The Ascent of Man

I was talking with a friend recently who was quietly bemoaning the state of current music. New music doesn't electrify him the way old music does and he keeps finding himself being drawn into the allure of the past. Reluctantly I had to agree with him. Although there are a few things I find myself enthusiastic about, the count is down. I struggle, for instance, to pull together an end of year chart.

It's a familiar conversation amongst elders, but also one I had recently with my children when I was discussing how they would feel about Youtube and their Xbox thirty years hence. Whilst generally this discussion is dominated by ideas about content, how X artist of the past was superior to Y artist of the present; to my mind the key question, the location of the fetish if you like, is first and foremost the format.

To take myself as an example: I started following music in the early eighties. I would class myself as Homo Albumus. My fetish was formed very quickly and strongly just before the birth of the CD. I had a couple of years to imprint; like the young duckling imprints on the first creature it esteems to be its parent. My peers generally came to music a little later and were swept up with the birth of the CD. They became Homo Digitalis. Certainly there are crossovers between these groups, but more in the way that the Neanderthal would co-exist with Homo Sapiens.

To be too hard and fast insisting on format as the predicator would be misleading. It might be the clearest classification but generally people look past it to the content itself. The single most important idea behind this concept is that music, or musical culture, does not have some eternal quality. It is particular to its cohort. We feel baffled or even ashamed that we can not connect to the music of the past. We dress up this inevitable generational disconnection in formalities (the mausoleum of Classical music culture), as if the staging of a ritual seriousness will help us feel the charge where none remains for us. Or we intellectually post-rationalise the music of the past in an attempt to, sometimes successfully, reimagine the spark our forefather's felt.

Some music fares better in reaching out to other generations for longer. I still "feel" Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto" for instance. But watching a good TV programme last night, the "Rock'n'Roll America" series on iPlayer, was a salutary reminder of not the diminishing power of music, but how that power is particular to each generation. As breathlessly descriptive as the voiceover was, and as charismatic and enthused as the elderly rockers were, I simply could not connect to most of the music. There were highlights. There is a flicker of feeling I get from Little Richard's "Lucille", more powerfully too from from The Flamingoes "I Only Have Eyes For You" and always something for The Everley Brothers. But that shouldn't be an article of shame.

It will come as a shock to Homo Youtubus, whose fetish objects are phones and tablets as opposed to CDs and Records, to find in twenty years time that there is a diminishment in what appeals to them. Their tastes too will be superseded by the following generation's. Geneva Jacuzzi's excellent videos foreground, perhaps because the music itself isn't so strong, that Youtube has fixed the video itself at the centre. We've had music television since 1981 but it is only now, amidst the death the own-able format (Homo Digitalis persisting briefly as an mp3 consumer), that the balance has tipped. Previously video was always ancillary to music. Some of this shift can be dated back to Madonna and her radical reimagining of the pop star as bankable media icon; where the true currency became not the music but the star's ability to command a fee in the manner of the Hollywood system.

Rather than rail at the present and its shortcomings therefore we should, while retaining our curiosity about the new, embrace our own mortality. As many do quite innocently, we should enjoy what Mark Fisher memorably called our "sad passions", the slightly fruitless stockpiling of things which are particular to our own experience. For you're a long time dead.