No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones

[30 January 2006]

By Michael Patrick Brady

This past Christmas season, American Express Financial Services unleashed a commercial aimed to tug at the well-plucked heartstrings of our nation’s most self-indulgent and self-centered generation. “You’re the generation that gave new meaning to the meaningful relationship,” intones the narrator, as we watch faux 8mm footage of youthful baby boomers cavorting around a VW minibus. To boomers, it’s a pleasant warm feeling as they gear up to engorge themselves on holiday gifts from the Sharper Image and Brookstone; to the rest of us, it’s yet another reminder that in spite of all the illusory inroads youth culture makes every year, they’re still on the top of the cultural totem pole.

The American Express advertisement is just one of the many navel-gazing pat-on-the-back love letters that baby boomers send to themselves to remind themselves that everything was better when they were young: the relationships, the culture, and most certainly the music. It’d be far more infuriating for me if I wasn’t secretly consoled by the fact that someday every single member of that demographic will be dead. It’s going to be far more of a shock than I think a lot of us realize. We live in the world the boomers built (or more accurately, that the World War II generation built and the boomers re-branded). We all know the saying “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”—but what do you do when all the Romans are gone? The answer: You wander around like aimless Visigoths, marveling at the improbable structures they left behind, trying to figure them out for yourself, and ultimately demolishing them out of frustration.

Boomers will leave us plenty of confusing artifacts to ponder and smash. One of the most prominent artifacts of the fallen Boomer Empire will be the many “greatest of all time” lists that have littered the glossier magazines of their epoch. These features appear almost randomly, without any discernible pattern, to remind the populace that yes, the Beatles are still the greatest band of all time and have been since they shook their mops for the reporters at JFK airport in February 1964. The driving factor behind all of these “Greatest of All Time” lists is validation, not of the artists in question but of those who produce the lists and those who consume them. These lists are almost always accompanied by breathless prologues describing the arduous task of judging and ranking each entry, the meticulous formulas derived to accurately weigh the artists against one another. “There was a horse race,” Rolling Stone editor Joe Levy told USA Today in 2003 when Sgt. Peppers took the top spot. “Early on, any numbers of albums in the top 10 were in the lead,” Levy continues, “The final result is no shock, but there’s a reason for that. The Beatles, after all, were the most important and innovative rock group in the world.” Well, it’s a good thing we made it official with all these numbers! If you think Levy is speaking off the cuff, USA Today is quick to note that the accounting firm of Ernst & Young devised a point system to weight votes for 1,600 submitted titles. Votes were provided by musicians, critics, historians and key industry figures. This is hard work, people! It’s all very scientific and mathematical, you wouldn’t understand!

All of this gives the whole process the air of authority necessary to perpetuate the symbiotic relationship between the critics who produce these lists and the needy audience who consumes them. The aging audience for these lists is growing insecure about their own status in society, fearful that when they’re finally gone that the kids won’t appreciate what they left behind. Most of all, they’re hungry for someone to come along and remind them that they are, in fact, wicked cool. Look upon their favorite albums, ye children, and despair! The boomers treat the lists with reverence, as they affirm the generational self-image, which in turn strengthens the perceived authority of the list makers who can then congratulate one another on a job well done. The boomers keep their subscriptions to Rolling Stone current, ignoring the fact that it became corporate and irrelevant right along with them.

The lists are made by baby boomers for baby boomers and almost inevitably feature baby boomer bands in their upper ranks. “Let the children have their year-end lists!” you can almost hear them saying. “Their number one isn’t even in the top 500 of all time!” They’ll toss one or two contemporary bands in to show they’re hip, but for most of the readers and writers of these things, music crystallized in the late 1960s, and we’ll be chewing the rubbery fruits of classic rock radio for the rest of eternity.

The thing is, we won’t. Perennially the Beatles are first and the Rolling Stones are second on all these lists (which must really piss Mick off as he carts his skeleton up on stage for his millionth live show), and for just about everyone alive today, it’s hard to imagine a world where this is not the case, where these two talented, important bands are not always recognized as such. And were the “greatest of all time” lists based on something other than the collective insecurities of an aging and doomed generation, they just might have been. But someday the Roman Empire will fall, taking the Beatles and the Rolling Stones with them. When the boomers are no longer the economically and culturally dominant generation, they won’t be running the magazines nor will they be buying them. And the new list readers aren’t going to spend their inheritances on magazines that tell them how great their grandfather’s favorite band was; they’re going to want to feel the warm, reassuring validation for themselves. The new list makers will want it as well, as they need to create that feeling for the new generation so they themselves don’t look like out-of-touch old fogies.

The real tragedy is that the generation that takes over won’t do the right thing. Presented with a tabula rasa made up of smooth boomer gravestones, the first thing they’ll do is inscribe a big number one on it and set about discussing who should take the spot. The idea of list-making has been engrained in the business of music criticism, and all the new media ventures have already fallen in line. With the advent of the Internet and, more recently, blogs, it seemed as if there might be a movement toward more personal and less market-driven forms of music writing. Instead, many have done just the opposite, clinging to the accepted forms and styles in an attempt to appear credible. PopMatters had its own foray into this genre, the 2003 feature “100 From 1977-2003,” which chronicles the best songs everyone already knows about. Pitchfork has had two best-of-the-‘90s lists; the second one came about not because some wayward time traveler decisively altered the musical landscape of the 1990s, but because the staff had decided the artists on their first list weren’t “cool” enough.

With no hope of banishing these greatest of all time lists to the past, we must look forward at the soul-numbing options for the next generation’s new number one. By 2025, I predict the Beatles will sag slightly, perhaps never out of the top 10, but far enough to cause a commotion. Magazines will clamor to be the first to address the new power demographic that grew up listening to bands of the 1980s and 1990s. Someone has to take the spot—so who are the top contenders? I have my thoughts, but rather than present them as a list, I’ll use a far more egalitarian method: odds making.

Any “Indie” Band (1000 to 1):
If you started reading this paragraph expecting to see names like the Arcade Fire and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, please seek out a licensed psychologist to deal with your problems. Don’t get all upset that someone is questioning the quality of your favorite bands—you should realize by now that it’s not about that. As good as these bands may or may not be, and no matter how many mall-boutique soundtracks they appear on, they are not “consensus builders.” For every person who adores bands like these, four others will be completely perplexed by them. If you doubt me, go look up the WB network’s Pepsi Smash! Concert that featured Interpol along side such pop darlings as Chingy and Michelle Branch. They may as well have performed a cover of “One of These Things Is Not Like the Other.”

Radiohead (30 to 1):
The band certainly has the career trajectory down to follow the Beatles: a group of English rockers who started off making mainstream pop music and then digressed into bouts of ludicrous experimentation. The thing is, the Beatles never made a whole album of “Revolution #9,” while Radiohead has been indulging their electro-fantasy for the last few LPs. Pleasant memories of OK Computer will get them high on the list, but they’re probably not number one material.

Jay-Z (20 to 1):
Though you might expect Tupac and B.I.G. to rank highly, the two are so inexorably linked that they practically cancel each other out. To choose one and not the other would be a problem, so they’ll sit unassumingly near the middle of the future list, no more than three spots apart. Of all the big, current rap artists, Jay-Z should have the best shot at number one but will still be ranked lower than a bunch of rock acts and Eminem. Em is no Pat Boone, but he’s not Jay-Z either.

Nirvana (15 to 1):
Somewhere between the adolescent fumbling of Bleach and the adolescent temper tantrum of In Utero, Nirvana added distortion to a song Black Francis wrote three years earlier and became famous. That’s oversimplifying things a bit, but a myriad of factors from Kurt’s less than idyllic death to the ever-diminishing reputation of the grunge era, will prevent them from grabbing the top spot. The parallels are there (Kurt as the Lennon-martyr, Courtney as Yoko, Foo Fighters as Wings), but it’s not in the cards. Pearl Jam would make a better case, but who cares about Pearl Jam anymore?

Dave Matthews Band (10 to 1): Dave Matthews is the man that made it okay for teenagers to listen to Adult Contemporary, and he will be rewarded for it. For a long time, kids wouldn’t be caught dead listening to willowy, lilting acoustic Lillith Fair for men stuff. Dave changed all that and has a legion of pooka-shell wearing fans ready to inflate his actual importance and relevance. And you can bet these Dave-slaves are going to be in the high-income bracket that makes magazine ad-salesmen wet themselves. This is a complicated entry however, as I’m also giving 10 to 1 odds that he rechristens himself “The Dave Matthews Orchestra” and finally embraces his instrumental smooth jazz impulses. Only time will tell.

U2 (2 to 1):
Without a doubt the odds on favorite. Spanning two decades, U2 is the easy populist choice, satisfying those who grew up with War as well as those who grew up with All That You Can’t Leave Behind. John Lennon sure sang a lot about how great the world would be, but the best he could offer was a “bed-in.” He looks like a lazy punter next to Bono, who is jetting all over the world with heads of state and impoverished children. U2 is the only band with their own iPod, a marketing coup that will endear them to an even younger generation of music fans. They’ll almost certainly take the number one spot by 2025, at which point Casey Kasem will be remembered as a tin-eared xenophobe for his less than prescient summation that nobody would give a shit about “these guys”—the final nail in the boomer coffin.

That’s where we’re headed, people. It’s a long, bleak future ahead of us. All we can do is hope that we teach our children better so when we die, they appropriately desecrate everything we stood for and believed in, not just the content but the very forms that hold it. It’s the only way the cycle will be broken and some modicum of meaningful discourse in what defines great music can begin.

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