Sunday, March 06, 2011

Generation Gap

I turned 44 on Friday, which seems, suddenly, to mean something. My forties is speeding by. Whatever it is I need to do, then I'd better start doing it now, or soon. I've not really much a sense of what the "mid forties" should look like anyway. Too old to be a footballer or a rock star; beginning to go grey or bald or whatever else; its a "dad" age; yet I've not got kids. So how do you reinvent this?

Also, the last year or so I'm willing to admit to a generation gap. I'm lucky in that as well as having friends the same age and older than me, I also know people a lot younger. Ten, fifteen, even twenty years hasn't seemed to make that much difference to be honest, I've felt a shared sensibility, however loosely. The ubiquity of the music and other cultural references that I've always liked, has meant that you expect the Cure or Joy Division or Radiohead or whoever to be as familiar (or more familiar) to the average culturally-inclined 20-something as to my own generation.

Because I still listen to chart music, pop music, its here you see a real difference. Listen to contemporary pop (R&B seems so not the right phrase) such as Jessie J, or Far East Movement or Tinchy Strider and it's an entirely different aesthetic; almost totally divorced from the cliches of sixties pop and rock (whether Motown or the Beatles), it seems both technologically futuristic (in its musical soundscapes) and pre-modern at the same time. The songs themselves are simple jingles, reminding me more of Brill Building pop from before the Beatles than the more complex pop of the sixties onwards. We're back to a time of uber-producers and the vocalists being as manufactured as the anodyne pop of the late 50s. It's not necessarily a bad thing; after all the MP3 player and the ringtone are the AM radios of the present - but it does throw away the sixties hegemony, in a way that is something new. I guess the generation of record company executives and producers are now younger than me, growing up in a purely digital age. At the same time, the safety first approach of programmes like "Glee" and the "X-Factor" sees the classic song in the same way as the 50s music store might have done, the version less important than the sheet music (or the Midi file).

But if there's a cultural generation gap then its a complex one; as without having the demographic breakdown to hand, its hard to know who is reading the Stieg Larsson books or watching "The King's Speech" or buying the Adele album or whatever cultural signifier is currently hottest. I guess it's that an ageing population, with two generations of baby boomers now getting older, is also a conformist culture. The success of Adele, whose second album has just sold a million in no time at all, and is top of the UK and US charts is a case in point. On her debut she covered a late Dylan song ("Make you feel my love") and on her new album she does a bossa nova version of the Cure ("Love Song.") What 19 (or 21) year olds are into Dylan and the Cure? Probably the stage school type. And when she sings her instant classic "Someone Like You", its a 21-year old writing a life experience song that seems to belie her young years; except, of course, heartache's particularly acute as a teenager. That it's arrangement and her performance of it are, to these ears, closer to karaoke than to Roberta Flack, is more a criticism of the kind of emotive culture that we have these days, than Adele per se.

Last night I saw "The King's Speech" and like the director's previous film, "The Damned United", it had inch-perfect performances, a solid historical backdrop, and, I have to say, nothing much more profound than that. There's a staginess to "The King's Speech" which is probably appropriate to the thin material, whilst "The Damned United" saw the darkness of David Peace's book replaced by a mix of comedy and pathos. The inimitable Timothy Spall replaces his curmudgeonly Peter Taylor with a jovial Winston Churchill. I found "The King's Speech" slow, sometimes boring, and betraying the director's TV origins. None of this is a surprise of course, but there's also something worryingly revisionist in this story of King George VI. There are few families of whom we know so little, yet have read so much, as the Windsors of course, and like "The Queen" before it, a story is fashioned out of the thinnest of details. Scorsese it is not.

So I'm sat here in the middle of an age that on the one hand seems to have a new cultural language (Jessie J, Tinchy Strider, video games)and feel fascinated, but generationally a world apart; and on the other finds room for such well-made, but highly conservative products as Adele's "Someone Like You" or "The King's Speech." The former are American products filtered through a manic British street mentality; the latter are British staples exported to the U.S. (and the world) with as much success as single malts and Burberry. Thinking of the literary world in this context, World Book Day yesterday was, to those of us who care about literature, as relevant as the Grand National is to racing buffs, a nice idea but for those who ignore it the rest of the year. "One Day", or "The Time Traveller's Wife" or whatever other free books were handed out, are already ubiquitous, and making them available free is all about getting to those people who don't read at all, I guess. Laudable, but hardly going to lead many to a wider appreciation - any more than a visit to see "The King's Speech" will open up a larger audience for British film.

As the world tips on its axis in the Middle East, and our P.R. led coalition government throws our few remaining contemporary civilities in the air in the hope they break into pieces, I'm not sure if the gap I'm feeling is generational, cultural, or emotional. I can, and will (I guess), ignore it, and concentrate on the marginal stuff, that still has more interest to me - but I've always hoped for some reconciliation between my own tastes and interests and that of the wider world; as well as having a horror of the kind of cultural nostalgia that its so easy to fall back on.


Isabel Doyle said...

My 20 year old went to see Bob Dylan in Melbourne 3 years ago. She is a scientist, not stagey at all. Maybe another example of democratic censorship - what resonates is what remains, the derivative and dull is forgotten? I think the best thing about middle age is the realisation that nobody is watching you as closely as you once feared or hoped.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Well, that's nice to hear. Dylan's interesting in that he seems to have escaped the obsessives and become a genre unto himself. I've met teenagers recently though who couldn't name or recognise a Beatles song - so much for their perceived universality.

Jim Murdoch said...

In my forties I still made an effort but once I hit fifty I started losing a grip and that divide has just got wider and wider and I find myself caring less and less. I’m not so interested with fitting in as getting the things I need to do before I die done. That may sound a little morbid but since both my parents died in their mid seventies I’ve now recognised that I’m now entering the last third of my life. That’s a sobering thought. It no longer matters to me that I don’t know who Jessie J, or Far East Movement or Tinchy Strider are. I don’t avoid finding out – if the information passes my way (and I can remember it, which is becoming an increasing problem) – then fine but I find that it’s not so much forgetting that I do these days as not bothering to remember in the first place.

Adrian Slatcher said...

I've found that I keep adding to the list of things I do take an interest in - and yet still like the things I liked 20 years ago. Occasionally things seem to disappear from the list (e.g. going to the cinema) but more because they seem less relevant somehow (seen one Coen brothers movie, seen 'em all!)Good thing is Jim, that you can ignore all that's going on, then if you suddenly want to take an interest its just a mouse click away.

Anonymous said...

How many of the current chart songs will be listened to in 20 years time - not many much music now a days is throw away music

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