This writer explores if classic music can really stand the test of time in this digital age.
(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.
And a Justin Bieber "superfan" recently inspired an online war by claiming that Bieber was "bigger" than Kurt Cobain because Cobain did not have the biggest fan base on Twitter. Someone forgot to inform her that Cobain died 12 years before the launch of Twitter.
Sure, everyone is entitled to an opinion, no matter how distressingly wrong it is. But should everyone feel so inclined to disseminate those opinions, simply because the technology exists to self-publish? In the age of reality culture, we've willfully blurred the line between amateur and professional, discarding Malcolm Gladwell's concept of 10,000 hours to instead encourage learning on the job at every level of professional status, whether you're working in the mailroom or running for president and unaware of the political situation in Libya or who runs Uzbekistan. These days, being uninformed is, for some, a kind of badge, a trumpet call of hip currency. Why bother with the hard work of typing "Rodney King" in Wikipedia if you can tweet "who is Rodney King" to your followers instead?
There's especially no reason to bother in our contemporary "push" culture, in which millennials are used to receiving information passively (via a Facebook or Twitter feed); researching, hunting, gathering and "pulling" information just makes you sweat and gets your nails dirty. Or is that seeming laziness just the latest manifestation of a deep-seated anti-intellectualism, tragically tied into the increasingly poor U.S. showings in global education rankings?
Whatever the case, we have to get over our disastrously unhealthy cultural obsession with youth and currency -- the ageist idea, informed by technological fetish, that if it's younger and newer, it's automatically better. According to that logic, of course Drake bests PE; he's younger, cooler and of the moment and makes sense in the moment, no research or context required. But it doesn't make you cool to be exclusively current, at the expense of the past, or at the expense of aspects of the culture that thrive on experience, maturity and thoughtfulness.
That said, the generation-gap concept is increasingly played out: Every generation fears that the one after it is wallowing in ignorance and misplaced priorities. Those fears are in turn rooted in anxieties about the loss of a mythical golden age in which we all supposedly subscribed to the exact same cultural ideas of what was great and what wasn't.
The truth is, there was only ever a repressive dominant culture masquerading as a universal culture, doing its best to suppress actual lived multicultural diversity of identities, ideas and opinions. Hopefully a millennial who can't get into Jimi Hendrix or Public Enemy now might someday gain some crow's-feet and have a change of heart and rediscover those artists.
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.