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Who cares about 'My Generation' anymore?

August 18, 2009 |  2:02 pm

Beatles_Rock_Band_6_

The 1960s: We just can't get away from them.

As the muddy dust of Woodstock nostalgia settles -- taking with it the whining protests of sensitive little-sibling Gen Xers -- the baby boom is immediately reasserting its pop cultural might, this time in a much more effective way. The marketing campaign for "The Beatles: Rock Band" game moves forward hour by hour, with today's song list announcement stoking an appetite already primed by major media attention, and the already unveiled chart allowing users to check that their fake instruments will work with the highly compatible game. (Sorry, would-be Ringos in possession of "Rock Revolution" drums, you will be purchasing a new set.)

Between the attention given rock's most fondly remembered musical gathering and the careful campaign to remind everyone of what Fab Four still matters the most, any hope non-boomers had that they'd finally moved to pop's center seemed dashed.

Yet the truth is, it's getting hard to argue that any generation dominates pop. A nationwide telephone survey by the Pew Research Center's Demographic and Social Trends project, timed to coincide with the Woodstock birthday, found that while some differences remain between elders and youth, in general they're not a source of antagonism. Furthermore, rock was found to be the dominant music of both generations. President Obama may symbolize the rise of the hip hop nation -- a view that Hua Hsu effectively put forth in his Atlantic magazine piece, The End of White America?, earlier this year -- but it's well known that Obama has Springsteen and Bob Dylan on his iPod.

So what does it mean that 24-year-old New Jersey police Officer Kristie Buble didn't recognize Dylan when she picked him up as a possible vagrant during a pre-show stroll in the rain last month? Nothing, perhaps, beyond the fact that even iconic faces age and change. But that small incident also raises a thought about the changing relevance of the generational ideal.

Throughout the rock era, each new school of fans has chosen its mirror images: Elvis in the 1950s, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Dylan in the 1960s, Johnny Rotten and Bruce Springsteen repping for punk and blockbuster arena rock, respectively, Kurt Cobain when Gen X crowned its grunge king. Those artists have gained DYLAN_AP_3_legendary status through widespread interest in their images and life stories, not just their music. Buble's comment about Dylan was telling: She said that she'd seen pictures of the bard, and he didn't look like that anymore. He was more real to her, as he is to many, as a mechanical reproduction than as a person.

It seems obvious to also note that these icons of generational rock are nearly all white and all male. Stars like Aretha Franklin, Bob Marley, Loretta Lynn, Fela Kuti and Tupac Shakur are incredibly important historically, but the markers of nation, region, gender and race make them harder to sell as universals. The two huge exceptions -- Madonna and Michael Jackson-- marked an era in which the monolithically assertive power of rock slipped. 

In the 1980s, pop was long scorned by many as a time of superficiality and crass commercialism; only in recent years have its champions found room to argue for its importance, and most still applaud that era of giant hair and sequins in fun. But that plastic moment was also a time of great diversity in pop, when Prince and Public Enemy rose alongside Guns 'N' Roses and U2. It's harder to contain the 1980s within a single word like "Woodstock," though the millions mourning Jackson have been trying with "Thriller."

In fact, the 1980s looked a lot like now: a time when no one presumed that a particular musical statement or style spoke for all, and when the generational ideal felt a little hollow. Sure, there were songs of youth, like Kim Wilde's "Kids in America," but older dudes like Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel also renewed their careers to help define the zeitgeist. Personal style, ethnic and racial loyalties and an expanding sense of what was possible (typified then by interest in African music and New Wave's fascination with technology) mattered more than the power of an age-appropriate peer group. 

A look at this summer's Billboard Top 200 reveals more similarities to those "Rainbow Connection" years than to the Woodstock era. (Or rather, what we remember as the Woodstock era; plenty of folks are now arguing for a broader view of that era, too.)

Excluding the hits compilations "Kidz Bop 16" and "Now 31" -- themselves total hodgepodges -- the top 10 albums include three that qualify as country, two rootsy rockers, two hip hop hits, two by mature soul men and one by a huge teen star. But that kiddie queen, Miley Cyrus, is also a country hitmaker, and her friend Taylor Swift is a Nashville princess and a high school sensation.

One roots rock band, Kings of Leon, could be called "alternative," while the other, Daughtry, has a Christian streak. The Black Eyed Peas are both hip hop and kiddie pop, and if leader will.i.am has anything to do with the defining, they also count as rock.

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With artists so hard to pin down stylistically, it's not surprising that they're equally squirrelly when it comes to identifying with a generation. Kids are kids, sure, but Swift is as comfortable serenading country grandpa George Strait as she is dressing down her ex, Joe Jonas. Chris Daughtry and will.i.am both found superstardom a few years after they stopped seeming particularly young; same with chart-topping duo Sugarland.

The moment's breakthrough sensation, Detroit singer K'Jon, has been looking for his big break for nearly a decade. At No. 25, there's even a Woodstock relic: a Creedence Clearwater Revival collection that's given that long-defunct band its highest chart debut in decades.

Most music fans don't seem to be looking for a mirror these days, or at least not for one that accurately reflects their age. This is partly because we've entered a new renaissance of family-oriented music. Country's return to the pop forefront is all about families singing along to the radio together -- just as they will enjoy teaming up to compete in "Beatles: Rock Band." The same appeal holds true with the Disney and "American Idol" house artists who move so many units these days. They're making music that's clean enough for children, but is cool enough for parents who grew up on rock.

Music still gives expression to cultural divides, they're just not often generational now. The next great pop icon might be primarily Spanish-speaking; considering that the biggest conflict responders to the Pew Center survey noted was between "immigrants and people born in the United States," such a star could really shake things up, the way Dylan did back in the day.

Until that happens -- or as it's happening, if Shakira's career continues on an upswing -- we'll undoubtedly keep looking to the 1960s for a vision of a unified movement based on popular music. In fact, the most telling thing about Woodstock nostalgia is that it's now being felt by plenty of younger fans.

Baby freaks who enjoy the music of the Fleet Foxes and Devendra Banhart, grow their own tomatoes, rock woolly beards and retreat to the desert for vision quests don't feel the need to rebel against their elders at all. Such a warm embrace of their legacy may not be something the golden children of the 1960s expected, but I'm sure they're happy for the dissolution of that generational divide.

-- Ann Powers

Photo, top: "The Beatles: Rock Band." Credit: Harmonix
Photo, middle: Bob Dylan. Credit: AP
Photo, bottom: Taylor Swift. Credit: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

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