Friday, September 11, 2009

Talkin' 'bout Your Generation

"Hope I die before I get old."
- Pete Townshend, 1965.

This year was the fortieth anniversary of the Woodstock Festival. Perhaps you heard? If you didn't, I'm jealous. All year I've been subjected to various nostalgia-ridden articles and specials chronicling this seminal cultural moment. There was even a movie that no one saw.

This year was the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Perhaps you heard? You might not have. There was brief mention of it on July 20th, in between the endless coverage on Woodstock.

And that's the point I want to stress. Woodstock was a very important event for a certain generation, an event that brought that generation together and symbolizes the age of Love with a capital 'L'.

But it was forty years ago. And I am sick of hearing about it.
In my defense, I have nothing against the music of the festival. It's damn good music that deserves a listen even forty years later. But I have a problem with Woodstock as a cultural event, something that is supposed to be emblematic of a social movement. Instead of a mere music festival, Woodstock has entered the American cultural pantheon as one of those Great Events that is exalted as the icon of an age. Patrick Gallagher, head of the firm that designed the new Woodstock museum, describes the festival as "the culminating moment, the capstone of the 1960s".

Fine. Maybe it was. I wasn't there. But even this high regard for Woodstock wouldn't irk me so much if it didn't degenerate into shallow self-absorption. For the people who are still talking about this concert, it's become more than even an important cultural occurrence. It's become an obsession, some sort of ideal to live up to, a utopia of the likes that had never been seen before, and will never be seen again. Appreciation for Woodstock too quickly transforms into scorn for everything that is Not Woodstock. We've been told again and again that Woodstock matters, dammit, that it meant something and kids today just don't understand how cool it actually was because it will never be seen again because our generation stood for something and its sad because nobody cares anymore and GET OFF MY LAWN.

Well, I'm only a youngling born in the 1980s, but I stopped caring a long time ago. Instead of slowly fading into the past, Woodstock has been kept on the front lines of the culture wars as the paragon of social significance. This is more than mere nostalgia. This is infatuation, through and through, something that will not be forgotten because the people who were there will never shut up about it.

In a similar vein, the remastered Beatles albums came out this week. We have been met with a slew of articles exalting the Beatles as the best rock band of all time. I won't argue with this - if any rock band deserves the moniker of "best ever", it's the Beatles. But with the remastered music comes the insidious notion that the Beatles represented a generation, that we can't appreciate their music apart from the social movement they symbolized.

I like the Beatles' music quite a bit. But I'd rather appreciate its aesthetic value without buying into the whole idea that such music has to propagate social change. The general notion that rock music and social change are intertwined has always been something that has befuddled me. It seems a petty attempt to make such art seem more important than it is, a desperate endeavor to prove such art affects the outside world in a tangible way.

But is what the Beatlemaniacs what have you believe - the ones who revere their catalogue the way some Protestant sects regard the King James Bible, the ones who are personally offended at the idea of Beatles' music appearing in a new-fangled video game, of all things. This music certainly changed the musical world forever, but I'm tired of having to buy into the cultural paradigms that purportedly came with it. I just want to listen to the music as music, not some embodiment of idealistic, out-dated 1960s hippie values.

Music, even political music, should be something timeless, or it will eventually grow stale. I bet (or hope?) that no one is going to be listening to "American Idiot" in 40 years. But people will still be listening to "Revolution", not because it represents the 1960s, but because listeners from any time period can appreciate the message. The idea that such music is meaningless apart from the time in which it was created is unfair to both the music itself and the people who have found meaning in it since then.

All of this returns to the idea that the children of the 1960s are somehow more important or more significant than any other. If Woodstock is supposed to symbolize the decade, then its fanatical adoration seems to indicate that the Baby Boomers who were there are convinced that this is the Important Event of their lifetime. Perhaps anyone's lifetime. Reading an article like the New York Times' Gail Collins on why the current generation will never experience something like Woodstock because of cell phones irritates me to no end. Writers like this are convinced that Woodstock, and perhaps the entire decade, is an anomaly to be venerated and canonized. It's offensive to the generations that came before and after Woodstock to have to view this event as some sort of singular occurrence unique to a specific group of people in a specific time period. Woodstock remains a distinctive event in a distinctive age, but other decades have had them as well.

This January, I attended a major event along with millions of other people. In fact, there were so many people I could barely see the stage. The attendees were mostly young, mostly liberal, and everyone was talking about peace and social change. The event was inspiring. You could even make the case that it spoke for a generation, despite the new-fangled cell phones that were there. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and I wasn't even on drugs.

But if I'm still talking about Obama's inauguration in forty years, somebody slap me. Some other big cultural occurrence will happen between now and then, and perhaps I won't understand it or appreciate it, but the next generation surely will, and it will affect them greatly. Because, regardless of what Woodstock devotees will tell you, these events arise with every generation. They may not be as easy to pinpoint or pigeonhole as Woodstock, but they are there, and it's callous to maintain that such events don't harbor as much significance for another generation simply because Jimi Hendrix wasn't there playing the Star-Spangled Banner to cram the shallow symbolism into your drug-addled skull.

I don't want to appear insensitive. I can appreciate Woodstock and the music of the 1960s as cultural events, and I can understand the nostalgia that surrounds them. It certainly seems like an exciting time with exciting ideas, and it would have been a blast to have been there. But I wasn't there. I have my own memories of growing up, and I don't need this form of generational superiority to tell me that their music and culture is better or more meaningful than my own. Keep and appreciate your cultural history, but acknowledge that we live in a different decade, and the time for Woodstock is long past. This is not a bad thing or a good thing. It is simply something that is. The times, they are a-changin', and each generation should gracefully step aside and let the next one have their chance, rather than trying to maintain some unyielding grasp on cultural significance.