Sole surviving member of my immediate family, I’m also happily single and childless. But, by a one-thing-leads-to-another sequence of the ilk that determines so much of life, I acquired a sort of quasi-niece several years ago. (Long story.) The other day she asked if she could use my dining room for a tea party for a few of her Millennial friends. My dining room has a cherry hutch containing a variety of china cups that I never use – I inherited them (plus the hutch and the table for that matter) from my mom, who did use them. It was an odd request for her set, but I had no objection.
While the event was in progress, I was out for part of the evening; when I returned, I opted to stay out of the way and read Stephen King’s recent novel Joyland in the den. (I’ll leave comments on that for another blog.) Still, I couldn’t help being sufficiently aware of the goings-on to notice that the whole exercise – the elegant clothes, the good china, the good tableware, the good tablecloth, etc. – from their perspective was a comical parody. They even burlesqued an upper-crust accent that no longer exists, but which still can be heard in movies of the 1930s and 1940s – one that sounds as though it belongs midway between
London and Philadelphia.
(This accent was pretty much gone by the 1960s.) From the laughter, they seemed
to be having fun with it. As a soundtrack, they were playing some of my vinyl
from the 1950s and early 60s. My music collection is not especially big, but is
a hodgepodge ranging from the 1930s through the 2010s in a mix of vinyl, tapes,
and CDs. (No, I’m not as old as much as the music.) The 50s/60s fare they were
spinning no doubt seemed sufficiently ancient for their purposes, but I made my
one intervention by suggesting that that it wasn’t. I recommended instead what
already was loaded in the cassette player: an all-1940s mixed tape (remember
mixed tapes?) of Glenn Miller, Kay Kyser, Andrews Sisters, Benny Goodman, and
so on. It was a hit. They even danced to it.
Although I then withdrew from the party, the music filtered through. The difference in tone between the 50s music and the 40s that replaced it was stark, and distracted me (in a good way) from Stephen. I don’t refer to the stylistic difference between big bands and early rock. I mean … what? … attitude, I think. (Naturally, I’ve noticed this before, but hearing a packet of one followed immediately by a packet of the other brought it into sharp relief.) The 40s are sophisticated: youthful, but adult. There is more than a little humor, but the love songs sound adult and real. The 50s rock is all innocent earnestness – very much a teen way of looking at romance and breakups, even when sung by non-teens. (The 50s were the first decade when folks started doubting the value of growing up.) Both are utterly different from what airs in the 21st century, which is so often deliberately dark (e.g. Kanye West), vengeful (even in light pop such as Adele’s Rumor Has It), or just plain cynical (e.g. Theory of a Deadman). It would be hard for a modern artist to reprise 40s or 50s fare except as parody.
William Straus and Neil Howe, authors of Generations: The History of
’s Future 1584 to 2069,
argue that generational types repeat in a predictable 4-beat pattern. Millennials,
they say, should have a lot in common with the GI Generation. Maybe, but you
can’t prove it by the music. Or by tea parties. America
Maybe the rising cynicism of our times is a good thing. (Yes, our times: rising cynicism is not confined to one generation; it’s just a bit more concentrated there.) If you expect the worst, after all, you aren’t going to be much disappointed. Sometimes, though, it is refreshing to listen to the songs of more hopeful eras.
Love is Hell, a love song for our times