From the Beatles to Young Thug: a paradox of popular music

Jason-Chen

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I’ll admit, I’ve gone through that phase of nostalgia — feeling that nothing could top the feverish, creative zeitgeist of the countercultural ’60s. My mind has often wandered through the smoky, Beat-ific cool of Greenwich Village’s folk scene, down to the drugged-out wonderland of Warhol’s Factory. You’ll find a Woodstock poster in my childhood room back in Los Angeles. Pass the “cliche!” disses for now, please.

Many of my peers are still stuck in this world of nostalgia. I mean, who could top the expansive universe of the Beatles’ oeuvre? Objectively speaking, Bob Dylan wrote the greatest song of all time, right? That’s what Rolling Stone says, at least.

But when you really think about it, isn’t it strange — a bit paradoxical — how we treat these artists? How we deify this rock and roll canon? Through our nostalgia, we lose ourselves to a certain historical amnesia. We gloss over the details.

The classicists who revere the Beatles tend to dismiss contemporary pop music as crude, unthoughtful, maybe even offensive in comparison to the music of the Baby Boomers.

But weren’t the Beatles at one time considered contemporary music? They were just blokes from Liverpool, with no mythology shrouding their name— no textbooks, no essays, no collector’s box sets. There was a fan base, sure. But they were far from timeless. There was even a fair share of bad reviews. The Los Angeles Times wrote, “Not even their mothers would claim that they sing well.” Yikes!

What the rock classicists are saying about our modern pop — people must have been saying these exact things about our rock legends. These musicians were crude, unthoughtful and offensive themselves at one point, weren’t they? Guitar distortion was born by jabbing an amplifier with a razor blade. Geez Louise, how could that be real music? The adults didn’t quite get it. “Music was better in the ’20s. Give us back our jazz!”

And rock and roll was riddled with the same circus of idiocy — the same shallow decadence — that defines our current pop trends. People are “in love with the Coco” at every college party in 2015. Yet the Velvet Underground wrote a seven-minute ode to heroin. How the hell is that a better message for the kids?

Miley twerked at the VMAs, and Kanye stole the mic from Taylor Swift. There’s plenty of egomania loaded into these controversial grabs for publicity. But let’s not forget that, at one point, the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus.”

So rock and roll must have pissed people off. But that was the whole fun of it. The counterculture was alive at those split moments of polarization.

When Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, Pete Seeger literally cut the cord with an axe. Was Dylan playing “real music?” Not to the guy who yelled “Judas!” But it was rock and roll.

Thus, our canonization of these figures is loaded with irony. To be “fresh” was the goal. To be “classic” might be horrendous. We’ve left their riotous energy coated in amber, petrified along the halls of museums.

The legacy of the ’60s was never a type of sound or a musical form. It was a subversive attitude — an artistic youth. Keep listening to “Revolver” or “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” sure, but keep your ear out for new sparks of controversy that pave the way for our own counterculture. If your parents agree with what you’re listening to, you’ve done something wrong.

To honor the musical legacy of yesterday, I urge you to pay attention to the music of today. For the rest of this semester, I hope that my column will push my readers to think as critically about today’s cultural trends as they do when examining artists of the musical canon, such as the Beatles. From hip-hop to fashion to film, culture continues to be in a constant state of revolution. If you stay home and loop the reruns of history, you might miss out on what’s happening in the streets.

To me, artists such as Drake and Kanye carry the torch, stirring up controversy and capturing levels of fandom comparable to that of the Beatles. But, then again, they’re already such critical darlings. Maybe you should push your listening experience further and explore the more unpredictable acts. Bobby Shmurda? Young Thug? How do you know that Young Thug isn’t the next Lou Reed, really?

“So you’re telling me to ditch John Lennon and listen to Young Thug? What the hell?” I know right? What an article.

But listen to whatever the hell you want. It doesn’t necessarily have to be hip-hop. Some of my friends flock to the EDM scene. Personally, I don’t really get it. But so what if I don’t?  If the music offends, then that’s all the better.

Jason Chen is the assistant arts editor and writes Monday’s new column on hip-hop. Contact him at [email protected].