A Gathering Voices post by Jana Riess
At the beginning of this semester for my course on religion and popular culture, I had the students fill out a getting-to-know-you questionnaire about their favorite films, TV shows, books, and music. The results were instructive. Among my sixty students, many of the same items showed up in their first three categories: they loved Harry Potter books, the movies of the Coen brothers, and the new series Modern Family. They also have a shared guilty pleasure in reality TV; almost half admitted watching Jersey Shore, if you can believe it.
But music? Music was a different story entirely.
Out of sixty students naming their top three or four recording artists – so, up to 240 possibilities total – the most votes any one act had was three. A few had two votes, and dozens of other artists had just one vote. Many of these groups or musicians were ones I’d never heard of.
Yes, it’s true that I’m twenty years out of college, and I confess I don’t make much of an effort to keep tabs on current music. So it’s not that surprising that I was clueless about my students’ musical selections. But here’s the thing: many of my students had never heard of their peers’ chosen musicians either.
There simply were no cultural touchstones, musically speaking.
Obviously, it’s dangerous to extrapolate from one sample at a single university, but let’s assume for a moment that this is fairly representative of 18 to 22-year-olds today. When we compare the rising generation’s diffuse eclecticism with the touchstones of earlier eras, a pattern emerges. There is no Elvis here, defining a generation over and against their parents with every gyration of his suggestive hips. There are no mop-headed Beatles. In fact, there’s no universally accepted musical spokesperson to define this generation; it’s a generation defined by individualism itself.
I didn’t watch the Grammys last weekend, but I heard the pre-award coverage on NPR and read some follow-up reports about the event, which was billed as an evening of upsets. Apparently the most salient question of the night was, “Who the heck is Esperanza Spalding?” Spalding, the jazz musician who took Best New Artist, upset the apple cart by beating Mumford & Sons (whom a lot of people have not heard of) and Justin Bieber (who is profoundly overexposed, though none of my students would admit to listening to his music).
Throughout the 20th century, the music of “your” generation was the music that you listened to in high school and college; it was the music that declared your separation from your parents and your self-labeling as an adult of one stripe or another. This music would follow you throughout your life: You’re shopping for diapers in your 30s and you hear the song you roller-skated to when you were 13, or you attend a “decade party” for the year you graduated from high school and shamelessly belt out a top 40 hit of the era.
But what music will the Class of 2011 play in 2061, when they return for their 50th reunion?
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