What’s Old is New is Old is New Again

I have this distinct memory of sitting down in my basement as a middle schooler with my mom and my grandma. We were playing Monopoly, or cards, or some sort of game, and I put on my current favorite music at the time – by my memory, it was “Empire Ants” by Gorillaz.

After sitting and listening to my pick of the music, my mom, excitedly, decided to share some of the music she used to listen to “when she was my age.” I don’t remember exactly what she put on, but it was probably New Order or Depeche Mode. I gave it my best listen, but when my mom and grandma asked me what I thought, I told them, “It just sounds too old.”

I can say my music taste has evolved a little since then, and I’ve actually come to appreciate a lot of the music my parents used to listen to when they were younger. In an odd, roundabout way, it’s become nostalgic for me too, just as it is for them, because they used to play it for me over our outdoor speakers when we would all sit in our backyard hot tub when I was a kid. That music is mixed into some of my happiest childhood memories.

I’ve come to appreciate some of this music so much I made a Spotify playlist with some of my favorite songs from the 80s, most of them stolen from my parents’ mixes and playlists I used to hear all the time. My first idea for this post was to highlight some of those songs and talk about them a little, but I’ll be honest, this has turned out to be a crazy week, so I’m saving that for next week.

So, for a shorter post this week, I wanted to explore a topic I’ve briefly brushed on in the past. There’s this trend as generations of music creators and listeners go on for older generations to shun newer generations. Whether it be for the perceived “shallowness” of modern music, or lack of talent of modern artists, or moral degradation of the lyrics, or whatever, it seems that older generations always find one reason or another to belittle the music of the youth. And this is something that has gone on for a long, long time.

See, my favorite class I’m taking right now is called History of Rock n’ Roll. My section of the class only covers music from the 70s, 80s, and very early 90s, but repeatedly we’ve talked about the constant evolution of music and how it repeatedly alienates the people who have loved the older stuff. It’s something I’ve definitely observed – scroll into the YouTube comments of any song pre-2000 and you’ll see a ton of people lamenting on how music these days just doesn’t sound like it used to – but it’s almost a little funny how reliable of a thing it is. Every generation, there’s some new genre or style or technique that gets dashed, and then the next generation, suddenly that genre or style or technique is classic and untouchable, and whatever new stuff is here is trash.

But being in that class has also taught me something else. This pattern has always come off as ridiculous to me because I’m a fan of modern music, and I think it’s deep and meaningful and creative. But I think in doing so, I was assuming that modern music was a progression from older music.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a progression in the sense that music evolves and takes notes from older styles and continues moving forward with that influence, but I mean progression as in improvement. I always assumed modern music was an improvement of older music. I mean, it makes sense. More time, more knowledge, we learn to make better music. That’s what you would think, right?

Well, no. Actually, I think what History of Rock n’ Roll has taught me is that music, more or less, is the same as it’s always been. I mean, there are new faces and new technology and new genres and new trends, but really at it’s heart, all music comes from the same sort of place, no matter what decade it’s from.

To explain my point, I want to look at the synthpop genre of the 80s, one of my personal favorites. The professor of my class, try as he might, can’t help but sound a little judgmental of this particular genre due to his apparent belief that no computer (or sequencer or sampler or whatever fancy-shmancy newfangled technology) can reproduce the emotion and authenticity of a real, actual instrument. But for that reason he really trashes on this particular musical innovation, pointing out how off and on it is, with no subtlety. “Every sound is even full blast or silent!” he says. “Everything is made with sequencers or synthesizers or samplers!”

And that’s fine, that’s his opinion. But for me, well-acquainted with the role of computers not just in music but in… well, everything, it’s obvious to me what happened with this genre. I hear it in every song in this genre. People are excited! We learn about all these innovations being made in sound and music production, and these musicians, these artists… they’re thrilled! They’re being given new tools to play with, and they’re playing with them.

I was trying to think up some comparison songs to show you, but I think no comparison illustrates my point any better than just the one song “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. Probably not the most unexpected pull, I know, but just give this song a listen. Sure, the lyrics are mourning the loss of the old way people made music, but just listen to it. The Buggles had so much fun with the new technology they had. They integrated it into their style, their way of performing it.

And just listening to any song of this genre from this era, I hear the same stuff. How about a favorite of the songs we studied in this genre, Blue Monday by New Order. Listen to that intro and tell me that that isn’t the result of a bunch of people who love making music being given a fun new tool to work with. It’s long and so unapologetically synthetic and that’s cool!

And you know, that’s how music has always been! And is now. I feel like a lot of movements in music are the direct result of someone who loves to make music being given a new tool to do just that. Whether that tool is a literal piece of technology, or a new genre, or a new trend, or whatever, people who want to make music are happy to do so with whatever is newest and most exciting. And listeners may not enjoy that, because to them it seems a betrayal, when really it’s just an artist having fun and expressing themselves.

And maybe that’s an uncomplicated view of it all. Yes, people don’t always make music out of the goodness of their hearts and excitement of their souls, but I feel like for every “sell out” there’s a lot more people who actually want to make good, innovative stuff than most think. And that’s what is happening today. The people making music with computer software and sharing it on Bandcamp are just like those synthpop artists of the 80s, or classic rock bands of the 70s, or rock n’ roll stars of the 50s. They’ve been given a new tool and they’re going to use it to make something incredible to them, whether the people listening like it or not.

 

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