In Defense of the Kids - The Digital Society

Written by Big Smile Staff

Posted Nov 30, 2010, by The Bear.

(This article was begun as a response to Rick Murder's "Kids These Days" article, but in I got involved in other projects before finishing it, so it was left unfinished until I saw the comment by Angy Ruin the other day, and I thought, “what the hell?” So I went back to it and here it is, more or less.)

I read with considerable interest the article published on May 22 by fellow Big Smile writer Rick Murder called “Kids These Days” and the words I can best use to describe it are “amusing,” and “just a little disquieting.”

My high-school English teacher once said that whenever I and my friends hit middle-age if we ever wanted to jump start the conversation at a party all that would have to happen would be for someone to say in a loud angry voice the word: “Kids!” and everyone would immediately jump in with stories about how “Kids today” have no appreciation of how good they have things, don’t understand what “we” sacrificed for them, are too soft, too lazy, to rebellious, etc., etc.

Fact is, “Kids These Days” is really not saying anything new. It’s just put its argument into an updated setting by placing it into the context of the digital age. But complaints about “Kids Today!” have been going on for as long as – well probably as long as there have been parents and kids. One the founding fathers of the U.S. (I forget who) once wrote that “knowing the youth of today I fear for the future of this country” and this was more than 200 years ago! Probably the ultimate expression of the generation gap comes from the song “What’s the Matter With Kids Today?” from the musical Bye Bye Birdie where some parents are moaning about their kids:

“Why can’t they be like we were?”
“Perfect in every way?”
“What’s the matter with kids today?”
(“What’s the Matter with Kids Today?” Lyrics by Lee Adams)

When going through this article one could replace almost any of it with something said by someone in the past the kids of their time and it wouldn’t make much difference. Since Rick’s article talked about music let’s take that as an example. The specific example Rick gave was Lady Gaga. I must admit to being a bit surprised by that choice since from what I know of her she seems to be a genuinely offbeat performer; I would have thought someone like Justin Bieber, current teen idol of the moment, or Miley Cyrus, would have been better choices for his point. Anyway, take what he said about Lady Gaga and substitute someone else’s name from some other time and you’ll find that people have been saying similar things for decades. In the late 90s it might have been said about N’Sync or the Back Street Boys, in the late 80s it might have been New Kids on the Block, in the 70s, Disco! – and so on, and so on. In the 50s when Rock ‘N Roll started up some preachers called it satanic and would actively preach against it in church. Yet it didn’t even start with Rock. There were a lot of horrible things said about Jazz in its early days. And why stop there? In this country, at least, we seem to have a long history of thinking that if it’s popular and the kids like it, then it must be bad for them – just ask late 1950s parents about Elvis Presley and his gyrating hips!

So much for the amusement factor. However I also mentioned that Rick’s article was a little disquieting; so it is, but not for the reason you might expect. I know Rick; he’s in his mid-20s, yet he’s saying things that one might normally expect to hear from someone twice his age. Now in my experience when you’re in your mid-20s you’re still mostly a kid yourself; the 20s are a decade when you’re exploring and experimenting with life, trying to find yourself and your place in the world. It’s a time when your mind is most open to new things. It seems rather sad for someone who is about 25 to talk as if he’s so set in his ways that he sounds a little like my grandfather.

I’m not saying I’m a fan of the current pop artists; I’m not. I probably dislike Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, et al. as much as Rick does. Unfortunately, however, we need them – well not specifically them, but music needs mainstream pop in general, if only because without it, and the corporations that propagate it, real artists would have so much less to react to and rebel against. Think about every genuine movement in rock, whether it was 1950s rock ‘n roll, 60s psychedelia, Motown, Punk Rock, Heavy Metal, etc. They all came about to a large degree in reaction to what was going on in mainstream music at the time.

There is one thing in Rick’s article, and some of the comments that were posted on it, that does reflect something genuinely different in the way we process and go through pop culture today than in times past. It’s the internet. Before the internet it took a lot longer for cultural trends to travel from one end of the country or around the world than it does now. A person growing up today can be exposed to far more stuff in a much shorter amount of time than has ever been possible. Thanks to outlets like YouTube, and myspace, and Facebook, a song posted in one single place can circle the whole world in a day or even less. Is that a good thing? Yes and no. It does make it possible for new artists to make their work available to larger audiences much more quickly than it used to be. On the other hand it’s become a lot harder for underground bands to actually make a living with their music due to the prevalence of free downloading and file sharing.

Another thing the internet does is make pop-music even more disposable than in the past. It’s now possible to run through musical trends at a rate several times faster than, say, 30 years ago. Before the net came along a band that was popular when your older sibling was in high-school would tend to become passe when you reached high-school yourself a few years later. Now, however, a band that is big this month may be passe next month. Indeed “that’s so last year” has become “so last month” to “so yesterday” to “so 30 seconds ago!” It’s possible for someone aged 25 today to have consumed as much pop culture in his / her short lifetime as might have taken his grandparents three times as many years to absorb the same amount. So perhaps it’s understandable that mid-20s people sound older than they really are.

But this doesn’t make new contributions to pop music any less valid than older music, since everything builds on what comes before it.

Regarding Rick’s complaint about radio stations not being diverse enough in their selections, well, unfortunately yes, there’s a lot of truth to that. That’s been largely out of our hands since the deregulation of media went through a couple of decades ago. Since then Infinity Broadcasting has snapped up about half of the stations in the country and they also syndicate programming. They want to make money, so they only play stuff they think will sell advertising. Yes, as many people have noted, that does lead to almost uniformly bland commercial radio.

There are alternatives. First there’s Satellite Radio – although you have to pay for that. But there’s also independent radio, a lot of which is found in college radio. Although many college stations have low AM or FM signals a lot of them also broadcast online so you can listen to them anywhere in the world. You can still find a huge diversity of musical selections at these stations. At my own station (KXSC Los Angeles) you can hear things that cross all the genres, running from the classics (including the Beatles, Deep Purple, Cream, and Pink Floyd to cite a few of Rick’s examples) to the newest stuff just being released today. The DJs at KXSC have a great appreciation of music from many different eras – although Rick might find that to be rather surprising since almost all of them are younger than he is.

Kids today are really no different than they’ve been at any other time. They may wear different clothes or have different hairstyles; they may be more tech. savvy than past generations, but from what I’ve seen of them they’re no worse than any other generation. They’re as diverse in their tastes as any group; if you grab a random bunch of them and put them in a room together they won’t all look alike, dress alike, or like the same types of music. I know this from living near a major university where I routinely see today’s kids. And as for Punks (my own area of choice), they’re still around too. Punk might currently be in eclipse compared to other pop music forms, but this has happened before, more than once; things wax and ebb. But I still see a lot of younger Punks around who are still forming bands in basements, garages, and backyards. And, believe it or not, they know their history: ask any of them who the Misfits are / were and most likely they could tell you. So they weren’t around 30+ years ago when Punk began; that’s not their fault, and they shouldn’t be put down by their elders because of it. I don’t fear for the future of “the kids” or their music because the underground scene will always be there and the kids who participate in it will always know the value of originality.

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