February 1, 2011

Grown folks music

Detractors of the most recent wild phase of the culture, roughly from the late 1950s through the early 1990s, claim that society had become hopelessly juvenile, going so far as to swallow the pablum about young people having a keener moral compass. Yet whether it's Stuff White People Like or conservative talk radio, it's clear that it's the culture of the past 15 to 20 years that is truly infantile.

As the violence level began falling after its 1992 peak, people perceived a much more secure society and therefore longer and safer lives. That's not without its downsides, though, like switching from tragic mode (adaptive during rising-crime times) to trivial mode (adaptive during falling-crime times). When life is short, your safety unpredictable, and the overall order of the universe unstable and crumbling more every year, several key changes happen to get you through it:

- You try to grow up sooner rather than later, since tomorrow may be too late.

- You band together more easily with others, since you can't take on such a growing threat on your own.

- More importantly as it concerns the feel of social relations, you don't hold as much of a grudge and you aren't as petty. People measure grudges as a fraction of their lifetimes, not on an absolute scale, so when life appears shorter, you hold a grudge for a shorter length of time. Plus there's the looming threat that you have to attend to that gives you an extra incentive to reconcile your differences and get back to protecting yourselves and kicking the bad guys' asses.

In short, during times of soaring violence levels people become more mature, while during falling-crime times they revert to a life of neverending temper tantrums.

That's all by way of introducing what I meant to talk about first -- the disappearance of music for grown-ups since the early-mid 1990s. This happened as well in movies, TV shows, kids books, etc., but I'm just going over music now.

Again how many times do we have to hear some lazy and ignorant critic (whether paid or volunteer) slam the popular music of the late '50s through the early '90s as childish, bratty, bla bla bla? Before reminding ourselves of what music from that time really sounded like, why don't we first take a look at how inspiringly mature pop music has been since the mid-'90s? When rock music died and was replaced by alternative, emo, and indie, all we got was whining about how much it hurts to not get enough attention from the other kids at school, or a bunch of screaming rejects making a caricature of teen angst, or singer-songwriter cutesiness that sounds like the dude hasn't even gone through puberty yet (like John Mayer or Pete Yorn).

As for egocentric and materialistic music, this has been the era of bling-bling, rainin' dolla billz on dem hoez, she's got me spendin', don'tcha wish your girlfriend was hot like me, etc. The whiny angsty music from white musicians is just another, more passive-aggressive form of brattiness.

The so-called childishness of music from wild times was directed more at the wider youth rebellion and questioning, then abandoning, of values that the adults of the time had tried to sell young people. But as I pointed out before, those values served an adaptive purpose only during the falling-crime times of the mid-1930s through most of the 1950s when these adults adopted them. When the level of violence began soaring out of control by 1959, young people were living in a totally different world, and those values were no longer useful. Just try them out and see how well they work.

Young people gave the older values the benefit of the doubt for awhile, until about halfway through the crime wave, and by the mid-1970s it was clear from personal experience and reporting from the rest of the country that what the advice-givers had preached was out-of-date. Probably the clearest example of that was the Vietnam War, which the grown-ups said would be won the way we won World War II -- not to worry. Other galvanizing examples involve the faith in bureaucracy and experts in social engineering broadly that carried the day from the New Deal and Eisenhower eras, but that people saw falsified before their very eyes with the Great Society programs and price controls as a response to the 1973 oil crisis.

So, the "don't trust anyone over 30" attitude, and the broader overturning of New Deal - Eisenhower sacred cows were perfectly understandable. (And of course now that crime has been falling for nearly 20 years, the return to those older values is just as understandable.)

And now for a corrective of the clueless claims of childishness in pop music from wild times. Anything sappy or wide-eyed in that gee-golly-gosh way is out. So is bratty and preachy stuff, as well as anything that tries to depict the real world in overly black-and-white terms. To be included, there must be some sign that the creator and audience have experienced enough of the real world to know better -- remorse over lost love, reluctance to fall for someone and get hurt again, compromising (however unwillingly) rather than throwing a fit, helping out those who are counting on you, and in general the ambiguity of real life and the need to figure it out case-by-case and on-the-fly. The tempo is slower and the instrumentation more stripped-away, making it feel more honest.

These are all just off the top of my head, though I've tried to make sure they were chart hits, or at least on albums that charted well, to ensure that they represent what resonated with a large chunk of people back then. They're more from the mid-'70s through late '80s both because the shift toward maturity was strongest then and because I know the material better (and so is also more rock oriented). I stopped at the round number of 10. Feel free to add others in the comments.

"In Too Deep" by Genesis

"Man in the Mirror" by Michael Jackson

"Making Believe"
by Emmylou Harris

"Wrapped Around Your Finger"
by The Police

"Song to the Siren" by This Mortal Coil

"With or Without You"
by U2

"Avalon" by Roxy Music

"Total Eclipse of the Heart" by Bonnie Tyler

"Little Red Corvette"
by Prince

"Reptile" by The Church


  1. "Broken Wings" by Mr. Mister

  2. What about popular music during the previous safe times?

    According to your theory most of the songs from that era should be equally childish and superficial. But this effect might also be skewed since most of the non-rock n' roll from that era were intended for adults. Let's look at top charting singles from 1951 to 1960.From '51-'55 there aren't a lot of songs that I even recognize. Most of the ones I do are novelty songs: "How much is that doggie in the window?" "The ballad of Davy Crockett," "On top of Old Smokey/" So far so good. There are some wistful, sad love songs, "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes," "Unchained Melody."

    When rock & roll started to hit, of course all of those songs were for teenagers. 1956 to '57 were Elvis' prime, with Pat Boone, the safe Elvis, right behind him. But then rock & roll kind of disappears until surf rock shows up, with a few exceptions.

    Bobby Darin is a big hit in '59 when "Mack the Knife," definitely not a safe times song, gets to number two. But his next most popular song was "Dream Lover," which although sad also seems a little childish. Other top songs from that year were number one hit "The Ballad of New Orleans" (novelty), "Put your head on my shoulder" (by Paul Anka) (childish), and Sea of Love (not childish in my opinion).

    1960 brought "Teen Angel," "The Twist," "I'm Sorry," "Stuck On You," "Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," and "Only the Lonely."

    All in all this appeared to be a time of transition, which I guess fits your theory. One thing that surprise me is how few of the great jazz standards singers show up. There's a bit of Nat King Cole but I don't see any other of the big names. I know this was a down time for Sinatra. I thought these songs would go against your theory, but they appear to have been more of niche market than I was aware of.

  3. Agnostic, I have an unrelated question/comment.

    I'd like to collect data similar to what you did to investigate academic fads back in 2008 on gnxp. Did you do a new search for each year to get the data or do you have a clever solution? I'd love some help, and would of course give you some link love.


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