He’s got a good point, but his hair covers most of it
…the love letters that baby boomers send to themselves to remind themselves that everything was better when they were young: the relationships, the culture, and most certainly the music. It’d be far more infuriating for me if I wasn’t secretly consoled by the fact that someday every single member of that demographic will be dead. (E: “Wow, pretty harsh, man!”) It’s going to be far more of a shock than I think a lot of us realize. We live in the world the boomers built (or more accurately, that the World War II generation built and the boomers re-branded). We all know the saying “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” — but what do you do when all the Romans are gone? The answer: You wander around like aimless Visigoths, marveling at the improbable structures they left behind, trying to figure them out for yourself, and ultimately demolishing them out of frustration. (E: “Go on…”)
Boomers will leave us plenty of confusing artifacts to ponder and smash. One of the most prominent artifacts of the fallen Boomer Empire will be the many “greatest of all time” lists that have littered the glossier magazines of their epoch (E: “Epoch, eh? Hold on a while I go look that up……………………Oh, O.K., go on…”) These features appear almost randomly, without any discernible pattern, to remind the populace that yes, the Beatles are still the greatest band of all time and have been since they shook their mops for the reporters at JFK airport in February 1964. The driving factor behind all of these “Greatest of All Time” lists is validation, not of the artists in question but of those who produce the lists and those who consume them (E: “Not untrue. It’s why I do it!”). These lists are almost always accompanied by breathless prologues describing the arduous task of judging and ranking each entry, the meticulous formulas derived to accurately weigh the artists against one another. “There was a horse race,” Rolling Stone editor Joe Levy told USA Today in 2003 when Sgt. Peppers took the top spot. “Early on, any number of albums in the top 10 were in the lead,” Levy continues, “The final result is no shock, but there’s a reason for that. The Beatles, after all, were the most important and innovative rock group in the world.”(E: “DAMN STRAIGHT!!”) Well, it’s a good thing we made it official with all these numbers! If you think Levy is speaking off the cuff, USA Today is quick to note that the accounting firm of Ernst & Young devised a point system to weight votes for 1,600 submitted titles. Votes were provided by musicians, critics, historians and key industry figures. This is hard work, people! It’s all very scientific and mathematical, you wouldn’t understand! (E:”Do I detect a little jealousy, Mr. Gen X? Dave Matthews Band didn’t pan out fer ya?”)
All of this gives the whole process the air of authority necessary to perpetuate the symbiotic relationship between the critics who produce these lists and the needy (E: “Needy? NEEDY?!? Al right, maybe just a little bit. Go on…”) audience who consumes them. The aging audience for these lists is growing insecure about their own status in society (E:”Who…MOI?”), fearful that when they’re finally gone that the kids won’t appreciate what they left behind.(E:”Sorry, I already know my kids won’t, just as I didn’t cotton to my Dad’s Statler Brothers albums and my Mom’s copy of ‘Stars On 45’”) Most of all, they’re hungry for someone to come along and remind them that they are, in fact, wicked cool. Look upon their favorite albums, ye children, and despair! The boomers treat the lists with reverence, as they affirm the generational self-image, which in turn strengthens the perceived authority of the list makers who can then congratulate one another on a job well done. The boomers keep their subscriptions to Rolling Stone current (E:”Gave mine up in 1985…”), ignoring the fact that it became corporate and irrelevant right along with them.
The lists are made by baby boomers for baby boomers (E: “How do you explain the lists over at Pitchfork, hmnnnn? I hear the average age over there is 13…”) and almost inevitably feature baby boomer bands in their upper ranks. “Let the children have their year-end lists!” you can almost hear them saying. “Their number one isn’t even in the top 500 of all time!” They’ll toss one or two contemporary bands in to show they’re hip, but for most of the readers and writers of these things, music crystallized in the late 1960s, and we’ll be chewing the rubbery fruits of classic rock radio for the rest of eternity (E: ”Again, DAMN STRAIGHT!”).
The thing is, we won’t (E: “Whaaaaaa?”). Perennially the Beatles are first and the Rolling Stones are second on all these lists (E: “Nope. It’s usually Dylan in the #2 slot.”) (which must really piss Mick off as he carts his skeleton up on stage for his millionth live show), and for just about everyone alive today, it’s hard to imagine a world where this is not the case, where these two talented, important bands are not always recognized as such. And were the “greatest of all time” lists based on something other than the collective insecurities of an aging and doomed generation, they just might have been. But someday the Roman Empire will fall, taking the Beatles and the Rolling Stones with them (E: “Chill out, Nero…”). When the boomers are no longer the economically and culturally dominant generation, they won’t be running the magazines nor will they be buying them (E:”Don’t believe we’ll still have magazines, actually.”). And the new list readers aren’t going to spend their inheritances on magazines that tell them how great their grandfather’s favorite band was; they’re going to want to feel the warm, reassuring validation for themselves. The new list makers will want it as well, as they need to create that feeling for the new generation so they themselves don’t look like out-of-touch old fogies (E: “Meet George Jetson! His Boy Elroy! “).
The real tragedy is that the generation that takes over won’t do the right thing. Presented with a tabula rasa (E: “Hold on….still have Wikipedia up on my screen, give me a minute………..HEY, THAT AIN’T COOL!”) made up of smooth boomer gravestones, the first thing they’ll do is inscribe a big number one on it and set about discussing who should take the spot. The idea of list-making has been engrained in the business of music criticism, and all the new media ventures have already fallen in line. With the advent of the Internet and, more recently, blogs (e: “Careful…”), it seemed as if there might be a movement toward more personal and less market-driven forms of music writing. Instead, many have done just the opposite, clinging to the accepted forms and styles in an attempt to appear credible. With no hope of banishing these greatest of all time lists to the past, we must look forward at the soul-numbing options for the next generation’s new number one. By 2025 (E: “Daughter Judy! Jane, his wife!”), I predict the Beatles will sag slightly, perhaps never out of the top 10, but far enough to cause a commotion. Magazines (E: “Or a reasonable facsimile.”) will clamor to be the first to address the new power demographic that grew up listening to bands of the 1980s and 1990s. Someone has to take the spot — so who are the top contenders? I have my thoughts, but rather than present them as a list, I’ll use a far more egalitarian method: odds making. (E: “Let’s not bore the readership with this part. Skip to the end, Nostradamus.”)
That’s where we’re headed, people. It’s a long, bleak future ahead of us. All we can do is hope that we teach our children better so when we die, they appropriately desecrate everything we stood for and believed in, not just the content but the very forms that hold it. It’s the only way the cycle will be broken and some modicum of meaningful discourse in what defines great music can begin.