What we can learn from the music of the '60's

I just finished reading Tom Brokaw’s book Boom!.  It was a good read and an interesting approach to the topic of the sixties, though frankly, I think Brokaw’s journalistic style leaves out some of the robustness and dynamism of the generation. But this is not a critique of the book. If you are a student of the 60’s you should read it, but understand that Boom! doesn’t stand alone.

The book did, however, get me thinking about the music of the 60’s in comparison to the music today.  Brokaw muses with Joan Baez about the state of music today.  They lament, for instance, the absence of protest songs and socially conscious music today.  Their explanation is that we no longer have the draft, therefore, kids are no longer as tuned in to social critique today.  Protest songs no longer resonate with the young.

I don’t know about that.  I wouldn’t rule out their analysis completely, but I think there’s something more.  I think the problem has more to do with the structure of the music culture and industry today. To Baez and Brokaw and others of that generation I would say that the protest songs and the socially conscious songs are there and the kids know what they are, but they are being delivered differently today than they were in the 60’s.

It seems that in the 60’s the music spoke for a generation, and it didn’t matter the style or the instrumentation.  At the Woodstock Festival of 1969 the stage was shared by the likes of Arlo Guthrie, Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Sha Na Na.  Very different groups with very different styles playing their music for…everyone.  So when a band like CCR put out a song like Fortunatearlo Son it spoke to the youth culture as a whole.

jimi  sha

This is a lesson that should be learned by the youth today.  Contrary to the 60’s, the music no longer speaks to a generation.  Instead, music is aimed at a well cultivated niche market.  The music is no longer heard by a generation, but rather by divergent and specialized social groups.  Music is just as important, just important in a different way.  The music no longer provides the soundtrack, hence the identity for a whole generation.  Rather, the music becomes an identifying feature of in-group dynamics.  If you are a member of a Hip Hop social group then that group is defined by the parameters of that musical style.  All other musical styles define out-group parameters. A member of a Hip Hop defined in-group does not listen to country.

So any socially conscious Hip Hop music (and yes, there is such a thing. It’s not just “bitches and hos”) is unlikely to translate to other social groups for which Hip Hop is in out-group identifier.  Likewise, a socially conscious Rock ‘n’ Roll song will not be heard by Hip Hop in-groups.

It’s a waste.  If this generation could learn one lesson from the ’60’s I hope it is the unifying force of music.  Instead of using music to define and reinforce our differences, let’s wake up to all of this generation’s creative talents. Maybe if another generation can sing together it can bring create its own sonic BOOM! for the world to hear.

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