by Ben Shine
A few years ago blogs and other articles about culture seemed to say that the generation that came of age around the turn of the century, aka millennials, were going to save us all. But something’s changed in the last year or so, and today’s twenty- and early-thirty-somethings are increasingly labeled as the scourge of older generations.
Just last week, a friend forwarded me an article melodramatically titled, “ Why Are SO Many Millennials SO Uncool?” It’s another in a long line of hit pieces, written by a grumpy baby boomer or smug gen-Xer who has had enough of the younger generation, and has something to say about it.
The author (who I assume is a man, mainly because the entire essay reads a little dude-ish), lays out some simple metrics to support his hypothesis. Cool people are “those who don’t conform, who don’t always fit in, nor do they try to, … and are those who follow their own path.” Uncool people are “those who dress, act and have the same tastes as the masses and are vulnerable to corporate influences.”
The author tests his theory by watching the habits of millennials in hipster bars and grocery stores, and he concludes that a whole generation: A.) Unironically (that’s bad, apparently) likes Top 40 music, will openly sing along (again, horrible) with said songs in public, and doesn’t even try to be misunderstood outsiders (a major life goal!) B.) Has been spoon-fed musical and artistic cant by corporate boogeymen for so long that they’re unable to think for themselves, so they have unironic (read: tragic) singalongs to Taylor Swift and Adam Levine’s work in public, and, C.) Cares so little about authenticity or the struggle of “real” artists that music itself stopped having an impact on society, like it (purportedly) did in the ’60s, ’70s and ’90s.
Now, he says, because of corporations and millennials who let this all happen, we’re left with Beyonce selling Pepsi and making people fat and unhealthy.
It’s a pretty rich opinion, and it’s hopefully written with a touch of tongue-in-cheek. But it’s a fairly accurate portrayal of how a lot of gen-Xers and baby boomers talk about the generation coming up behind them, and their musical and artistic tastes. I hear it all the time in my professional and personal circles. Of course, in the same conversation, it is almost always stated or inferred that things were somehow more authentic in the past than they feel today.
But I’d argue this viewpoint is decidedly wrong -- none of this is new and none of it is specific to this generation. The majority of people in the world have commercial-friendly taste in music and like saccharine hits that they don’t have to think too much about. It’s true. It was true when I was a kid. It was true in the 1960s when The Velvet Underground was releasing some of my all-time favorite albums, the #1 albums of the day were by The Monkees, The Association and Herb Alpert (alongside the Beatles and Stones, of course). For me, 1979 was one of the best single years for music ever. That year gave us amazing albums from The Clash, Talking Heads, Devo, Television, Joy Division, Blondie, Elvis Costello and the B-52s. Yet the top albums that year were by Supertramp, Billy Joel and Rod Stewart.
When I was in elementary school, junior high and high school, the kids who liked “cool music” were a tiny minority compared to kids who liked what was in the Top 40. My wonder years were commercially soundtracked by the likes of Bryan Adams, Bon Jovi, late-’80s Aerosmith, Starship, Poison, Tiffany, Vanilla Ice, and Don’t worry Be Happy.
Kids my age ate that stuff up like candy! Really, only about 10-12 people I knew liked Bauhaus, Joy Division, The Misfits or even Bowie (besides the Let’s Dance album, which, I’m pretty sure everyone agreed was magic).
Plus, money and influence have controlled popular music for as long as there has been a profit to be made from selling music on a mass scale. The US started prosecuting for Payola in the ’50s, but companies and industry pros have been finding ways to influence and manipulate what’s popular in music ever since. The author even points to The Telecommunications Act of 1996, which has been opened the door for major media corporations to consolidate their outlets into single ownership. This, in turn, puts the control of the flow of information and culture on mass scale into only a few hands.
He states that in 1983, 50 companies controlled the majority of media outlets in our country. Today, he says, that number has consolidated to six companies holding the majority of media outlets in our country.
For me it was always an adventure to find cool music and art that nobody I knew had discovered. I spent a lot of time and energy to find what I like. But that was before the Internet put every track, artist and genre I could ever imagine right at my fingertips. I wonder if having everything available all the time on the Internet makes it less likely people want to do the hunting and just accept the easiest things? I don’t know, but it’s not my job to tell an entire generation what music they should like. I’d rather be curious about what they create or why they like what they like. Irony is much more boring, in the end, than someone who takes the time to figure out what is appealing about a Katy Perry song. Or about David Bowie.