Okay, everybody ... this is going to take a lot of words.
Here is the question, in short form:
Does our enjoyment of music depend on historical context?
Here is the question in long form:
Last year, I went to Memphis. A buddy of mine works for the Grizzlies, so I went down there with some friends to watch some horrible NBA basketball. Thankfully, we also got to watch some great NCAA basketball, so it was a wash on the sports front. And Brent loves it when I explain, on a position-by position basis, how the 2007-2008 University of Memphis team would have beaten the 2007-2008 Memphis Grizzlies.
The plan was for a weekend of constant revelry on Beale Street, but temperatures were in the low 30s the whole time we were there, so we had to come up with some indoor options. One of those options turned out to be a tour of Sun Studios. One could make a very convincing argument that rock and roll was invented in Memphis. Elvis. Johnny Cash. Carl Perkins. Jerry Lee Lewis. Walking through the studio, it's easy to imagine those guys inventing a whole genre of music.
But, of course, they didn't invent anything. They played instruments that had been around forever, using chords and keys and time signatures that had existed since the dawn of man. They put their own unique stamp on it, for sure, but it's not like they discovered fire or anything.
Later that night, after many beers, I watched an above-average cover band run through the hits in front of a very receptive audience. There was nothing amazing about them, but they all seemed like competent musicians who worked well together, and they obviously loved performing ... but I'd seen hundreds of bands like that over the years.
So here's the question in a different form: If the Sun Studios guys had walked out of that studio directly into this bar, would they think that this cover band was the absolute greatest band in the history of the world? Or would they think it was just noise?
Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the cover band stuck with rock songs played on guitars and drums (no hip hop, no crazy keyboard effects). Remember that scene in Back to the Future where Marty starts wailing on the guitar and it freaks everyone out? I'm not talking about that. Obviously, if Elvis saw a DJ scratching, he wouldn't know what to make of it. But simple songs, four-chord progressions in 2/4 time. Let's say they played this set:
Lynyrd Skynyrd - Sweet Home Alabama
Journey - Don't Stop Believin'
Guns N Roses - Sweet Child O Mine
Steppenwolf - Born to Be Wild
Bon Jovi - Livin' On a Prayer
Cheap Trick - Surrender
KISS - Rock and Roll All Night
Blue Oyster Cult - Burnin' For You
Rolling Stones - Tumbling Dice
Thin Lizzy - The Boys are Back in Town
There's nothing incredibly musically groundbreaking on that list. The Sun Studios guys would at least understand how the sounds were being made. What would they think? Would Johnny Cash listen to that set and think "I am absolutely wasting my time trying to be a musician. These guys are incomparable geniuses and I could never write one song as good as this, much less ten?" Or would they just be confused?
Let's try this from another angle. Nick Hornby, in his excellent essay collection "Songbook," makes this observation:
"A couple of times a year I make myself a tape to play in the car, a tape full of all the new songs I've loved over the previous few months, and every time I finish one I can't believe that there'll be another. Yet there always is, and I can't wait for the next one; you need only a few hundred more things like that, and you've got a life worth living."
So ... what if you could get your hands on that tape early? If you could get a tape from next year, I have no doubt that it would be awesome. It would be recognizable songs, probably by your favorite bands, and you would be the coolest kid in school, playing all that stuff early.
But what if you could get the tape from 2028? Do you think you'd like it? Bear in mind, these are songs that you WILL love in 2028. Do you think that your enjoyment of these songs will depend on your also listening to 20 years of good, average, and horrible music made in the interim?
Think about the implications of that: Is mediocre music necessary to create a backdrop for genius? Are "ahead of their time" artists really ahead of their time? Is there only a limited area of music that the culture is "ready" for, at any given time?
Okay, that's it for now. I'm probably going to re-write this three or four times, but I just wanted to get this out there.
Best of 2028 - would those songs be your new favorites?