Thursday, February 14, 2008

"It's before my time"

It started with a stupid no-count item on the BBC news website about the Isley Brothers. I posted about it on the Word site. This drew this excellent response from Archie Valparaiso which got me thinking about the tyranny of what he calls the "now-now", the cultural/historical swerve whereby you're forgiven your ignorance about anything which either happened before you were born or didn't happen to be in the cross-hairs of your focus while you were a teenager. It's at its worst when dealing with pop music and results in news readers and politicians swapping light banter about the groups they used to like when they were teenagers, at the same time stressing their proud ignorance of anything that didn't. There's about to be a Radio Four programme called "The Jam Generation". Say no more.

Whenever I ask A Younger Person (and that covers an increasing amount of people) about anything which pre- or post-dated their "era" they will be very quick to say "before my time" with that patronising smirk that implies that one's date of birth excuses one's ignorance. I don't remember the Second World War but I know something about it. Count Basie was past the zenith of his career before I was born but I've listened to him and I don't regard his music as a message from a different planet. I've even read Dickens and he was born, oh, it must be before the First World War, surely?

I blame punk rock, he said once again. That would certainly fit in with Archie's view of the last 35 years as a continuity as far as the media is concerned. It's not to do with the music. It's the falsity of the idea that this represented a new beginning, a severing of links with the past, a marking of the time before which everything was somehow "quaint" or, in the argot of the time, "naff". It results in a failure to accept the fact that anyone who didn't live like you, dress like you, speak like you or share your value system lived their life less fully than you are living yours.

I would have more hopes for the government's plan to introduce five hours of cultural activity into the school week if it was less about herding the unwilling around art galleries and more about imparting the vital information that the world didn't begin yesterday. Educational theory today is dominated by the need to build up children's self-esteem and convince them that they are capable of great things. There's nothing wrong with that as long as it's balanced by the parallel message that I used to pick up at school. You're really Not All That.


  1. As ever, spot-on, David. We are now seeing the result of far too much self-esteem and no graduates of the School of Hard Knocks. Expect to see the word 'humility' drop from the dictionary soon, as well as teenage hordes graffitting all over the National Gallery, unwillingly from school

  2. This short memory problem gets everywhere according to Channel 4 (viewers?) there aren't any old funny films. In the best comedies clip show there were hardly any before 1965! Film 4 never shows anything made before the turn of century at peak time. Having said this do i have know differnece between all these band with "The" in their names who wear tight jeans, you know The shamblingkookyhorrorlights ?

  3. Anonymous9:45 am

    Excellent post, David. I like to think, however, that there will always be those who understand the difference between being trendy (focused on current, ephemeral fashions to the exclusion of everything else) and being hip (having the curiosity to seek out the finer things from whatever era). In terms of music, I’m glad to report that there are a fair few 20-somethings who despise the indie-schmindie crap that they’re supposed to like and are hip to (for example) Hank Williams, Doug Sahm, Sinatra, The Kinks, John Fahey, Karen Dalton, Beach Boys…

    But yes, actually feeling smug about saying “sorry, that’s before my time” is a sure sign of ignorance becoming culturally acceptable due to the wrongheaded worshipping of youth.

    Brighton Bri

  4. Anonymous10:45 am

    Sorry to go against the grain, but this article seems extraordinarily bitter.

    I was chatting to my 17 year old cousin recently about Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Dylan. He knew his stuff, despite his being the drummer in a hardcore punk band.

    I don't think he's the exception to the rule either.

  5. Anonymous10:48 am

    On the other hand there are huge numbers of teenagers who know about Nick Drake or Nirvana. (Nirvana may seem like recent history to most of the poeple reading this blog but some of the teens in the Kurt t-shirts weren't at school when he died.)
    I remember reading an article which put this phenomenon down to the CD - with everything being re-released 'new' no longer meant recently recorded and the distinctions between old and new music became less distinct.
    This certainly never happened when I was in my teens in the 80s - we were aware of The Beatles and 70s Bowie was considered very cool but that as far as it went.
    Historical perspective, for me, only really kicked in when events in my lifetime became historic - the miners' strike for instance. There's nothing wrong in this - it's not that they will never gain such a perspective, just it doesn't seem important now, which seems perfectly reasonable to me.


  6. I don't think this is as true today as it might have been in the last couple of decades.

    Last year I crawled through some bars in Corralejo, Fuerteventura, where the music seemed to be a combination of trance from the last 20 years, and pop from the last 30. There was enough 80/90s pop to keep this 30-something entertained.

    The next day I was chatting to an 18 year old surf instructor, and I said "well, it was OK for me, but wasn't a lot of that music a bit old for you?", and he said "Well, you know, I like all sorts of music, 60s music, modern music, whatever".

    Frankly, I'm not sure I even like this. It breaks my heart to see a 15 year old in 2008 wearing a Nirvana t-shirt. Today's 15 year olds should be listening to something a fogey like me can barely understand (I remember my aunt's astonished incomprehension of Public Enemy).

  7. Can I just say that when I say "a younger person", I see somebody, let's say, aged thirty-five. Not a teenager.

  8. Anonymous11:28 am

    I'm 29, and I'd do alright in a Pop Quiz.

    Go on - test me!

    (And I won't use Wikipedia, promise)

  9. Anonymous11:50 am

    Great post David and an interesting debate. I disagree with Bri's seeming assertion though that
    "indie-schmindie" = crap whereas "The Beach Boys etc" = good. I'm an oldster (well older than 35) and have never understood the desire to listen to The Beach Boys whereas I do enjoy a number of new "indie-schmindie" bands. This is not a bad thing !

    Simon James x

  10. Anonymous11:51 am

    A very complex issue indeed. I have a 17-year-old neighbour who went from liking the Paddingtons and the Libertines three years ago to liking to Clash two years ago to refusing to listen to anything more recent that Woody Guthrie. Is this a good thing or equally narrow-minded and reactionary in its own way?

    This "now-now" notion could equally be described as a "new-new" notion. My 12-yr-old got a new phone for Xmas and when it played up I suggested going back to her old phone, only to be met with a typical teen tantrum as if I'd suggested reverting to a couple of baked bean cans and string. But there is hope. Like many children she instinctively turns her nose up at black and white movies, but I sat her down and made her watch an old VHS of Chaplin's The Kid a while ago and when the tape ran out before the end she loved it so much she had a typical teen tantrum about that too. So they do care about old stuff, as long as parents etc have the time and patience to expose them to it. I doubt whether the'd encounter themselves on E4/MTV etc.

  11. There's also a ridiculous trend of by tinting pre fifties black and white stock footage, generally in either blue or sepia - the thinking seems to be that audiences would switch off at the horror of black and white, so the past has be to served up with a sweetener.

  12. Anonymous1:19 pm

    Hey Simon, see what you’re saying and I personally prefer current acts like The Clientele and M Ward to old rubbish like Cliff or Freddie and the Dreamers but the prob I have with the whole ‘indie-schmindie’ scene (as typified by the NME’s editorial stance and a glut of painfully samey, generic-sounding bands) is that they have such a smug belief that by being down with what’s happening this week, they’re really hip when they’re merely being very trendy which is an entirely different thing…

    Brighton Bri

  13. Anonymous1:42 pm

    Slightly off-topic, in that I'm gonna talk about football, not music; a group of us do a daily on-line footie quiz and compare scores. One of our number (aged around 32ish) always used to (he's left our circle now) claim that questions about the time before he was born shouldn't count in our totals, as he couldn't be expected to know these! He also stated that questions about Leeds shouldn't count either, as there was one every day (this is obviously not true these days, however). Even taking this 'individual' scoring method into account, he invariably came last (the rest of us (well, me, anyway) obviously also used the logical scoring system, where Leeds questions count double).
    I think he falls into the age group DH identifies - nothing worth knowing about happened before they came along to grace the world with their presence.

  14. In some ways it's easier for kids these days as the older stuff is more accessible and easy to find. But on the other hand, this probably makes it less mysterious than when I was a kid. I used to love trying to find old records, whereas now at a click of a button you can probably have whatever you want, which probably makes it less interesting.

    The proliferation and segmentation of media has also meant that the media that teenagers have these days lacks the diversity of previous years. When I was a teenager and in my early twenties, I used to listen to Peel, Kershaw, Charlie Gillett and a bloke called Hepworth on GLR. There doesn't seem to be anyone around playing the equivalent of The Wedding Present one minute and Tommy McLennan the next, certainly not on Radio 1.

  15. I find the old far more interesting than the new. I hear the odd new thing (mainly through Word CDs, Radio 2), but I prefer older stuff, sometimes because of the nostalgia effect, sometimes because it's just good. I'm open to offers from either camp.

    I get irritated when any pop pre-1990 is dismissed roundly as 'cheese' or a 'guilty pleasure', two labels which should be banned with immediate effect. They doesn't do old music any favours.

    Ignorance is nothing to be proud of.

  16. The word that makes me shudder in this context is RELEVANT.

    Shakespeare? Dickens? No, let's get young people reading something that's more RELEVANT to their lives. Like The Da Vinci Code, for instance.

    Grange Hill? No, let's make a programme about something that's more RELEVANT to young people's lives. More relevant than school.

    Presenters over 25? No, let's get "funky" presenters who can relate to young people and "the issues they face today" (in their difficult, hectic lifestyles etc etc).

    This irritates me so much that I can't form a coherent argument. Instead, I recommend Michael Bywater's "Big Babies (or Why Can't We Just Grow Up?)".

  17. You're clearly lacking in egocentricity and could also do with more undiluted exposure to the popular media - it's great, we're great, everything popular is great. Celebrate!

  18. Surely there's a case for using an article like the one about the Isley Brothers to throw a little knowledge the reader's way. Putting aside for a moment the very real possibility that no one is going to follow a link about The Isleys if they don't already know of them, two or three well-written passages would have meant that the next time the reader came across The Isley Brothers, the connection would already be there because they knew something about them.

    And if lazy journalists do lift things wholesale from Wikipedia, then it's up to those of us who are keen to get on there and start editing, to make sure the band/person/thing is properly represented, which includes capturing the spirit of what makes them/it important. That way, knowledge gets into the system, and filters through to those who didn't even know they wanted it.

    Knowledge as fluoride - now there's an interesting notion!

  19. From NMTB:

    Lisa Scott-Lee: "This band was from 1964? Well, I wouldn't know."
    Mark Lamarr: "No, but if Napoleon was up there you'd have a guess, wouldn't you?"

    I'm fascinated by the past far more than the present, and I'm David's target age of 35.

  20. Anonymous1:08 pm

    Back to football... The "Sky-sation" of football is annoying in the extreme. Apparently nothing of any worth happened before Sky and the Premier League came along in the 90s (unless you're a Spurs fan, hey David, in which case *everything* of worth happened before then!). It's all part of the same process...