“Should I stay or should I go?” a twenty-something colleague asked me recently, glancing at the closed door of the editor’s office and wondering whether she should wait until its inhabitant was off the phone or leave to make it to an appointment with her stylist.
“Ah,” I replied. “That is the eternal question. The Clash asked that question almost 30 years ago, and we are still asking it today.”
She gave me one of those blank stares that people of a certain age do so well.
“Who’s that?” she asked.
I was shocked. Shocked that anyone should be unaware of one of the most important bands to blast onto the scene during the British punk explosion of the late 1970s.
Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Nicky “Topper” Headon combined to create a gritty, edgy expression of their view of the world built on themes that identified their time, and left us with a timeless statement of belligerent beauty, including “Should I stay or should I go,” which is one of the most poignant relationship songs ever written.
“Never heard of them,” my colleague said. She indicated that since she is not yet 30 years old, she couldn’t possibly be expected to be familiar with ancient bands like this, and gave the impression that anything that happened more than 30 years ago isn’t worth knowing.
That is where things get sticky.
Young people have an irksome habit of acting as if their version of pop culture is the first of its kind.
The fact is, there isn’t much that is really “new.”
Most things are simply a re-organization of elements borrowed or flat out stolen from things that have come before.
Those who do the best job of interpreting the past and taking it in a new direction are the innovators of their day. This is true whether it is music, art, or literature.
We will never understand this if we are not at least somewhat familiar with what has been done in the past.
Knowing something about the past also adds to our enjoyment of music because we can detect influences from other musicians and styles when we listen to it.
Some people see it as their duty to pass on this knowledge to their children or others around them.
They believe their kids should be exposed to everything from Beethoven to The Bangles; from Brubeck to Bowie; from AC/DC to ZZ Top.
We are fortunate to have the luxury of being able to choose from a multitude of music styles to fit any mood.
To say that we should be aware of the past does not mean that we should not appreciate the new music that is being produced today.
In every generation there are a few musicians who rise up from the morass of mediocrity, and we must be prepared to embrace them when they do.
One of my favorite new artists is the Welsh singer, Duffy. She has a voice that hits one with the power of a commuter train re-arranging an errant pedestrian, which is to say, it has impact.
As fresh as she is, there is something in her music that is reminiscent of the best of the Motown sound of the 1960s.
The generation clash works in both directions. Some refuse to acknowledge the music of the past, while others refuse to consider anything new.
We all have a special fondness for the music that was popular during our formative years, as it were, and this is understandable.
And yet, there is something infinitely sad about people who latch on to the music that they listened to in high school, and refuse to listen to anything else from that point on, as if they are frozen in time.
No music is that good.
We need not abandon the music of our youth, but we should make room for new experiences, including embracing the best new artists and discovering gems from the past.
With that said, it would be better to let the music die than to have it live on as elevator music or worse.
It makes my skin crawl when I hear songs that were once edgy and fresh and real that have been watered down and neutered by some advertising agency for use in car commercials or other soulless tripe.
The generation clash is always out there, and we must use care to avoid crashing into it no matter what age we are.