Thursday, July 12, 2012

Cream Rises to the Top

So does scum, of course, but we’ll leave a discussion that duality for another day.

As an addendum to my previous post on Generation Y, I have a book recommendation: The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe. Strauss and Howe argue that generational characteristics (including attitudes toward risk, relationships, wealth, individualism, communitarianism, etc.) repeat every four generations, and always in the same order. The tendency of the young to reject the standards of their parents keeps the pattern recurring. If true, it would make Generation Y (1982-2004 according to them – a somewhat atypical definition) similar to the one born 1901-1924 (substantially later than the cohort I postulated as similar), and the newest crop of kids (Generation Z?), born since 2005 by the Strauss/Howe way of reckoning, like the folks born 1925-1945. I have doubts about their analysis, and about their dividing lines between generations. Their discussion is an interesting one nonetheless, and they do chronicle shifts and swings in the culture over the years.

I’d also like to add that my query to the two Millennials regarding a characteristic song for their generation was not entirely out-of-the-blue. It was more like payback. A year or so ago these same two young people had noticed a vinyl of the Let It Be album by the Beatles on a shelf by my stereo; they then thumbed through the rest of my records, tapes, and CDs. My collection isn’t very highbrow or especially large, but it is an eclectic mix of popular music ranging from the 1940s to the current time. One of them asked me what single song best represented the 1960s. (Let It Be, which prompted the discussion, was 1970, but let’s not quibble.) It was an intriguing question to which I had no good answer. However, if you want to maintain a reputation for being knowledgeable (false though it may be), you have to exude ready confidence, so I pretended I had an answer. I raced a few titles though my head and then quickly proclaimed White Room by Cream. I rattled off a few reasons that I made up on the spot, and then extracted myself from the conversation.

The funny thing is, with time to reflect at leisure, I still think White Room isn’t a bad choice. The song is psychedelic, haunting, unorthodox, and poetic in late ‘60s fashion. While never hitting #1 on the charts (except in Australia, if I’m not mistaken), it nonetheless was on every rock station’s playlist in ’68 and ‘69. The song lacks much traditional order: it has no rhymes, alliterations, or assonances. The lines do scan, but in an unconventional way. In formal terms, they alternate pyrrhic with trochee feet in hexameter: /in the /WHITE room /with black /CURtains /near the /STAtion /. So, like the decade itself, the song is less anarchic than it appears at first glance, and it is less profound, too. All sorts of meanings have been read into the lyrics; some listeners believe they reference Clapton’s drug addiction or the Vietnam War, for example, but Eric Clapton didn’t write the song and the British didn’t fight in Vietnam. No, just as the lyrics say (admittedly in flowery terms), at a party a man meets a woman who is romantic and primal (silver horses and yellow tigers in her eyes), but no strings can hold her so the chick leaves him at the station. He feels desolate. That’s it. But, you know? It’s enough.

As for representative songs of other generations, whether one accepts the Strauss/Howe divisions or some other order, I'll let any members of them who might be lurking pick for themselves.

White Room (1968)

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