The other week, my 13-year-old son was looking for a lost winter hat in our basement cupboards and discovered my album collection. Not that he hadn’t noticed it before. I could only assume that his age had brought the meaning of those moulding boxes into sharper focus. Could he have them?
Within an hour, Eli had spread the 300-odd LP covers across the floor, the patchwork topography of adolescent peaks and depressions: Haircut 100’s peppy, preppy Pelican West; Lou Reed’s ghoulish Berlin; a Soviet black-market copy of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers. (Sorry, Eli: no Andy Warhol zipper.) He and his little sister, Lila, reshuffled them into alphabetical order before we took them up to his bedroom.
We attached a turntable to a long-neglected amplifier and speakers. Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush was the first LP to meet the needle: Eli listened in devout, Franciscan silence. He then chose the 7-inch of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ballad about heroin addiction, Under the Bridge (his mom’s favourite song), followed by the band’s cover of Search & Destroy. “This is just awesome,” he said. “Who sang this originally?”
While explaining the many charms of Iggy Pop, I felt I may as well have been wearing an elbow-patched cardigan, imparting to my son a war-pocked timepiece and a lecture on the importance of a family name. There we were, both of us in jeans and concert T-shirts (his a baggy Mumford & Sons, mine a slightly snug Ambulance LTD) and the Pygmalion’s tug of pride washed over me. For a little bit.
While this was a welcome harbinger of many years of indie duditude together, I am a Gen-Xer, not a boomer, and the last thing I wanted to be was one of those Peter Pan dads, forcing my children on the death march of my own generation’s version of classic rock. He should have his own soundtrack to rebel to.
Yet, as I soon discovered, he probably won’t have one. In sharp contrast to previous decades, parents and kids are listening to the same music, attending the same concerts, and sometimes even inhaling the same mysterious wafts when Neil Young descends off the D chord in Needle and the Damage Done. If moms have the money, they’ll be the ones suggesting Taylor Swift tickets for their 12-year-old’s birthday (where the clouds of marijuana are decidedly thinner).
If anyone is using music to rebel, it’s the parents, refusing to go gently into that good night: After I put the kids to bed, my friends and I bob heads with twentysomethings watching the twentysomething band Arctic Monkeys. My wife stays at home listening to the thoughtful songcraft of teenagers Lorde and Jake Bugg.
What we are witnessing, says Carol Lynne Krumhansl, a music psychologist at Cornell, is nothing less than the closure of a generational divide. “We’re consuming music together as family,” says Krumhansl. “We have family iPods and family computers. We go to concerts together.”
Krumhansl studies the influence that hit songs of parents’ generations have on their kids. She, along with Justin Adam Zupnick of the University of California, Santa Cruz, point to what people in the field call cascading reminiscence bumps. Like family lore, atonal singing ability or bad teeth, music these days gets handed down from generation to generation.
Using Billboard’s top two singles from the magazine’s annual Hot 100 list going back to 1955, their study, conducted in September, found that 60 college students around the age of 20 had pleasant and powerful memories associated with the music that their parents – and even their grandparents – loved when they were in their 20s. “This is the first time that we’ve seen kids’ strong preference for parents’ music,” Krumhansl said of the study. Lady Gaga’s 2008 hit Poker Face has as much emotional resonance with them as Bobby Brown’s 1988 anthem, My Prerogative.
Their study mirrors a wider trend: Kids these days actually like being with their parents – and the feeling is mutual. In fact, Gen-X and Millennial parents don’t just tolerate their kids; many of them cool-hunt with them. Leading marketing consultancy Frank N. Magid Associates found that 56 per cent of Gen-X parents and 52 per cent of Millennial ones say that their kids are useful to keep up with the latest trends. Magid also found that 50 per cent of Gen-X moms say that their children under 15 are very involved in decisions about the TV shows they watch at home. Mom and Dad aren’t simply tolerating Selena Gomez’s ersatz Indian beats and the endless streaming of Modern Family on Netflix; they’re actually embracing it all.
That intergenerational symbiosis comes with a lot of respect on both sides. (Tell me why, Dad, were Elliott Smith and Nick Drake so depressed? And I have to respectfully say that Oasis was way better than Blur.) A survey for U.S. marketing firm Experian earlier this year found that 83 per cent of teens say they get along with their parents – an eight-year high.
Seven years ago, in New York magazine, Canadian expat Adam Sternbergh wrote about the collapse of Manhattan’s generation gap, an indie-guy trend which then seemed about as exotic and New York-centric as artisanal mustard. When they were off-duty, such ageless fathers would clumsily fold their $800 strollers and head out to one of those clubs where everyone wears their tuque inside. Unlike boomers, more or less refusing to let go of their cultural supremacy, Gen-Xers were piling into the mosh pits of the next generation. “They’re joining right in at the front of the crowd at the sold-out Decemberists show,” wrote Sternbergh. His observations were prescient. The oil on the flames of adolescent wrath for almost half a century, music has become the multigen communal campfire around which emotions, geeky rock knowledge and chord progressions are all traded.
The idea of adolescent rebellion is widely attributed to U.S. psychologist G. Stanley Hall, a friend of Sigmund Freud who maintained that puberty wrought “storm and stress” characterized by negativism, introversion, and friction with parents. But Hall’s theory gained special traction in Britain during the 1950s, when that sclerotic nation was preoccupied with its restive teens, their exotic clothes, and the brash music of the Teddy Boys, mods and rockers. Over the next few decades, relentless musical waves went back and forth across the Atlantic, roiling with anthems of late-teen wrath and experimentalism: hippies, punks, new romantics, goths, ravers, grungers.
Some cultural thinkers believe it’s almost impossible these days to rebel or to find music that’s secretive enough to be subversive: The Internet makes culture both ubiquitous and fragmented. “Nothing is ever lost now. No one is isolated, and kids have no time to feel alienated or bored,” says Grace Elizabeth Hale, a University of Virginia history professor who is writing a book about the rise of the music scene in Athens, Ga. – the fabled college town of R.E.M. fame. (Her 14-year-old twins, by the way, like the band’s early stuff, but they’re not sold on Pylon.)
Which is not to say that some teens haven’t become more political – railing against income inequality, for example, and environmental degradation. Tavi Gevinson, a teenager whose acerbic wit on cultural matters has made her a pre-eminent voice across several generations, told me in an e-mail that it’s the power, not the parents, that irks her cohorts: “I sense more of a frustration at the culture adults in power have left us than a kind of rebellion toward parents.”
When asked if she believes that listening to the same music as one’s parents makes it difficult to rebel, she says she doesn’t think so: “There are more significant, impactful ways to be rebellious than to listen to a certain kind of music.”
Years from now, when Facebook has been replaced by some alien bot that will intuit our likes and dislikes before we even utter them, Eli’s own kid may think it was downright quaint that his dad’s choice in music defined who he once was. In the meantime, we Gen-Xers will progress and regress, growing up and down and across, toggling between Alt-J tunes and alternative gout remedies.