The kids just love the songs.
There are plenty of negative aspects to parenting a kid in the ever-more-connected Wild West that is the Digital Age. Don't get me started. In fact, because of the ubiquity of the Internet and the bad rap attributed to gaming, you don't need to get me started; you already know. I will spare you the hand wringing.
Speaking of hand wringing, the album is headed the way of the dodo, is it not? Albums: not just tracks of music, but mini manifestos, guide books, style manuals, iconic pieces of art with accompanying text to be held and studied. In its sunset years as a medium, that art form. And the kids don't care, they don't get it. Blah blah blah.
But here's the thing: the kids still love songs. In fact, I daresay The Song is in fine shape, even better than when I was coming up. Why? Because via MP3s, iTunes, Pandora and Guitar Hero/Rock Band, songs old and new have been significantly liberated from the tyranny of cool and the bondage of images. There’s a lot of good in that. The song intended to be enjoyed as part of a whole, an element of a cycle, may be on the wane, but the song itself is not.
Whereas punk rock songs once evoked the late 70s, disco the mid 70s, British Invasion the early-mid 60s, synth pop the 80s, and grunge and/or "alternative" the mid 90s, now these genres are ubiquitous, untethered and, as far as I can tell, even more relevant and enjoyable because of it.
Last year, the senior band at my son's rural elementary school performed "Eye of the Tiger." It was great. The music teacher even incorporated the Rock Band version of the tune, which kids "played" while the band - with my son on drums - actually played and sang the song with irony-free gusto. All the cliques - the jocks, the freaks, the nerds - gave it their all. How were they introduced to the song? Not radio, TV, album, movie or commercial. It was Rock Band and/or word of mouth and an MP3. Thus, it exists mainly as a song and a song only. Not an 80s song, or a Rocky song, but a song they love, a song that makes them jump, sing and dance.
Sadly, when I hear that song it's inextricably linked to the cheesy video of the uncomfortable-looking band Survivor lip-syncing as they (were directed to) prowl the streets of a dimly lit, foggy set. Images of Sly Stallone and Burgess Meredith wax and wane across my mind. That's a lot of baggage. For my son and his friends, though, it's just a cool song brought to them via the Internet and/or Guitar Hero, less wedded to context and visual trappings. (Guitar Hero/Rock Band does have a visual element, but it doesn't seem to have as much power, perhaps because it isn't static.) I showed my son the "Eye Of the Tiger" video (circa 1986) on YouTube. We did not get through it.
When these pre-teens walk around bellowing "Don't Stop Believin''" at the tops of their lungs, are they visited by an image of Steve Perry in supertight jeans leopard-print tee and Nikes? They are not. It's just a song. And they love it. How did they hear it first? The promo campaign for the Broadway show Rock of Ages ? A recent episode of Glee? Lots of them don't even know how it descended from the cultural ether and into their heads. And it should be noted: as of today, this unkillable power ballad, released in 1981, has been downloaded more than 3 million times. Lastly, it amazes me that the chorus of the song doesn't happen until the 3:23 mark. Say what you will, it is a rule breaker.
Unfortunately, when I hear "Livin' on a Prayer" I can almost smell Jon Bon Jovi's perm, and I struggle to get his shit-eating Jersey Boy grin out of my fevered brain. The images of Bon Jovi flying in spandex are wedded to the tune, 'till death do they part. Not so with the Kids Today. They just love the song. While every parent wants their kid to have something they didn't have, I am so glad my son does not have something I've got in spades: memories of ludicrously ill-advised eye-candy and the resulting rot. When Death Cab For Cutie, Lady GaGa or Black Eyed Peas release a new song, I praise God my son and his friends will not crowd around MTV to experience it via a video. It will get to them via the Internet, MP3, word-of-mouth or as the soundtrack to a movie. Maybe a commercial. Or all of the above. But it will exist primarily as a song.
On a less dire note, "I Wanna Be Sedated" is a song by four guys in ripped jeans, T-shirts and leather biker jackets: the Ramones, a consciously visual band. Anyone who says punk was mainly about music and attitude is wrong. The British version of punk even started in a clothes store and it was as much about fashion as metal or disco. Punk burst onto the streets with a pretty strict dress code, and even though I'm happy to carry that visual baggage 'till my dying day, I'm glad it is being lifted from the tunes it once shrouded. I.e., to my son and his peers, "I Wanna Be Sedated" is just a song. The fact that it's a punk rock song is even secondary. I'm glad "Sedated" can peacefully co-exist on a mix CD with, say, Michael Jackson's "P.Y.T" and "Every Rose Has It's Thorn" by Poison. What a party! The well-paid marketing guys who pigeonholed these songs back in the day no longer have the same uber-power, and even though I have loved ones who cringe at the thought of it, I say it is a good thing Ozzy and George Jones need not wait to meet in rehab, when the snug confines of an iPod playlist beckons them.
There are friends of mine, people near and dear to me whose personas were formed in the crucible that is defining one's self as different from another group via a song genre, and to them, taking a song or band from its cultural context is anathema. I've been there. But I'm very pleased not to be there any more. Leave it to a bunch of kids who neither know nor care what the cognoscenti rule as "cool" to show a different way of looking at things.
"I Wanna Be Sedated" and thousands of other tunes of varying stripes are enjoying a rich second life via the digital and gaming revolution, and to many kids, classic rock and punk tunes are just as new as something by, say, Adam Lambert. THAT WORKS. Whatever it takes to get the music to the ears is fine by me, and if the walls come down in the process, great. When kids get exposed to a song via these new avenues, it is not unlike the days of singles-driven AM radio, when faceless acts - albeit most of them genuinely "new" - were the norm. The fact that the tune is likely coming through earbuds or a computer makes the comparison even more tight, as AM was and is notoriously lo fi. Then as now, the song mainly is just a catchy tune they're hearing. I know, I know, it sounds like shit through these new mediums, but so did “Love Train” when I first heard it. Probably. But I don’t remember. All I remember is the song. WXQI AM, Atlanta Georgia, early 70s.
MTV went on the air the year I turned 16. I came of age at the apex of music-as-visual. Not coincidentally, I spent much time and energy in various costumes and attitudes surrounding music. Many calories were burned in an effort to feel on top of it, feel cooler than "they." In high school in the 80s, I capitulated to the “new wave” ethos, keeping secret my affinity for disco, southern rock and heavy metal, identifying to the world as a fan of newbies like the Jam, XTC, the Go-Go’s, Prince, the Police, and U2. Thankfully, I was not compelled to toss out the Ted Nugent, Lynyrd Skynryd, Led Zeppelin, Bee Gees, Deep Purple, Rush and Grand Funk Railroad albums. But I did hide them, lest I be outcast from my clique. Lotta sweat involved in that game.
As a twenty-something I started the process of freeing myself from the worry of what people thought of me,“coming out” as, among other things, something of a music slut. This peeling-of-the-onion process continues to this day, and while it's all good, I don't wish this labor on those I love; as I mentioned, the effort put into worrying about what may or may not be cool music today is vigor best spent elsewhere. It’s great to see kids expending a lot less energy on that, at least vis a vis their music. There are plenty of other things to fret about, and fret they do. Perhaps that’s one reason the focus isn’t so much on whether it’s “cool” for something that came out forty years ago to fade into a MGMT single.
Another benefit of these revolutions is the broadening of musical tastes. When I was a teen, it was unheard of for us to be into stuff that came out when our parents were kids, yet I find it quite normal that a kid’s iTunes library will contain everything from old school hip hop to Green Day to the Mama & the Papas.
Without MTV delivering mostly “new and up-to-the-minute” music with focus on the visual, and without being reminded of the visuals associated with a song every time the album is taken from the egg crate, songs both old and new are once again just songs. While image-related components remain somewhat important in the distribution of music and promoting of music makers, the advent of downloading and gaming has significantly diminished this, deflating the frequent complaint from past bands and singer-songwriters that they need to be “actors” and/or more conventionally attractive or visually inventive (or able to hire someone who is) to get noticed. The importance of having a sonically arresting song has risen. (Hello AutoTune!) And with the implosion of the record companies, artists are getting out and gigging more to make money. Just like the old days. The new technology has brought us backwards. From where I sit, in this instance, it’s OK.
(Speaking of OK, none of this applies to OK Go.)
In Rocky III, Rocky is advised to recapture the “Eye of the Tiger.” His trainer exhorts him to get back to basics, get hungry again, lose the fat, get away from all the surface glitter and image nonsense and return to the purity of intent that is the cardinal trait of his soul. Ultimately, he accomplishes this, of course. The song that helps to convey that message went through a similar journey; penned by hopeful musicians, then affixed to a massively successful movie, then lip-synced by a rock band pretending to be streetwise badasses, then lampooned by Weird Al and exiled to narrowly-formatted radio, then resurrected and lampooned yet again in a widely successful Starbucks ad.
Finally, stripped of everything except the digital files that carry its essence, it fills the cafetorium of a neighborhood elementary school and kids are just exuberantly singing it to each other with no reference points whatsoever. They just love the song. If that isn’t recapturing the “Eye of the Tiger” I don’t know what is.