Letter from Campus: Oldies and Goodies

Author: Ed Cohen

The meeting started, as it always does, with a question. Make that a directive: “Say who you are and what song you have stuck in your head.”

This was at the start of a meeting earlier this year of a student group I belong to; I’m the only non-student. The membership is fluid, which is why we always begin by introducing ourselves and responding to an icebreaker question someone thinks up.

What made this question so memorable is that the songs the students said they had stuck in their heads included the following: Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes,” Don McLean’s “American Pie,” Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and the Average White Band’s funky instrumental hit “Pick Up the Pieces.”

Hearing a group of 18- to 22-year-olds say they were hooked on the music from my youth came as a pleasant but not total surprise. If, like me, you grew up in the 1960s and ’70s and have friends of traditional college-going age, you already know that the current generation still listens to “our” music. At least some of the time.

This makes me feel good, and I’m not sure I can explain why.

It’s tempting to say that we’ve bridged the fabled generation gap. But it’s more like validation. You think, “Hey, we weren’t nuts. This really was great stuff. It has endured.” Danny & The Juniors spoke the truth: “Rock and roll is here to stay.”

I used to fear that by the time my children reached college-age—which they have—the Beatles, Hall & Oates, Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder, Carole King, ELO, Jim Croce, America, the Eagles, the Doobie Brothers, Motown would all sound as square and unappealing to my kids as my parent’s LPs of Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra and Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops did (and still do) to me.

But they don’t. Our intern awhile back, a senior, openly admitted to loving the Beach Boys. At the Keenan Revue a few years back one act did a commendable and enthusiastically received rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson.” The Four Seasons’ 1970s hit “December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” remains a coming-of-age jukebox anthem. And Billy Joel enjoys a devoted following at Notre Dame. This is due, at least in part, I’ve noticed, to the lyrics of “Only the Good Die Young,” which famously observe, referring to sexual experimentation, “You Cath-o-lic girls start much too late.”

One is tempted to speculate that today’s students enjoy music made before they were born because everything since then has tended to, well, suck. I won’t go that far. And I don’t want to overstate this. Contemporary artists have plenty of listeners. You’ll hear hip-hop thumping away tunelessly in the background at many college parties.

But the pop-music market of today is nothing like what existed 20 or 30 year ago. Back then radio and record stores were the only means for artists to connect with consumers. Now we have Internet downloads and easy digital recording technology. A high school band can put out a CD. Today’s students can easily sample multitudes of artists from a wide array of musical styles. And most do.

The downside to this diversity is that, when they’re older, today’s young people will have fewer musical memories in common, no distinctive “soundtrack of their lives.”

No matter. They can continue to enjoy mine.