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

Are You Experienced?

I fully support Austin Cooper’s right to a counterintuitive opinion about PE. Full disclosure: I once produced a two-day conference at New York University on the making of It Takes a Nation of Millions, featuring some of the original album contributors. Even with that credit on my résumé, I wouldn’t classify myself as a big believer in “classic” or “great” albums: Those terms can be canonizing and inflexibly elitist, invitations to a members’-only club. Indeed, I would have been curious to read a smart, informed revisionist piece of criticism from an NPR intern on why Nation of Millions is not the superior album it’s purported to be.

But Cooper’s NPR editorial fails as informed music criticism because it’s an unsupported opinion devoid of research or context. So what is an underbaked piece of criticism doing bathing in the spotlight of NPR’s site? Let’s take the responsibility off our likely bedraggled intern and focus it more squarely on the journalistic institutions themselves that publish “uninformation” — what I call uninformed opinion.

I suspect that NPR saw itself helping to create heated public debate about the generation gap, or even giving its budding interns a space to flex their budding critical muscles. Given the NPR series rules that interns are not allowed to research the albums they’re assigned, some commenters saw the entire affair as a savvy NPR “setup” to embarrass interns in hopes of generating Web traffic.

What NPR might have done differently (besides letting the interns Google the albums in question) is curate a civil dialogue between, say, Chuck D and Austin Cooper, or one between an artist advocate like David Lowery and Emily White. We all have to stop pitting the past against the present. (Granted, NPR has attempted to bridge that chasm with another series where blog visitors can vote for a top-10 list of albums everyone can love.) It’s not about whether Drake is better or bigger than Chuck D; it’s about demonstrating the myriad ways that the past continues to live in, and inform, the present.

That means highlighting the context for hip-hop samples, as Wax Poetics does brilliantly. It means demonstrating how Drake might not even have a platform unless PE existed. It means educating White on how old-school record collecting and digging still inform some of the ways we approach consumption of digital music. Time is a circle, not a line.

If we ever want to achieve that mythical golden age, it will certainly take a nation of informed millions and a solid journalistic infrastructure to get there.

Jason King is artistic director and associate professor at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University and a frequent NPR commentator. Follow him here.

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