on a recent npr all songs considered podcast, bob boilen sat down with carrie brownstein (formerly of sleater-kinney), stephen thompson (npr’s song of the day) and amy phillips (pitchforkmedia.com) to discuss the topic of songs of a generation. in essence, they discussed what songs were representational of various generations, focusing primarily on generation x & y.
first of all, even as—as i consider myself—a student of culture and culture trends, i have a very difficult time keeping track of the definitions of the various generations. where does x start? where does y end? roughly, to get us on the same page, generation x goes somewhere between 1965 and 1982 (although i would argue that ’65 is a little far back…). gen y begins somewhere between ’80 and ’83 and runs up to around ’96. (as a sidenote, i was born in ’80—right in the transition of the two generations—so maybe that’s why i have a split personality and am generally confused…)
there were a couple of interesting insights to their conversation. each panel member suggested a song that was indicative or representational of the generations (seeing the two generations and the associated song as sort of an amalgamation). the overarching theme of their song choices was that the music generated in this time empowered people that were by and large disaffected. in 1991, a little grunge band from seattle released smells like teen spirit and the music industry changed (for the good, as i see it…). the introduction of grunge was empowering because it gave a voice to millions of late gen-x’ers and gen-y’ers who felt voiceless because of shifting cultures and world events. suddenly, three guys from seattle who slept on their parents’ couches and didn’t have “real” jobs were putting out genius music and standing in as a surrogate for their lost voice.
the other featured song was public enemy’s fight the power. fight the power was another song (in a different way) that gave voice to the disenfranchised and powerless. it made people feel bigger than what they were and more powerful than what they were.
on the flipside, as the panel moved into the late gen-y era of music, their choices were a bit frightening. first was souljah boy’s superman. in all fairness, and as they quickly pointed out, it wasn’t a selection based primarily on the quality of music. moreover than quality, it was representational of the new way in which music is produced and delivered to the public (souljah boy—a teenager—wrote and recorded the track in his bedroom and was later discovered by his label). admittedly, the second choice was still a little frightening, but i must say i can’t deny the fact that i like it: kelly clarkson’s since u been gone.
the point being made with this choice is two-fold. first, american idol has to be mentioned in conversations about popular forms of music with this generation. secondly, in a very interesting point while playing the song, i believe stephen thompson noted that the build up and the explosive chorus was structured very similarly to nirvana’s teen spirit. now, before the nirvana fans have a coronary, it wasn’t meant to say that kelly freakin’ clarkson is on the same page as nirvana. it’s simply meant to illustrate the musical progression that started in ’91 with nirvana.
on one final note, a very interesting point was raised about the difference, musically, between this generation and those of the past. in past generations, there has always been a musical innovation that had never been heard before: rock n’ roll, rap, pop, etc. this is the first generation that has readily listened to their parents’ music. a point was made that a very recent cover of rolling stone featured the eagles. last year’s biggest musical story was amy winehouse, who dips into the cup of 50’s soul. a blockbuster movie, last year, was set to the soundtrack of the beatles. it was a very interesting and poignant point that leads me to both question and be excited about musical generations to come.