in 1980 where he talked about how sad John Lennon’s death was, because even though he didn’t get the Kids These Days that liked Lennon, the man did seem like a good husband and father at the time of his death. So, this is something that’s been up Rooney’s butt since roughly forever. He’s just reusing old material, but it doesn’t really fit anymore.
This is always an issue when you talk about general trends, so I’m going to state this up front—please, I realize you’re a remarkable exception to the rule and you wish to brag about it while shaming me for not knowing the anecdotal details of your life. But this post is about broad cultural trends, not your anecdotal exceptions, and I’d be so grateful if you could refrain from confusing the two in comments.
I think what’s happened is that the unique historical experiences of the Boomers when they were young have come to stand in for all relations between generations. It’s actually understandable in a way. The defining cultural theme of their youth was that they were a Youth Culture, and that they were completely breaking with tradition. The music was new, the clothes were new, the attitudes were new, the sexual mores were new. Even people who were more conservative of that generation (and they were the majority—they voted in Reagan, remember) still bought into the completely remade cultural landscape. The music of the 60s and 70s was drawn from older forms, but it was regarded as fresh and exciting.
But what I’d like to point out is that this model, where young people break from older generations and strike out on their own, was culturally unique to the Boomers, the generation that created the “Don’t trust anyone over 30” motto. Gen X (roughly born 1964-1981) and Gen Y (1982-2000) don’t actually fit into the narrative. In fact, starting in the late 70s, blatant recycling and reinvention became the innovation, and that’s stuck with us to this day.
Hip hop is most prominent and most influential example of this. The entire form is built on turning old into new. Entire subgenres of the music will be created from a single influential sample. Without this attachment to history, the form doesn’t exist. Punk rock and New Wave were mining similar territory. The whole point of The Ramones was to take 60s-era sounds and update them a little as a refutation to the bloated stadium rock that defined rock in their era. And everything since has been about recycling. Vintage clothes, retro soul, cult movies, even “Mad Men”. Everything old is new again for Gen X, though often we put an ironic twist on it.
“But Amanda,” you might argue, “Sure, hip hop DJs brag about their enormous record collections, but the fans don’t care where it came from. Hipster chicks may have vintage dress collections but they’re a small minority of a larger generation.” And you’d have a point. But I’d point out that the elite who value history and knowledge are the taste makers of their generation, and pop culture actually reflects this willingness to wear your influences on your sleeve. At least since the 90s, recycled culture has become the mainstream culture, and this is only becoming more true.
Take, for instance, this video that has been passed around since it came out, but which I only had the chance to watch first last night.
I felt like this was Betty Draper’s theme song, as imagined by Beyonce. Consider also that the famous choreography in the “Single Ladies” video is an homage to a Bob Fosse routine from the 60s. Or let’s take Lady Gaga, who Andy Rooney has never heard of, and her new video.
Which is an homage to….Quentin Tarantino, who has taken recycling and post-modern irony to the big screen and has become a powerhouse for it. You can’t say the man is a small indie director selling his retro vision only to a tiny cadre of artsy-fartsy types who enjoy sticking it to the mainstream. He is the mainstream. Or consider how fashion has become all about recycling. Now the trend is to recapture 90s fashion that was inspired at the time by West Coast hipsters who dressed themselves in thrift store flannels due to the fact that it’s cold up there. (Not that this stopped fashion designers from creating flannel pieces that cost hundreds of dollars to drape over thrift store-inspired dresses that cost thousands.) Some of this recycling is ironic, like the Beyonce video. But most of it—hip hop sampling, Tarantino flicks, Amy Winehouse, etc.—is actually in love with the source material, and considers the recycling an homage. But should be no question about it—it is the mainstream.
It’s a testament to the power of the Boomers that their specific generational narrative is rounded up to be the narrative for all subsequent generations, even in the face of this evidence that the narrative just doesn’t fit. The power of their narratives points to why it is that subsequent generations aren’t actually rejecting and rebelling in the same way that Boomers did. For all that people my age enjoy taking popshots at Boomers because of their dominance, in reality, we really didn’t have a reason to rebel like youth in the 60s did. We were born into a world where distrust in authority was already established, where sexual liberation was a given, where the idea that you had to put away things you love in your youth just because you age had died out, killed by Boomers who insisted that they weren’t too old for the music they loved as kids. People don’t rebel in a vacuum. There has to be something to rebel against.
Which is why I laugh every time I see some article claiming that young people nowadays are rebelling by being chaste or conservative. That’s not a) rebelling or b) happening. The only reason that narrative has resonance is all is that people buy into the fallacy that younger generations automatically reject older ones and everything they stand for. But obviously, that’s simply not the case with the post-Boomer generations.