generations


I have been debating with two of my brothers for over a decade about the longevity and importance of 20th century popular music and musical artists. In 100, 200 or 300 years, assuming basic continuity of our civilization, which artists from the last century will be household names, will be known at all outside of music historians, will be considered important in any way?

Our positions have changed a bit over the years, but I tend to argue like this: How many artists can you name from the 19th century? The 18th? The 17th? My music history education is probably better than average, but my lists quickly narrow. I can think of ten or so 19th century composers (and zero musicians) off the top of my head and have put in significant listening time with only Brahms, Chopin, and Beethoven. I can think of about five 18th century composers and have spent significant time with two–Mozart and Bach. I can only think of one composer from the 17th century and have spent no time with his music. By the 16th century, I don’t even recognize any musicians‘ or composers‘ names.

And none of the above wrote in English. If I had needed to understand the words to enjoy the music I would have no use for any of them.

So, I argue, why should we expect more than ten or so musical artists of our era to be generally known and considered important in 100 years, or more than five in 200 years, or two in 300 years? To do so seems to inflate the importance of our music, and to deflate the probable importance of future generations’ music to the generations that produce it and the probability of major shifts in the dominant culture. It’s an easy mistake to make, I think, for the Gen Xers and Millenials in the cultural shadow of the Boomers. After all, who have our generations produced to eclipse The Beatles or James Brown?

And there’s the way language changes. Even assuming English remains dominant, our modern English is quite likely to sound stilted in 100 years and pretty hard to understand in 300. How many people will listen to Bob Dylan purely for the sonic experience, especially once the historical context of 20th century folk music and Dylan’s “going electric” is long gone?

My brothers, on the other hand, tend to argue that digital storage of music and globalization have changed everything and my looking at history to predict the future is not clear thinking. First, there is unprecedented access to fame in modern times: The composers I cite could write down their pieces and try to get others to play them, but couldn’t put them on YouTube with a video to go viral. As far as I know it’s true that even the best known of my list of composers had nowhere near the fame of Michael Jackson. Maybe popes or emperors had a shot at that kind of fame, but not Bach. Second, my composers wrote on paper that can decompose or get thrown away with grandpa’s old junk after he dies. This is way, way less likely to happen with the way we store information now. A recording of music can theoretically live forever in easy access. Third,  the trend seems to be nichification, not extinction. The memory of and enthusiasm for Carl Perkins, for example, lives on in young people who are into neo-rockabilly, psychobilly, gothabilly and who knows what other sub-genres to come.  Finally, my wife, Reanna, points out that language may not drift the way it used to because of globalization and the internet. It seems like standardization (to Californian English) is the trend these days, not drift. Dylan may be only a little harder to understand in a couple centuries than he is today.

For all these reasons, they argue, why should we expect any really great music from the 20th century to lose its place in the popular culture of the future?

We will never know the answer. Still, it makes for an interesting exercise to predict. When or if general knowledge of 20th century music narrows to 10 artists, who will it be? Five artists? Two?

Here are my best guesses. This was very difficult, though a very interesting process to go through. Compelling, even. How can I keep my aesthetics and hopes out of it? How long can a dead musical artist remain in memory based on the force of their charisma or persona or being a major voice of their generation?  I am actually less sure about my guesses now that I’ve thought them through. Perhaps I’ll write another post about the process. 

I’d love to know, what are your versions of these lists?

100 year list: 20th century musical artists still generally known in the year 2100:

  • Aretha Franklin
  • Billy Holiday
  • Bob Dylan
  • Duke Ellington
  • Elvis Presley
  • Frank Sinatra
  • Louis Armstrong
  • Michael Jackson
  • Ray Charles
  • The Beatles

200 year list: 20th century musical artists still generally known in the year 2200:

  • Duke Ellington
  • Louis Armstrong
  • The Beatles

[Note: I gave myself five slots to fill on this list but decided not to.]

300 year list: 20th century musical artists still generally known in the year 2300:

  • Duke Ellington
  • Louis Armstrong
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A lot of pundits are talking about “the youth vote” and how it is part of “the coalition” that is responsible for President Obama’s recent election. Their big question is whether “the youth vote” will remain part of the Democratic coalition, and whether or how it might be swayed to vote Republican in the future.

Young people are not a constituency in the same way that, say, White women are. So when you note that the “youth vote” for Obama was up 1% from four years ago, that means something significantly different than noting that White women voted for Obama 4% less than four years ago.

The “youth vote” in 2012 is actually a group of individuals who are constantly getting older. The easy mistake to make (and I’ve written more about it here) is to sample young people and think that we know what “young people” are like. What the Democrats have at the moment are the votes of 60% of voters who are currently 18-29 years old. That group has a turnover rate of about 1/3 per election cycle, a completely new group of people every four cycles. The current “youth vote” group who voted decisively for Obama will be with us for a much longer time–another 50+ years, as middle aged adults, then older adults.

If I were an election strategist, I would be thinking of the “youth vote” as very up for grabs, and worth paying a lot of attention to. If I were a Republican election strategist, I would be thinking about how to  gain the affections of the next “youth vote,” our current crop of high school kids.


Reanna is reading me a book, called Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage, a memoir about a marriage and the history and culture of marriage. I’m only just into chapter 3, but so far, it’s good.

One thing the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, writes is that in 1967, when interracial marriage was made legal by the Supreme Court, seven out of ten Americans believed that it should remain illegal.

!

Wow. It’s hard to imagine anyone outside of the most racist crackpot seriously defending that position anymore. I wonder how many of that 70% are still alive, and what they think now? Two generations–the Lost Generation (born 1883-1900) and the G.I. generation (born 1901-1924)–have died since then. Two have been born since then–Gen X and Millennial. But two entire generations, Silent and Boomers, are still alive from that time.

I also wonder how many people would still believe interracial marriage should be illegal, if not for that activist-court decision? Could it be that if not for the Supreme Court’s very unpopular interpretation in 1967 that 70% of us would still believe that interracial marriage should be illegal? Would the anti-miscegenation laws have been struck down anyway, by political representatives of the liberal Boomers when they came to power?

And isn’t it easy to imagine that you would have been one of the 30% enlightened people in 1967 and hard to imagine otherwise? Chances are, though, we would have been in the racist camp. This kind of realization is one of the big reasons I doubt the existence of (much, at least) free will. It really seems as if I’ve come to my views on interracial marriage (and most other things) through consideration of facts, but it’s quite likely that the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision had a bigger effect on my beliefs than any of my own efforts have.

I’m reading Froma Walsh’s Spiritual Resources in Family Therapy (1st edition) for my Wellness & Spirituality Throughout the Life Cycle class. Here’s a quote:

“Active congregational participation as well as prayer tend to become increasingly important over adulthood. Whereas only 35% of young adults aged 18-29 attend their place of worship weekly, 41% of persons aged 30-49, 46% of those  aged 50-64, and 56% of those over 65 attend weekly.”

That quote is from the 1999 edition of the book, and so those numbers are probably based on a survey conducted in the 1990s. The source is not cited, so I can’t be sure, so take this criticism with a grain of salt. I’m just using this example to point out something that happens a lot with the analysis of age-based research. That is, this presentation makes it sound as if humans attend church more and more as they get older, but these numbers say no such thing.

What these numbers say is that at the time of the survey, 35% of young adults say they are going to their place of worship weekly and that each age group above them at this time show more of that behavior. Each generation has its own characteristics. It may well be that this group of young adults is part of a less church-going generational cohort, which will stay more or less that way as they age. Imagine, for example, that such is the case and the next generation that comes along attends church more often. A survey at that time will show that place-of-worship attendance is relatively high in young adults, drops off in middle age, and then resurges in old age, and many will assume, based on that, that this is the “natural” progression of human church-going behavior.

As far as I know, Walsh is accurate in her analysis, based on information she is not giving. It’s a potential error to be aware of, though, and one often overlooked by researchers in psychology. I’ve noticed it often since reading Strauss & Howe’s Generations. They make the point really well, that we often think that increasing age causes people to become more or less something-or-other–more conservative, say–basing our reasoning on the generational cohorts that are currently alive, but it may just seem that way because of the quirks of our sample.

In order to know, we would need more information than this snapshot. We need multiple surveys conducted over quite a period of time, while different generational cohorts were alive, to get longitudinal information. Does each generation attend church more and more as it ages? Is the difference in church-going between a generation in its young years and that generation in old age greater or less than the difference between that generation and another generation entirely?