And I thought it was politics and religion that created all the strife and animosity in the world, but you can add to those two rock and popular music. Itâs not often you see the kind of bile in a piece about music that youâll see in âBias at Rolling Stone Magazine?â, a piece by Jim Fusilli at the Wall Street Journal about the â500 greatest albums of all time.â I donât think heâs very fond of baby boomers, or their taste in music, but he does make a good point or two, among the not so good points, in the midst of his rant.
Whenever there is a discussion about the greatest anything of all time youâre going to have differences of opinion, but music is really personal and I guess we can get hyped up a bit about it. The first paragraph gets us started in that direction:
Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time is now on the newsstands. But if you miss this year’s rendition, no worries: The top 21 albums on the list are the same as on Rolling Stone’s list from 2003. To call it predictable or a clichĂ© is to let it off easy.
Itâs not that Fusilli doesnât like the albums Rolling Stone picked, only that itâs basically boomer nostalgia:
This affinity for music of an ever-distant past may provide comfort for generationally biased boomer-era rock fans, but for the rest of us, it reinforces the fiction that popular music reached its zenith four decades ago.
Well, that is a question now, isnât it. What really gets his goat though is that the Rolling Stone boomers are not musical relativists! He makes a charge about âthe sad fact that the superiority of boomer-era rock is viewed by some as truth.â Well, we know how dangerous truth can be especially when one mistakes oneâs opinion for it. But is boomer era rock better than subsequent generations? Here I think Fusilli confuses things. Take his repudiation of this bit of the magazineâs claims:
These folks would agree with what Rolling Stone says about its top album: “‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ is the most important rock & roll album ever made”; it is “rock’s ultimate declaration of change.” No, it is not. It had predecessors that made it possible and that are thus at least as important. And “Sgt. Pepper” brought no greater change to rock and pop music than did subsequent recordings like “Crosby Stills & Nash,” “The Ramones,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet” or Radiohead’s “Kid A.”
Sweep aside 45 years of almost-unchallenged praise, some of which has nothing to do with its 13 songs and 40 minutes of music, and really listen to “Sgt. Pepper.” It is a great rock and pop album. But indisputably better than, say, “Kiko,” a 1992 album by Los Lobos, or BjĂ¶rk’s 2001 disc “Vespertine”âneither of which is among the Rolling Stone 500? Of course not. But the greatness of “Kiko” and “Vespertine” exist outside the confines of boomer-rock’s narrow cultural context.
As we see, Fusilli is as absolutist as those he is criticizing, and he obviously views his opinions as âtruthâ.Â It is beyond argument that âSgt. Pepperâsâ had a huge cultural impact in the West. His assertion that it had predecessors and therefore canât claim a unique cultural and/or musical impact is absurd. Bach had predecessors; Shakespeare had predecessors; Sinatra had predecessors, but those that came before didnât have close to the impact; same with the Beatles. One could argue Elvis had just as big an impact on American culture, but that doesnât lessen the Beatles or âSgt. Pepperâsâ Impact.
This doesnât mean they arenât important, only that this specific group of young men took what came before them and turned it into something completely new. The other albums and artists he mentions simply donât come close to either the Beatleâs musical or cultural impact. Whether the music is better or not is endlessly debatable and is largely dependent on oneâs tastes, but the unique zeitgeist of the mid-1960s produced something in the Beatles that could simply never happen again, and could never have happened before.
He does have a point when he says that the list âis skewed toward preserving the boomer-rock myth,â in that there are hardly any albums from the last two decades. If the magazine was staffed and run by mostly 20 and 30 year olds, you can bet the list would skew differently, most likely significantly. There will always be generational bias in musical tastes; this is not a particular fault of the boomer generation, as Mr. Fusilli seems to imply.
Is it really the myth he claims it is, that boomer era rock and pop music was better than music in the last 20 or 30 years? Is what he terms âcalcified rock orthodoxyâ wrong? Heâs not even open to the possibility that that era produced better music; heâs irritated with the arrogant boomer generation that seems to claim everything they had or do is always the best. He makes a point in his conclusion in his typically definitive way that even so has some merit:
In the introduction to the issue, Elton John writes: “In the Sixties and Seventies, you could buy 12 albums a week that were all classics.” No you couldn’t. Maybe one week a year, especially if you were catching up by buying those you missed. But not every week, not most weeks or even some weeks. Mr. John’s memories speak to our sentimental attachment to the music of our youth. It’s a powerful thing, but the power often resides in the sentiment rather than the quality of the music. That power can blind us so that we may delude ourselves into believing in the supremacy of one era in music, an era that ended more than 40 years ago.
The âmusic of our youthâ is indeed a powerful thing, but I would argue, as a biased younger boomer myself that on the whole, music in the 1960s and 1970s was considerably better and more unique than most anything you could find on the radio today. I think there is a logical explanation that Mr. Fusilli doesnât consider. Rock ân roll was young and fresh in those decades. The music business, as weâve come to know it, was nascent and exerted less control over the creative process; it was less market driven with data and metrics meant to sell the music. The dynamic that existed then simply disappeared as the industry matured and culture changed. Is there great music being produced today? Of course, just not to the degree we saw in the past. Hereâs hoping one day that changes.