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Good Music Stands For Itself

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The Rolling Stones are going to headline the Glastonbury festival in Britain this coming summer. It goes without saying that the average age of the Rolling Stones is probably substantially older than the other bands on the bill as well as that of most of the audience.

Whether or not they will put on a good show remains to be seen but if history is any guide, I suspect the audience will get their money's worth. The age of the band and its continuing influence on popular culture naturally has garnered some commentary, including a thoughtful piece from Paul Morley in The Guardian. Morley writes that it makes sense for the Stones to play a mega-festival like Glastonbury, given that they are the biggest band from the baby boom generation that is still active, but that is indicative of a certain lack of youth-driven counterculture and a sort of cultural inertia:

"That the Stones are still so visibly functioning is not just because the arrogant, clingy baby boomers, with their domineering cultural presence, have so much power they block anything dangerously new. It is as much the young vintagers, the kids and grandkids of the boomers, the V generation, who have allowed them back in. The new generation of teens and post-teens are blocked from generating novel, disruptive cultural space by the stubborn boomers. They are crowded out by older generations wanting to have fun until they die, stymied by a succession of reforming pop revolutions and media sensations that led only to more and more award ceremonies and greatest hits anthologies... The mistake is assuming any potentially new youth-driven counterculture will resemble ones from the past, when rock music was the main element. Any 21st-century outburst of rebellion will not resemble the rock that is now formally collected at multiple festivals the world over in the way that the Stones did not resemble silent movies."

While Morley makes some strong points about the current nature of the music industry and the Dorian Gray-like unwillingness for baby boomers to move on from the pop cultural stage, I can't help but think he is missing something. It is true that many people will go to see the Rolling Stones or buy their records as part of a nostalgia trip, perhaps for a time before they were even born, but a lot of people will listen to them and other older rock bands for a very simple reason -- they like the music.

By chance, Joe Jackson (a man who, to put it mildly, knows a thing or two about music) wrote a great column on this topic recently. Jackson chided those who say that popular music should be the province of younger people only. He suggested that those who approach music from the standpoint of whether it is rebellious, countercultural or otherwise making some sort of social statement are approaching an art form for reasons that have nothing to do with that art form. In other words, they don't care about the music on its own terms. As Jackson states:

"Of course, for some people music is still all about nostalgia for a certain time and place. For others (and not necessarily young ones) it's still all about youth and rebellion. But I suspect this is because nostalgia, youth and rebellion are more important to them than music. Ultimately, they're not really music fans at all."

I think Jackson has the advantage in this discussion. Obviously, it's impossible to separate music or any art form from the culture around it and popular music has influenced the general culture for decades now. It is also safe to say that influence has at times been genuinely radical, whether one is talking about the Beatles, Johnny Rotten or Tupac Shakur. But if the main reason one is interested in music is because of the cultural implications of music, I think that reduces music to merely a means to an end. Good music stands on its own merits and can be appreciated regardless of the age or background of the musician or listener. So while I will admit that it seems a little strange to see the Stones sharing a stage in 2013 with the Arctic Monkeys and Mumford & Sons, if the music can stand on its own merits, they belong there. To use a phrase from a song by another great classic rock band, let the music do the talking.