Who Says Old School’s Not Cool?

This writer explores if classic music can really stand the test of time in this digital age.

Nigel Crane/Redferns/Getty Images; Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Nigel Crane/Redferns/Getty Images; Ethan Miller/Getty Images

(The Root) — In an experiment worthy of Battle Royale, NPR’s All Songs Considered recently commissioned two of its “unimaginably young” interns to pen controversial editorials, which have since earned them the scorn of music purists far and wide. In mid-June, college senior Emily White blogged-bragged about owning 11,000-plus mp3s in her iTunes library but having only ever purchased 15 CDs in her lifetime.

Her dream of a celestial jukebox in the cloud where “everyone would have convenient access to everything that has ever been recorded” blew the gaskets of artists’-rights advocates who blame clueless millennials for financially disempowering musicians struggling to earn a living at a time when album sales are increasingly hard to come by.

Then, in July, as part of NPR’s “You’ve Never Heard?” series, in which interns review “classic albums” they’re hearing for the first time, 19-year-old self-professed hip-hop “novice” Austin Cooper penned a critical beatdown of Public Enemy’s landmark 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, describing iconic lead rapper Chuck D as a “caricature” and rejecting PE in favor of newbie Drake. Cooper’s cavalier dismissal of classic hip-hop boiled the blood of old-school fanatics, yet it inspired a measured response from The Roots’ Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, who charged Cooper with the responsibility of undertaking independent research to figure out why Nation of Millions is classified as a “great” album in the first place.

These editorials, and the discourse they’ve whipped up, suggest we’re witnessing a Grand Canyon-size generation gap in musical tastes and consumption habits. Millennials have unprecedented access to vast catalogs of digital music via online stores like iTunes, streaming services like Spotify and less legal peer-to-peer sharing sites. Every day there’s a pile of new music releases to wade through, fresh mixtapes to hear and free music given away on ad-supported websites.

But the flip side of access is inundation: Too much information, especially when it’s presented out of context, as is often the case in the social mediasphere, overwhelms and renders us all ignorant in some way or other, creating a widespread cultural illiteracy that writer Tim Lemire once deemed “cannibal culture.”

The head-buried-in-the-sand NPR editorials hardly exist in a vacuum. Drake recently claimed that he was the first artist to successfully rap and sing, forgetting elder chart toppers such as Andre 3000 and Lauryn Hill, who have also weaved melody into their rhyme patterns. Weeks before that, an article caught millennials tweeting that they’d never even heard of trending-in-death icons like Rodney King, Donna Summer, Robin Gibb and Dick Clark — recent “legends,” not exactly dusty figures from historical antiquity.