I find a new generation of college students often charactering themselves as having “ideas/beliefs…a lot less strict than in the 70s, 60s and so on,” as seen in the contrast between, say, EDM, and soul (or in this instance, Tove Lo’s “Talking Body” and Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”). Perhaps it’s true, but the bigger point is that most students—of those who’ve been in America for a minute—feel intimations of a generation gap, that some change has occurred, whether felt as a positive or negative change (if not so much the recent immigrants who are still navigating the differences between two present cultures and haven’t yet gotten around to contrasting the USA present and the past).
For many, the 90s—just before they were born—is the good old days, yet I try to encourage them to defend the superiority of their generation’s culture and teach the old guy (me) what love and beauty and truth or glorious lies he might be missing. Few ever take up this challenge, so I’m convinced that the feeling of nostalgia that informs my students papers is real, and not an attempt to suck up to a teacher (who may be desperately in search of a reason not to feel nostalgic).
The more I investigate this, the more it’s clear that this is not merely a contrast between the “young” and the “old,” and/or between historical eras; mass culture shaped us all (even if we believe we were socialized to overcome our socialization). It’s also about the feeling of nostalgia that infects the 18 year old today, at least as much as it infected many of us in the 80s/90s. This nostalgic feeling is not necessarily bad, but should be accepted and encouraged as it awakens a historical curioisity which can help people understand, and then hopefully make, the present (rather than simply being made by it). This is clearly part of our task, when we find ourselves confronted, over and over again, with students who believe 1963 was 1863, Malcolm X lobbied hard for the Emancipation Proclamation, or that Shakespeare was a caveman.
This youthful feeling of nostalgia, of an emptiness, of a feeling something’s been lost, of wanting to call yourself “old fashioned” as a positive value, may ultimately be more forward looking, visionary, and even justified by civic leaders as “innovative,” than those who embrace the present mass culture reality as a “given.” It’s not really looking for the past, but more profoundly for a difference from what’s perceived as the “norm.” I—and many like me—also felt something like this when we were 18 back in the day, as I studied older music like Motown, Gil Scott-Heron, The Velvet Underground and Sly and The Family Stone, but also got into more “obscure” then contemporary music like Schooley-D and The Fall.
Still, the students’ ideas of this new generation being more about sex and less about love than the 70s generation was new to me because that’s exactly what many accused the 50s, 60s and 70s generations of being: many of the songs that were questioned for their morals then are now held as moral standards. So either America (or at least youth culture America) has simply gone further along the path away from “love” and toward “sex,” since then, or maybe the lyrical relationship between “sex” and “’love” is nothing more than a difference in language, in idiom, in code. One student, for instance, argued that her generation’s “Boss Ass Bitch” is essentially saying the same thing as Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” And who am I to say she’s not making a very important point?
In a related point, it’s clear that many musicians known to be “sensitive” with their light rock stylings (like 70s icon Jackson Brown, or 80s new-age pianist Yanni) have been found to be wife beaters at least as much as those singing blatantly misogynistic lyrics. Because of this, I’m sympathetic to those who argue that putting misogynistic or misanthropic sentiments in their art has enabled them to be more gentlemanly cool “pussy” cats with their ladies than those who over-idealize their affections (that was part of the point of Much Ado About Nothing).
So, as an older guy, I am not willing to throw the younger generation under the “moral” bus, even if they are. In many cases I’m more sympathetic to the lyrics my students judge negatively than they are. My problem with their generation’s music is much more based on the sound. Is that merely “taste” as a generational marker? I like to say “no” because I did not like most of the “popular” music of my 80s/90s generation either (Journey, Whitney Houston, Thriller, Springsteen, Pearl Jam, etc). The 80s/90s pop musical landscape was so bleak to me and to many others so I can’t believe today’s can be much worse.
Yet it is much harder to get the younger students to defend the sound of the newer songs over the sound of the old, and I feel I need to work on that…though maybe it’s outside the scope of an English writing course….(maybe someday if get to co-teach that interdisciplinary course with a music teacher)… Still, I brainstorm on possible questions for the next class:
What is the meaning of these very different sounds. Does the “old timey” R&B I love sound like a different America, of factories and the middle class, and a little more of a safety net with stronger communities and less segregated schools, drugs and crime? I think so, and is your EDM and is Auto-tune sounds like the 21st century Tech economy, white color, more computer based, less physical and more individualistic? That makes sense, too. If they’re both dance songs, do you dance differently? I bet you dance less than your grandma and great grandma did at your age? Do the old ones feel more quaint, too acoustic, too body?