Recently, over at NPR, a 19-year-old intern was tasked with reviewing Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, an album he had ostensibly never heard or had little knowledge of. He reviewed it, didn't really like it, and was subsequently annihilated in the comments section.
It made me uncomfortable, this reaction from people who were obviously older and "knew" the album and expected him to uphold their beliefs. While I was searching other blog threads on the post, I found this comment by Guardian writer Alex Macpherson:
Hi, music world, it's a REALLY BAD LOOK when you defend your sacred cows in this reactionary, kneejerk manner. Every "classic album" should be eviscerated by a 19-year-old intern to whom it means nothing. Fuck the canon.
A thousand times yes. He defended that stance with this thoughtful piece. Another good point:
The canon is a conservative concept that has squatted, toad-like, on music criticism for as long as I can remember - not just in the form of "100 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die" space-filler lists, but in the reinforcement of received wisdom.
I'm thinking about this because I am now of the age where I should probably be appalled that those born in 1992 or 1993 don't "get" the albums I hold dear. But I don't feel that way, even about an album still as politically viable as It Takes a Nation. This cycle of sacred cow-tipping has played itself out over and over again across the last century, and it's essential to growth. Yes, cultural dissent is important, perhaps now more than ever, as "pop" music becomes more and more homogenized, but territorially pissing on your idols is indeed a bad look.
When I tell someone I think the Rolling Stones are overrated (and I have, more than a few times, but not necessarily as bait), the clenched jaws and wide eyes that come with it both distress and amuse me. To be fair, I'm sure I've done the same when someone dismisses an artist I love, but the dialogue that comes with it is more important than someone's blind loyalty and fumbling "I don't know, they're just great" explanations.
I'm sure I've done it with Sonic Youth, who I consider one of my favorite bands, and could also be considered overrated. Dirty celebrated its 20th anniversary last week. It was one of the first cassettes I ever bought with my own money. I don't want to be hyperbolic and say that album changed my life, but the opening squall of "100%," which I heard first from the video on MTV, definitely fucked me for life. I didn't know music could sound that way, should sound that way. It's book-ended by squall too, an anti-song in terms of form, but at 13, I didn't yet know what Thurston Moore meant when he said, "Well I've been around the world a million times, and all you men are slime." It's an album I loved, but over time, the returns have diminished.
Now, when I see an 11-year-old kid wearing a Sonic Youth shirt -- and it's happened more and more frequently -- I have to wonder if they actually like them, or if perhaps their parents' tastes have been forced on them somehow. The latter is another part of this problem. Here, you hold the canon. But, in turn, perhaps that kid turns his parents on to something he or she likes.
I remember hanging out at Girls Rock Camp in Austin last summer, and asking one young camper, who was roughly 13 or 14, about the Evanescence shirt she was wearing.
"Do you like other metal bands? Black Sabbath? Metallica?"
She rolled her yes. "They're alright." I shook my head and smiled.
Sonic Youth have a song called "Kill Yr Idols," released back in 1983. "Let that shit die," Thurston advises as he stabs the air with atonal notes. The 19-year-olds to whom your sacred texts mean nothing are the ones who are going to be shaping the conversation in the next 20 years, so maybe we should be heeding their opinions instead of ripping them apart?