There’s a meme I’ve seen a few times about how awful it feels to hear the music you enjoyed in high school on an oldies station. It seems to me that since stations in that kind of format have a somewhat limited playlist to choose from, that they would be eager to add new pieces to the collection by encroaching closer and closer to our collective present with what is considered an “oldie.” But, that said, I didn’t really find myself thinking too much about what is “old” until a recent discussion board assignment in my Jazz, Rock, and Pop Music class.
We had just finished a unit on American music of the late 1800s to about 1920. We looked at folk music stemming from Appalachian traditions, early country music, Negro works songs, minstrel songs, the blues, and Tin Pan Alley. Then the class had to select a modern song and draw comparisons between it and one or more of these older styles we had just studied.
One problem of a discussion board assignment is that all of the class can see what others have done before they turn in their own work, and nearly everyone waits until the last minute. That means that if someone misunderstands the assignment, people who complete their work later often will carry the same misunderstanding into an entire thread of posts. That happened here. One of the first students who replied to the prompt must have decided that I meant that they were to compare the song they chose to any other song that had come out earlier than their selection. So, when I said compare your song to one of the older songs, thinking 1800s-1920, they were using songs as early as 2001 as their “old selection.” My initial thought was, “Wait a minute, in what universe is something from 2001 old?”
But then, contextually speaking, I realized that there would seem to be a certain reasonableness to this. A typical college freshman was only 4 years old in 2001. Since reaching an age where I could think about music as a part of a series of given moments in time, I have always seen the music of my childhood as “old.” Some music of my youth I see fondly, some with mild embarrassment, but nonetheless, these works certainly don’t resonate with my adult notions of modernity. As I’ve grown, music has grown up (or at least changed) with me. The same can be said for my college freshmen.
That said, it certainly didn’t stop me from feeling a bit past my expiration date to see my students calling something that didn’t happen until I was almost twice their age “old.” So, with that in mind, how do we define “oldness” in music? On one hand, I think that notion is clearly in the eye of the beholder. The older we become, the wider a berth we give between our own age and that which we consider old. But, I suspect once we put aside any negative connotations of what it means to have something that represents a moment on one’s own life to be perceived as old, certain objective notions of oldness can come into view.
Thinking strictly in terms of musical style, clearly, as we look over spans of time, we see certain fads come and go, and in recent years, the rate at which trends appear and outlive their welcome seems to move at an increasing weight. With that in mind, we might consider anything that doesn’t sound like the music of the present to be old. And that’s where our traditional notions of age come into question.
The other day, I was driving home from work, and I switched from my usual Sirius XM radio station (Alt Nation) to a station that plays music from the 1980s (First Wave). A song came on that I hadn’t heard in years, and I found myself thinking how remarkably fresh it sounded, given that it is over thirty years old. I suspect the main reason for this is the lack of overly blatant 80s synthesizer combines with the loud, booming drums, but hearing this song reminded me of a number of the groups I hear on Alt Nation every day, like Arcade Fire, Fun, The Struts, Imagine Dragons, etc. This song made me wonder, can a 30-year-old song be new?
Then I began wondering about all of the songs that I’ve heard in the last few years that have a distinctively retro sound. The last few years have brought groups riffing on James Brown, Duran Duran, Motown, Bowie, and countless others. In fact, while doing some research to write this post, I found a fascinating blog on the topic called Today’s Retro (www.todaysretro.wordpress.com). The writer identifies a song with a retro vibe once every week. He describes the new song and some older tracks that you can compare it to. There’s some great stuff there. With such a huge variety of styles to borrow from, is it any wonder that modern artists don’t choose to play in an older sandbox from time to time? That does tend to become problematic when they get stuck there (seriously, Muse. If I wanted to listen to Queen, I’d just listen to Queen…), but for the most part, you can’t fault a band for appreciating a sound from the past and wanting to recreate it in their own likeness. So, if something old can be new, maybe something new can just as easily be young?
Here’s my thought. Listen to the following songs, and based purely on how they sound, place them in chronological order.
“Money Grabber” – Fitz and the Tantrums
“Jenny Was a Friend of Mine”- The Killers
“Birds Cry (Whisper to a Scream)” – Icicle Works
“Woman” – Wolfmother
“Wolves” – Dreamers
“Sedona” – Houndmouth
“Magnolia Simms” – The Monkees
Then, actually look up the dates of the songs, and I think you’ll find a very different chronology.
So, what do you think? Can we think of stylistic time as being something different from actual time or even musical time? It feels a bit like something Dr. Who would say, but from the perspective of musical style, maybe time isn’t just “a strict progression of cause and effect,” but actually is more of a “big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.”
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.