What do these pairings – Beatles and Rolling Stones, Heart and Pat Benatar, Def Leppard and Poison, Backstreet Boys and NKOTB and Ludicrous and Nelly – have in common?
They are all music acts that some parents couldn’t tell apart. As stalwart, self-appointed members of the nation’s ever-changing racket squad, moms and dads traditionally label the next generation’s music as noise. Over the years, parent warnings to their offspring evolved from “Turn down the radio” and “Turn off that record player” to “Click off that MTV” and “What was that word I just heard in that song?”
To be sure, some savvy teens use music as a means to bond (or extract favors) from their parents by professing deep love for music of an older generation, while soccer moms in particular latch on to their daughters’ musical tastes in attempts to stay forever young.
Still, it’s no secret that contemporary music has been in a funk lately – and not in a good way. There are increasingly fewer songs with appeal beyond a small, segmented audience, let alone one that encompasses generations.
That fact was underlined a few weeks ago when Justin Timberlake released his new single, “Can’t Stop the Feeling” and it became the first song in history to be added immediately at every single mainstream top 40 station in the country.
“Can’t Stop The Feeling” quickly prompted comparisons to “Billie Jean,” “Happy,” “American Pie” and other landmark songs that famously cut across generational lines.
Music writer Sean Ross noted Bob Costas’ observation that “ ‘American Pie’ came out on Monday and everybody knew it by Friday” then added that “Can’t Stop the Feeling” came out on a Friday morning and everybody knew it by lunchtime.
It’s that kind of mass appeal music.
But with all due respect to Timberlake and his perfectly crafted tune, the instantaneous, universal applause for “Can’t Stop the Feeling” should be a huge red flag for the music industry.
It’s the same flag that was raised the last time one song so captivated the radio audience – the Beatles “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in 1964. Those with clear memories of that music era or with at least the ability to locate a 1963 Top 40 music chart know that the music industry was in shambles at the time and was dominated by cookie-cutter teen idols, soundalike instrumentals and studio-produced one-hit wonders whose music had virtually no cross-generational appeal. It says a lot that the two No. 1 songs before the Beatles hit were “Dominique” by the Singing Nun and “There I’ve Said It Again” by Bobby Vinton.
Blast ahead 52 years and those same warning signs are apparent. Recent No. 1 songs have been tunes – and let’s use that word loosely – that even have teens asking who would dare put the unworthy warblings on their personal play list. There’s a minor dance ditty “Work from Home” by Fifth Harmony (a misnomer), “Pillowtalk” by former teen idol Zayn (it’s the irritating song with the repetitive phrase, “It’s a war zone”) and a real head-scratcher called “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” which is perhaps the dumbest No. 1 song since “You Light Up My Life.”
Sure, I’m a senior citizen, but I have a feeling many teens would have difficulty differentiating the “white noise” music of Zara Larsson, Ariana Grande, Calvin Harris, Alessia Cara and a host of other performers who evidently lack the ability to put together one song of interest to people outside of a four-or-five-year age span.
There have been a few bursts of creativity – “Stressed Out” by Twenty One Pilots and “Cake by the Ocean” by DNCE come to mind – but it’s sad when today’s artists are reworking tunes by Leslie Gore, REO Speedwagon and Simon & Garfunkel in attempts to expand their fan base. (Disturbed’s “Sounds of Silence” gets my thumbs up, but it’s not a recording Top 40 radio is likely to embrace).
Just as more than a few parents got past the Fab Four’s long hair and appreciated their music back in 1964, some parents today are conceding that Timberlake’s summer ditty has merit. While it’s nowhere near a quantum change in music itself, it certainly proves that with some effort, producing a song that spans generations is still possible.
In today’s world of compartmentalized music, that is, indeed, a significant achievement.
Terrry Hazlett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.