Cranky Boomer Lament
Humans tend to look for patterns --- in the behavior of others, in social trends, in political activities, etc. Patterns help us make sense of all around us and provide a security blanket of “predictability” in what we know, intrinsically, is a totally unpredictable world. That said, one pattern we can identify in world history is the periodic gathering of great minds in (essentially) one place at one time. Last week’s 4th of July celebration led me to reflect on the amazing confluence of thinkers present in the English colonies in the late 18th century. The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights are the products of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment and of the thinking of Hamilton, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and all the other “Founding Fathers” of that era. (Imagine if that society, starting in 1607, had actually allowed both African Americans and Native Americans to receive the opportunities and education those “Fathers” had received? It’s hard to imagine, of course, how much richer and more expansive our “Founding” documents may have been with equal input from those oppressed 18th century peoples)
Creating a new nation --- one with a governmental framework that was not only revolutionary but also never attempted on such a grand scale --- requires “unique” leaders, to say the least. The combination of intelligence, creativity, and vision the “Founding Fathers” brought to the table in creating the Declaration and the Constitution/Bill of Rights is one of those moments in history that is unique --- seldom seen before or since. With our current nation’s extreme political divisions it may be hard for us to imagine such a moment again. But I would contend that some of us, of a certain age, actually lived through another one of those historical “moments,” when a rare group of extraordinary people were in the same (virtual) place at the time: the revolutionary musicians of the 1960’s.
If you survey the cultural/musical landscape of the 1960’s the names are now part of common lore: Dylan, the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown --- and many, many others. Listening to the 50th anniversary release of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band recently, a recording that includes scratch tracks, vocals with only acoustic backing, conversations between the musicians, etc., I was awed by the originality, the energy, the pure “genius” of the creative process. And, if you know your rock’n’roll history, the Beach Boys Pet Sounds album played a significant part in the direction Lennon/McCartney took with Pepper. The creative output and cross-pollinating between The Who, the Stones, Credence Clearwater, The Doors, as well as Motown artists, was a period like no other, before or since. Like that confluence of genius in the late 18th century, the musical revolutionaries moved from writing (sometimes “bluesy”) “love songs” (I Want to Hold Your Hand, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” “My Girl”) to political and social commentary or reflective, intensely personal (yet universal) songs.
This music “rant” is one I return to every few months --- that the music of the ‘60’s was estraordinary & historic ---and for good reason. What occurred at that time, socially and culturally (civil rights, feminism, gay rights) was driven by the genius of the musicians of the era, as much as any other social force. What put this in high relief for me recently has been riding in the car and hearing the same songs over and over. Two, in particular, have caught my attention because musically they are classically “catchy” --- those tunes or melodic phrases you can’t get out of your head. They are on over and over again, of course, because they are big “hits” but what strikes me about them is not that the music is catchy, if not original or innovative, but that the lyrics are so, so puerile! The two songs are Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You (which, I believe, debuted at halftime of this year’s Super Bowl) and The Chainsmokers Closer (featuring Halsey). For example, a recurrent phrase in Sheeran’s song is:
I’m in love with your body/And last night you were in my room/and now my bedsheets smell like you.
The Chainsmokers repeating lyric is:
So baby pull me closer in the backseat of your Rover/That I know you can’t afford/Bite that tattoo on your shoulder/Pull the sheets right off the corner/Of the mattress that you stole/From your roommate back in Boulder/We ain’t ever getting older.
It’s 2017 and this is where our musical “artists” are? In the same way that our election of Trump seems a massive regression so, too, do these songs --- and a lot of what is out there, as far as I can tell. I’m sure there are musicians writing and performing songs about society and culture beyond mattresses and bedsheets --- but it doesn’t seem they are the most popular or are even talked about.
It just seems, as in the late-Sixties, we’re living in a time that could use music that matched the times, that speaks to our issues, that points creatively in new directions and that provides serious commentary, if not hope. Maybe that music is gestating as I write, maybe it’s already out there on YouTube and I just haven’t seen it, and maybe it’s going to emerge any moment. Maybe.
I hope so.