Pop Goes the Culture — Mischa Willett:
My question then is the following: what is it about combining lyrics and instrumentation that reduces so the use-by date? I suppose to engage it, you'd have to believe that it does. I can imagine some people arguing that The Beatles haven't really aged. They'd be wrong, and hilariously so, but I can imagine it. My sense is the that the Fab Four endure almost purely for nostalgic, and then for ideological reasons. Those of us who listen do so to remember certain times or feelings from our youth, or to sign up for the rebellious posture they advocate--down with religion! Your teachers are stupid! The government is evil! Whether one supports such rallying cries is irrelevant to the issue that that's a large part of the band's appeal. I can hear people saying Bob Dylan music is beyond time as well, but I don't think that's right either. There is nothing eternal or universal in that music. But given that you're a normal person, surely you'd have to admit--even if the music of your upbringing was great, like mine was, that it begins to show its age eventually. Some records I unashamedly love, even still from 30 years ago; others I can only love because I have decided to place their obvious emotional manipulations to one side, to look past their excesses in the same way I agree to look past their hair or attire.
Even if you don’t agree completely with the way I’ve framed the question here, don’t we think this odd? Poems last forever. Non-vocal music lasts a rather long time, sometimes centuries. But put them together and it starts looking not only threadbare, but comical, embarrassing, within a decade, if that. It doesn’t seem to me self-evident why that should be the case and yet there are literally thousands of examples.
To get one particular point out of the way first, the music of the Beatles and Bob Dylan is most certainly not beyond time. Both are very much products of their time. Most of the people claiming otherwise are members of the generation for whom that music was formative.
I have reached an age where a lot of the bands and albums that I love are now older (sometimes by quite a bit) than the music that played on the oldies station when I was a kid. That is a perspective I try to keep in mind when I think about what music I like and why I like it. Is Pretty Hate Machine one of my favorite albums because of its inherent qualities, or because it came out when I was a freshman in college and is all tangled up in the memories and emotions of that phase of my life? Mostly the latter, I think. The album is very much a product of its time and I would never claim otherwise, but I love it anyway.
As for Willet’s broader claim that pop music is somehow unique in the time-bound nature of its appeal, I don’t buy it.
Maybe there are some exceptions, but every piece of art—every creative output—is a product of its times and is tied to those times. We make a value judgement—at both the individual and collective levels—about whether that piece of art is good or bad, but they are still value judgements.
I might not go so far as to say that all art is equal, but I feel like appeals to timelessness are attempts to evade responsibility for these judgments. If I can claim that a piece of music or a painting on the wall is timeless, then it is no longer on to justify why I like it; it is just truly better than whatever pedestrian crap other people like. I don’t think it is usually a deliberate tactic, but rather a failure to step outside our own frames of reference—we want to insist that that the music we like is inherently good because it is hard for us to think about it outside of our own experiences of it and the feelings and memories tied to those experience.