Culture and Generations

While at my semi-annual visit to my dentist yesterday, I noticed the playlist was a comfortable one for me.  It was mostly the easy-listening songs I grew up with in the 1970s. (How does Boz Scagg’s “Lido Shuffle” always make it in these mixes?) This is not to say that all I listened to in the 70s was easy listening, but the one time I went to the dentist that they had chosen the “Lynyrd Skynyrd” satellite radio channel, it seemed a little odd.

As I was enjoying all the nostalgia, a thought crossed my mind.  I have discussed this with Rachel, so the answer is, no, I don’t go looking for these thoughts, they just happen.

While I am ok with a dentist office playing music from the 1970s here in 2010, wouldn’t it make sense that similarly dentist offices  in the 70s would have been playing easy listening music from the 30s or 40s?

I went to dentists in the 70s.  This was not happening.

What is it that happened over the last 40 years to make us nostalgic in ways that previous generations were not?

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14 thoughts on “Culture and Generations

  1. The answer seems to be technology. Way way back in the middle ’90s the Canadian author Douglas Coupland wrote an essay in which he suggested that the ease and durability of “externalized” memory would allow us as a culture to remember more.

    (I’ve searched for this essay on the web, but it doesn’t seem to be anywhere…which sort of argues against his point, but so be it. I have it in hard copy at home.)

    I think that he was right, though not necessarily exactly spot-on, as I don’t know that he was able to see the downside of such a tremendous memory. I find myself, as an avid music fan, getting frustrated with the increasing weight of nostalgia. I thought it was bad in the early (pre-Nirvana) ’90s when classic rock dominated the airwaves in suburban Massachusetts where I lived. Now it seems that most of the music being made today is merely pastiche of some of the elements of classic rock, and rather than digging deeply into the catalogue of the really interesting stuff from the past people are content to merely ape the Beatles but have no knowledge of what came before.

    • Thanks for the reference – I too will search for that article, and let you know if I find it.

      Jaron Lanier has an interesting perspective on music in our culture in his “You are not a Gadget” MIDI’s standardization of digitally produced music has led, he alleges, to what has become a lack of creative generativity in music, seen primarily in that since the mid 1990s or so, there has been no significant distinction between music era (i.e. 70s v 80s, etc)

      • I’ll try to dig that essay up, too, and scan it in if I can’t find it, and I’ll check out that article.

  2. I’ve long held a contrary position on this, Steve. When I was growing up (also in the 70s), the only crap my parents and their friends listened to was from the 50s or prior. Not only that, the only movies they enjoyed were old black-and-white classics from their youth (think Gene Kelly and that ilk), the only comedians they enjoyed were your Bob Hope / Milton Berle types, and they lived for reruns of “The Honeymooners” on TV. I remember one exception — neighbor friends of ours, whose mom listened to the same music we listened to, and who also thought George Carlin and Saturday Night Live and Monty Python were funny (my parents, and most other adults, as far as I could tell, hated all those), and enjoyed the same new movies we saw (or wanted to see but couldn’t cuz we weren’t old enough yet). This made a big impression on me, and I promised myself, way back then, that I would ‘keep current,’ and not just listen, later, to what I was listening to then, as a teenager.

    Much later (post-college years), I was living in Dallas when my favorite contemporary rock radio station changed its format to “classic rock.” This was the late 80s, and for years after that no radio station in the metroplex would play any contemporary rock music — unless, of course, Aerosmith or John Cougar Mellencamp or some other 70s rock icon issued a new album (of old-sounding music). It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that I was devastated by that format change. Here I was, trying to stick to the promise I’d made to myself as a child, and the radio world was conspiring against me and making it nearly impossible! (This was before satellite radio and the internet were more prominent.) Needless to say, I was thrilled years later when Nirvana and Pearl Jam and other bands forced their way through, and ‘new rock’ or ‘alternative’ radio stations (“The Edge!” etc.) began popping up. Finally! Before that, I was really wondering if rock music might die (hey hey, my my), because new artists weren’t getting any support (except underground, thank goodness).

    Though my interests are more acoustic than electric these days, they are at least contemporary, and it still is only occasionally that I can bear to listen to a classic rock (or easy listening) song from the 1970s.

    ANYWAY, my point is: I think it’s every generation. One’s “coming-of-age” cultural influences have a disproportionately strong impact on a person. Unfortunately, I think that remaining mired in those influences to the exclusion of newer-generation product can lead to a stagnation that can pervade other aspect of one’s life (thus my resistance).

    Are you sure you’re remembering the dentist-office music of your youth correctly? I’m willing to bet it wasn’t contemporary, but was nostalgic for a previous era in the same way that your recent office visit was for a later, but proportionately nostalgic, time.

    In short, it’s not just us, I don’t think; it’s every generation.

    • Heck no, I’m not sure I remember what they were playing in the dentist office in the 70’s. I thought about that as I typed the original post. My best guess is that it was muzak, much of which was muted, toned-down light rock from 3 years before..

  3. As for the comment about technology, this too could go either way, depending on what influence you let it have. That is, one can use new technology to expand one’s “memory,” but one can also use new technology to expand one’s “reach.”

    So there’s no radio station in my area that regularly plays Celtic music (Solas, Natalie McMaster, etc.) — no matter! I can pull up a Thistle & Shamrock podcast or search for and sample and purchase such music online. No aggressive acoustic folk-bluegrass-Cajun hillbilly swamp-rock bands getting airplay in Houston. That’s too bad, but technology (and the occasional festival ticket) allows me to discover Sixteen Horsepower, Split Lip Rayfield, The Horseflies, Old Crow Medicine Show, et al. So, I think that new technology has a greater impact on helping us find the current artists that we like, than it does on fomenting a stagnation in only our remembered culture.

    • Interesting stuff. While I’d have to agree with Lanier opining that there really isn’t identifiable “music from the early 2000s” easily differentiable from “music from the late 2000s,” music has, perhaps, broadened in different directions.

      Similar to your Celtic station, I’ve found today’s youth with whom I work almost all have much broader cross-genre appreciation than I remember most of us having in the late 70s and early 80s. Then, mostly, one liked rock or country or pop. Now, most people have, I would guess, collections that span at least half a dozen genres.

      • I’d argue that there’s easily differentiated sounds between the early Oughts and the late Oughts. The early years were dominated by “aggro” stuff, like Limp Bizkit and Korn and Godsmack, whereas somewhere around 2004/2005 the fey indie stuff became more popular, stuff like Belle & Sebastian and Sufjan Stevens.

        The Onion’s AV Club is actually doing a great series on “Now That’s What I Call Music!” as a retrospective; they haven’t gotten much past 2002, but it’s already a great read for this kind of stuff.

        (And in case it’s not obvious, I love this kind of stuff.)

      • Good observation. I don’t think you would have ever seen very many people from my town back in the day, listening to both rap and rock, or pop and country/western, but that kind of thing does seem to be much more common — partly due to the genres influence on each other (lot of rock acts incorporating hip hop [311 comes to mind], for instance, and hip hop artists sampling rock tracks, etc.), but also due, I think, to what has been mentioned about technology and reach. FM radio — which seems beholden to “genres” — has less influence now, replaced by pandora.com, iTunes, playlists designed as easily as drag and drop, digital file sharing, podcasts, myspace, etc. Good stuff.

        Reminds me of how refreshing I used to find going to my favorite record store (Waterloo, in Austin), because they didn’t group their records by genre. It always bugged me, in other stores, when I’d have to buy Lyle Lovett CDs in the Country section, when I didn’t think it was country music (nowdays, questions of genre don’t seem so important — but back then I was determined to both hate country music and like Lyle’s, so I was always offended to have to buy something from the Country section). But Waterloo just put whatever they carried in alphabetical order — Bob Marley in the same section as W. A. Mozart, and Lyle Lovett in the same section as Ludacris, Led Zeppelin, and Linkin Park. As it should be! Down with over-compartmentalization! 🙂

  4. Yeah, but are Belle & Sebastian and Sufjan Stevens selling anywhere near the numbers of records Korn and Limp Bizkit did in the early oughts? I have no idea, really, but that’s not my impression. I’d be thrilled to learn that Stevens is selling that many records (or their digital equivalents, of course). I mention, because I was surprised to hear anyone say that the music of any period of time (such as the late oughts) was dominated by their music. Hasn’t it just been Kanye and Britney and Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus and Jay-Z and Chris Brown and Beyonce’ and Rhiannon, etc.?

    Thanks, Michael, for the heads-up about The Onion’s series. I’m gonna check it out. For the indie music scene, with a pronounced Americana accent, I find Paste magazine pretty valuable (hard copy or online [including facebook]). You might check it out if that interests you and you don’t know about it already.

    • Thanks for the tip – I’ll go do some reading…

      As for selling records, does anyone do it with any volume any more? It’s kind of sad to think that maybe Limp Bizkit was part of the swan song of the record industry.

      As for who is dominating now, maybe my perception is a little off. While I’m well aware of the Kanyes and Mileys and Gagas, I guess the people who I talk to about music tend to listen to the more indie stuff. Granted, I’m a 35 year old white dude working at a major university in Boston, and I tend to talk to a lot of students, so I’m probably not getting a clear picture.

      I’m one of those weird diehards, though, who enjoys having actual CDs, so I keep buying them. My tastes run to the obscure, so I don’t often end up finding stuff on iTunes, and when I do it tends to be a track or two from a soundtrack rather than full albums.

      I occasionally get wistful for the pre-Nirvana days of buying music, when the stuff I dearly love was usually in the bargain bin because “alternative” didn’t exist.

      • “It’s kind of sad to think that maybe Limp Bizkit was part of the swan song of the record industry.” LOL

  5. One other thing that came up when I was discussing this with my girlfriend is that there’s a lot of money to be made in nostalgia – the economic downside (at least in my opinion) of our ability to externalize memory is that we can then turn it into a commodity to be bought and sold. This is particularly successful for every generation from the Baby Boom forward, given the fact that these generations were successfully entertained and marketed to in large groups.

    I do think this is a far more important issue than it might appear at first glance. I’d actually wager that the future shape of our culture is dependent on the answers we find to these questions.

    I’m also going to suggest that William Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy (“Virtual Light”, “Idoru”, and “All Tomorrow’s Parties”) ask a lot of the necessary questions to this conversation.

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