The American social critic Kurt Andersen has a thing about the present age being a culture of nostalgia, one that is no longer creating anything new. One of his favourite examples is today’s music, and whenever I read him going on about this I find myself doubting how strong an argument it is. It has an air of “grumpy old man” about it, complaining about all this noisy rock ‘n’ roll that isn’t real music. I mean, I liked, and still like, the music I listened to in high school and university, but I assume kids today have moved on.
This past week saw students moving back in for the start of university in my home town. A house behind me that sold a couple of months ago is apparently going to be party central, filled with a lot of good-looking young people. On Saturday night they were having a house party, and I was sleepily listening to the tunes they had cranked up. After a while I started noticing something, and began making notes on the party playlist. Here’s a stretch of what I heard:
“Hungry Heart” Bruce Springsteen (1980)
“Come On Eileen” Dexy’s Midnight Runners (1982)
“Bust a Move” Young MC (1989)
“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” Tears for Fears (1985)
“Groove Is in the Heart” Deee-lite (1990)
“Freedom” Wham! (1984)
Wow. I have to say this really surprised me. Kids at university were literally playing the same songs thirty years ago. I think the only thing I missed was Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” and I might have just nodded off before they got to that. If they’d started up Black Box’s “Ride On Time” I think I may have had to go over and introduce myself.
What gives? Is Andersen right? Don’t today’s young people have their own music to listen to? I’m not complaining, but I don’t think the music I listened to as a young man was anything special. I just like it because it’s what I grew up with. Shouldn’t something have replaced it by now?
Update, January 24 2022:
Writing in The Atlantic, music critic Ted Gioia asks “Is Old Music Killing New Music?”
Old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market, according to the latest numbers from MRC Data, a music-analytics firm. Those who make a living from new music—especially that endangered species known as the working musician—should look at these figures with fear and trembling. But the news gets worse: The new-music market is actually shrinking. All the growth in the market is coming from old songs.
The 200 most popular new tracks now regularly account for less than 5 percent of total streams. That rate was twice as high just three years ago. The mix of songs actually purchased by consumers is even more tilted toward older music. The current list of most-downloaded tracks on iTunes is filled with the names of bands from the previous century, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Police.
I encountered this phenomenon myself recently at a retail store, where the youngster at the cash register was singing along with Sting on “Message in a Bottle” (a hit from 1979) as it blasted on the radio. A few days earlier, I had a similar experience at a local diner, where the entire staff was under 30 but every song was more than 40 years old. I asked my server: “Why are you playing this old music?” She looked at me in surprise before answering: “Oh, I like these songs.”