Why should pop music have to be rebellious?
written by: Joe Jackson
Last week’s spiked music column by Patrick West made an interesting case for musical taste being mostly determined by age. If you’re no longer finding today’s pop music interesting, he says, then you have finally (and tragically) turned into your dad. I’m not convinced.
For one thing, I’ve always been puzzled by the myth – perpetuated by West – that the 1970s was some kind of musical wasteland, redeemable only by middle-aged nostalgia. Many critics just divide the decade into pre- and post-punk. But in 1970 the Beatles were still together and Jimi Hendrix was still alive, and in 1980 we had the beginnings of hip-hop; in between, there was everything from prog rock to glam rock, pub rock, heavy metal, new wave, and disco.
There was loads of great soul and funk music. James Brown had some of his biggest hits in the early Seventies, and Parliament/Funkadelic, Earth Wind and Fire and Chaka Khan kept things cooking, while Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock pioneered jazz funk, and Dr John, The Meters, The Neville Brothers and Little Feat were reinventing the great musical traditions of New Orleans. Taking an even broader view, the Seventies saw explosions of talent and innovation in reggae, Latin music (Ray Barretto, Eddie Palmieri and New York’s Fania record label), and African music (Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade).
The Seventies also saw something which is indeed less common now: strikingly original solo artists or bands whose albums were eagerly awaited because their talents were big and varied enough not to be exhausted on one album. David Bowie, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Talking Heads and Kraftwerk, to name a few. But for West, the Seventies was just Abba and ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’ – ‘until everyone had enough and punk turned up’.
Ah yes, punk. I love the Pistols and The Clash, too. But I sometimes find it funny that rock critics – some of the most pretentious and humourless people on the planet – are still so hung up on what was arguably the dumbest, silliest, least subtle and most limited genre. Perhaps it’s the only area where they feel on safe ground. Joe Strummer once told me that when he and Mick Jones were writing Clash lyrics, they were mostly taking the piss, and they would crack up laughing every time they read an intellectual analysis of them. Johnny Rotten must still crack himself up: he came to destroy rock’n’roll only to be acclaimed by Rolling Stone as its saviour.
Which brings me to another widely promulgated idea – namely that music should be rebellious (as opposed to innovative) and that it should represent a youth culture in opposition to the ‘adult’ one. Isn’t that idea a bit dated in itself? Many of my friends now have teenage or twentysomething kids, and both parents and offspring enjoy the same music. Why must this be a bad thing? In some cases, the parents still avidly follow the current music scene, while the kids aren’t really bothered. In other cases, the kids are happier digging for retro Seventies vinyl. There don’t seem to be any rules.
Of course, for some people music is still all about nostalgia for a certain time and place. For others (and not necessarily young ones) it’s still all about youth and rebellion. But I suspect this is because nostalgia, youth and rebellion are more important to them than music. Ultimately, they’re not really music fans at all.
And finally, why is there a tendency to correlate age with declining excitingness? Simply living to middle age, or being a dad, doesn’t make you boring. Many young people are boring, too; they just get away with it because they’re young. Being older also means having some knowledge and experience. Knowing, for instance, when a much-hyped new band is an obvious recycling of something you saw 20 or 30 years ago. It’s absolutely inevitable that there’s more and more of that sort of thing going on, simply because of the passage of time. Maybe it’s just uncool to point it out.
Joe Jackson is a musician and writer.