Two things immediately stood out to me while watching the Soul Train awards on BET last weekend.
1. I didn't know any of the nominated songs.
Ok. This is a bit of a lie. I've definitely heard Usher's "Climax"-–which seemed like it was nominated for 12 different awards—numerous times. Aside from that, though, I would have been hard pressed to be able to immediately tell you the names of the majority of the songs nominated. I mean, I know who artists such as Miguel, 2 Chainz, and Elle Varner are, and I know they're big deals right now, but my familiarity with them is completely peripheral. I know who they are, but I don't know them the way I knew Jill Scott in 2000 or Raekwon in 1995.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though. Not being familiar with music you're about to listen to and artists you're about to watch perform means that you have the opportunity to be wowed. Although I definitely did take part in the Twitter snark fest that accompanied these awards, I watched with an open mind. But, well…
2. All of the "new" songs I heard underwhelmed me.
For clarity's sake, just because I was underwhelmed by something doesn't mean I thought it was bad or even not good. You can be underwhelmed and still recognize quality and star power, as I did with Miguel and Elle Varner. But, none of the music I heard moved me in a way that, if it were 1997, would have me standing in line at midnight to buy a copy of their CD the same way I did for Wu-Tang's "Wu-Forever," or would have urged me to rewind and listen to a verse over and over the way I did in 2000 with Beanie Sigel's 16 on "This Can't Be Life," or would have even become one of my crew's de facto "pregame" tracks the way Usher's "U Don't Have To Call" was in 2001.
Later that night, as I tried (and failed) to remember some of the new songs I heard earlier in the night, why this was such a difficult exercise dawned on me: It's not 1995, or 1997, or 2000, or 2001.
Obvious, I know. But with that realization came another realization. The Soul Train awards were just one example of the fact that I am getting old(er), and the older I get, the harder it is for me to fully embrace new music. Sure, there are contemporary artists I definitely check for—Kanye, Frank Ocean, etc—but they are few and far between, and it's possible that I can't feel new stuff the same way because I've already spent decades filling up my feel reserves. Basically, it's not today's music. It's me.
This state of mind isn't uncommon. Many of our parents and grandparents did it to our music, and our kids will eventually do it to the music their kids will listen to. Usually this is just chalked up to cynicism and exaggerated nostalgia, but logically, you just cant expect someone who's heard a million new songs to be as excited when hearing a new song as someone who's only heard a thousand of them. We've literally been there and done that a hundred thousand times already, and the more you've listened to, the better something has to be in order for it to stick.
With this being said, I cant help but still believe that the music I listened to 15 years ago was just better than what's available now. I know I'm not particularly objective, and I also know there aren't many subjects more subjective than "what makes good music." Subjective or not, I have no doubt that if I listened to today's popular albums and all of the popular albums from 11/29/95 for the first time today, I'd still gravitate towards the music made in the 20th century. Again, I'm aware my lack of objectivity may render me unable to answer a question like this. But, our parents and grandparents didn't care about that and, well, neither do I.
You know, the more I think about it, the more I wonder if the same problem affecting listeners like me is affecting the artists. Just how we're having trouble creating new space in our brains to embrace new music, maybe it's increasingly difficult to make memorable music because more and more great ideas have been taken already. I guess this means I should have more sympathy for talented artists unfortunate enough to be born in the 80s and 90s. I do actually sympathize with them—I genuinely believe that things are harder for artists now than they were 20 years ago—but just don't ask me to remember them.
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