Pop singer Ariana Grande recently became the second artist ever to have the top three songs on the Billboard Hot 100 list at the same time. Who was the first artist to achieve this accomplishment, you ask? None other than arguably the most successful British band ever, The Beatles. This controversial moment of music history prompted scoffs from some and celebration from others. The general consensus of the scoffers was that a comparison of Ariana Grande to the The Beatles was insulting. Grande fans, however, rallied around her success and claimed she deserved every accolade. As I began discussing this topic with my friends over a lackluster Mac dinner, the conversation quickly became heated. The argument reached a crescendo as my classics-loving roommate exclaimed, “Music today is crap! It was way better back in the day!” Her passionate exclamation led me to some deep musical analysis as I assessed the situation.
Thanks to my much cooler older siblings, I have lived a life filled with music and trend from before my time. Because of this, I am no stranger to the classic music my roommate so fondly describes. From smooth Motown, to the groovy beats of the seventies, to the grunge of the nineties, the music of the past holds a special place in my heart. This is precisely why I had such a hard time playing devil’s advocate in the argument with my roommate. It’s not that I hate music from the past—in fact, it’s the opposite! I will happily bop along to Dean Martin’s That’s Amore, pretending I’m a tan Italian man serenading my love, or belt the intricate lyrics of Hanson’s MmmBop wishing I was a blonde prepubescent boy. The problem I found with her argument was that she said that older music was filled with passion and originality, qualifying it as “real music” while today’s music, she argues, is “undoubtedly inferior.”
In my opinion, this is an unfair argument—the two are simply different. To all my Star Wars prequel fans out there, picture the battle between Obi Wan and Anakin. Older music, the Obi Wan in this scenario, has the high ground over newer music, the Anakin of this metaphor. A comparison drawn in this fashion means new music doesn’t stand a chance. I must say that in hindsight, this niche metaphor may be too revealing of my middle school crush on Hayden Christensen; however, my point still stands. (Unlike Anakin when his limbs are light sabered off…too soon?)
Anyway, it’s simply a fact of human nature that parents, or oldies loving roommates, will always hate the new music of the younger generation, pridefully claiming their music was better. Just as their parents did to them, and their parents did to them before that. And we’re going to be just like them! I mean, I can already promise you that when I have kids, I will refer to Justin Bieber’s Baby as a cultural phenomenon that they just don’t understand. But an important thing to note is that when we look back at music of the past, we only see the music that was lucky enough to survive the test of time. For instance, not everyone in the late nineties recognized the musical genius that is the Baha Men, but their art was successful enough to still be remembered today. (The Baha Men are the ones responsible for releasing quite possibly the biggest hit of my generation, “Who Let the Dogs Out?”)
In examining the past, whether it be music, fashion, or some other cultural trend, we often mistakenly view the time period through rose-colored glasses. We get trapped in fantasies about Victorian era fashion, forgetting the literal and societal constrictions on women that were ever prevalent at the time. We dream of the romance described in the 1800s in Gone With the Wind, forgetting that those romantic words coincide with a bloody civil war. And most pertinent to my argument, we happily claim we love 80s music while forgetting that the horrendously infamous “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley was released in that very era. If you’re like me, just reading that title means the song’s chorus will now be stuck in your head for the rest of eternity. You’ve been “Rick Rolled,” kids!
Besides our tendency to glaze over the mistakes of the past, the way music today is produced, streamed, and imagined is so drastically different from the past that it makes a comparison between the two akin to comparing apples and oranges.The music medium has changed drastically over time, particularly in the last decade. Although it’s different, the EDM music of today created with computers and fancy sound systems is no less impressive than the swing music of the 30s that would traditionally be played with a live big band. They’re both difficult to do and take a lot of skill. I mean, even though my GarageBand phase in high school had me convinced otherwise, there’s no way I could ever be a DJ, nevertheless a musician.
Even the way we listen to music has changed and means that a comparison between the past and present is futile. Before streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, you either digitally purchased individual songs on the iTunes Store or you rebelliously stole illegal Russian copies of songs on LimeWire. Before that there were CDs, which were preceded by tapes, and then records, and then cavemen banging on rocks! And somewhere in between all of that is an eight track, whatever that is. Each of these transitions in how music was shared drastically changed the sound and who had access to the music. Increasing the accessibility meant more room for niche artists to shine.
The current music scene may seem like sensory overload and it may not all be to your liking. I know I could definitely do without hearing some of the Soundcloud rappers that have permanently tainted my perception of what modern rap is. Regardless, you can sift through the massive amount of music being created and find amazing pockets of creativity and authenticity in any genre that suits your fancy. That is why it’s unfair to argue music was better “back in the day.” Even if it is not your cup of tea, the music being produced today is still of good quality and you just may have not found the artists that you like yet. And just think—in a few years, you can happily enjoy Usher’s music from the early 2000s as that will be the new classic!