Thursday, June 14, 2007

Generation Gaps, Popular Music, and Affluence

In my previous two posts ("Art, Black Art, and Seriousness in Bebop" and "Miles Davis' Ferrari, or Popularity and Art") I argued that one of the important factors in the waning popularity of jazz, especially big band swing, beginning in the mid-1940s was a generation gap. The popularity of swing had been related to its role as dance music, appealing to and depending upon a young audience’s attendance at dance halls. Swing had been the popular dance music of the 1930s and early 1940s, but by the mid-1940s, the music was associated with those who had been young and sounded out of date to the youth of the time, and it began to give way to new forms of dance music.

(I’m not suggesting this was the only factor. Big bands were expensive to maintain, being comprised by definition of many musicians. They required large attendance at dance halls to be maintained. When the oil and automobile industries began buying up and dismantling many of the private trolley companies in a variety of American cities in the mid- to late 1940s, one effect was to make it harder for youth to attend dance halls in the same numbers – favoring smaller ensembles that were more cheaply maintained.)

Swing waned in favor of the new rhythm and blues music, which in turn gave way to rock and roll in the 1950s. The name “rock and roll” might have stuck around, but styles waxed and waned, with the intense popularity among 1950s youth of Little Richard, Chuck Berry and even Elvis giving way to Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and James Brown (just to name three intensely popular acts associated with somewhat different varieties of 1960s popular music).

But then something different happened. Most popular acts of the 1960s saw their popularity wane and disappear eventually as with previous acts, but the most popular acts of the 1960s never lost their audiences. The youth of the 1960s continued to enjoy popular music beyond their youth as most individuals of previous generations had not (i.e. popular music became seen as something more than a frivolity for kids to listen to). Further, over time acts like Bob Dylan, the Beatles, or James Brown became dissociated from a specific generational cohort in the sense that later generations of youth have continued to discover and maintain the popularity of such acts to a much greater extent than with previous popular music.

There is a similar but distinct phenomenon in visual popular culture. Certain films, images, and styles (from the 1950s on) have become stylized as tropes of “youth” and/or “rebellion” – the images of Rebel without a Cause or The Wild One, Che Guevara tee-shirts, Mohawk haircuts or dyed hair, the “Goth” look, piercings, etc. These are modularized visual tropes that any youth can use to make a visual statement about their individuality that will be understood by nearly everyone precisely because modular and not individual. They are also tropes typically picked up and later mostly dropped.

This is different from what has happened with popular music since the 1960s, when popular music is associated with youth, but as a sort of sign and symptom of youth that isn’t dropped and isn’t expected to be. Further, popular music styles have continued to change, as in earlier decades, but each style adds to a repertoire rather than replacing the previous popular style. 1960s popular music co-exists with 1970s “classic rock” (which as far as I can tell never experienced a dip in popularity – with many acts getting as much or more radio play as during the 1970s) with 1980s New Wave (and many contemporary “alternative” bands sounding virtually identical to New Wave bands).

What made the popular music of the 1960s and later different from what came before? Better, what made youth, at least in the industrialized world, different beginning in the 1960s?

Much has been written of the “Baby Boomers” who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s as the “Me” generation. In the May 26, 2007 issue of The Economist (p. 33), the anonymous columnist “Lexington” presents an interesting perspective on the issue in a discussion of Brink Lindsey’s book The Age of Abundance. Lexington writes:

“The industrial revolution in America was driven by a bourgeois Protestant ethic that celebrated work and frowned on self-indulgence. Those who invested their pay earned respect as well as compound interest; those who wasted it on whiskey and cards forwent both. But over the years, thrift combined with technology and capitalism produced such vast returns that thrift went out of fashion. The 1960s saw the coming-of-age of the first generation whose members had never known scarcity, and therefore did not fear it. Spurning their parents’ self-restraint, the baby-boomers rebelled against every form of authority and sampled every form of fun.”

This is a highly partial account to be sure. Before the mid-20th century, many who did their best to be thrifty earned neither respect nor compound interest, and many coming of age in the 1960s were well aware of scarcity. What Lindsey and Lexington are speaking of, then, is a largely middle-class phenomenon, but nonetheless real and important for that. What Post-War affluence led to for the middle-classes at least was not the elimination of the distinction between work and play, but a change in the relationship. Play was no longer a temporal stage, something that one mainly engaged in as a child before transitioning into adulthood and work and responsibility. Instead, one could thoroughly engage in play while being and becoming an adult. With the distinctions between work and play or between responsibility and play no longer tied to temporal stages of life, the line between youth and adulthood was blurred as well, leading to the marketing of continual youth (and the marketing of elements of popular culture associated with “youth” to youths born decades after the fact because of the dissociation of the tropes of “youth” from the particular sets of youth originally associated with them.)

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