Thanks to David at Largeheartedboy for pointing the way to this article by Michael Patrick Brady on Pop Matters. Brady's topic is a topic I can relate to: which artists/bands will the children of the '80s and '90s claim as all-time greats when they reach their 30s and 40s? It's a something to ponder, but not something to be fearful of.
Every once in a while, publications like NME and Rolling Stone run lists of the "greatest artists of all time." On these lists are plenty of artists that Baby Boomers loved that still hold up today, but there are even more that just elude generations after them. So, what's gonna happen when the boomers aren't the desired demographic for most advertisers? "When the boomers are no longer the economically and culturally dominant generation, they won't be running the magazines nor will they be buying them," Brady wrote in his article. "And the new list readers aren't going to spend their inheritances on magazines that tell them how great their grandfather's favorite band was; they're going to want to feel the warm, reassuring validation for themselves. The new list makers will want it as well, as they need to create that feeling for the new generation so they themselves don't look like out-of-touch old fogies."
That's a big gulp to think about, but I'm not overly worried. Here's why:
This sounds so basic, but as long as you record something, you are documenting it for the future. As the act of recording audio in some form or another progress, thankfully the older ways stick around. If we can hold onto tapes of bluesmen, country singers and big band orchestras from the early 1900s, we can hold onto more from the rest of the century. While the numbers in a large audience accepting the relevance of these artists is very up in the air, at least it's obtainable for anyone that's curious. It doesn't matter if it's culturally relevant for a large audience - it matters that it's there.
Now, about the acts that could be considered some of the greatest of all time for future generations. I think there will be a major shift, but not so major to the point where these lists will be completely different. For example, the Beatles will still be highly placed but Michael Jackson will probably be higher than he has been placed before. Bob Dylan will probably drop quite a few spots as Nirvana will jump much higher and so on.
But here's an important thing to address: do we really need these lists? Sure, they get people talking and may get them to check out records they had never checked out before, but are we ever fully unified in liking one act over another? Listening to music is such a solitary thing for me, so I make no bones about how farflung my tastes are. I'm not thinking of the social relevance of an artist/band when I'm driving alone in my car or walking with my iPod on. If I want to hear Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone" followed by Tom Waits' "Tom Traubert's Blues," I do so. I'm not sure my tastes warrant priority for advertisers, but I'm a single person, not a general archetype.
A cool thing I see is that a lot of older artists still ring true for younger generations. Teenagers still find favor with an act like Led Zeppelin as they also groove to whatever what's modern and cool. Somehow certain artists hold up regardless of shifting popular culture. Having their material documented on tape, CD or MP3 keeps them alive for future generations to hear.
My point is, don't be surprised to see Madonna be as highly regarded as the Beatles someday. Don't be surprised to see Radiohead be as highly regarded as Led Zeppelin someday. While that may make older people feel even older, take heart in the fact that there is so much music out there to enjoy in the coming years. If one is that curious in music, it doesn't take much looking to find a new fix, whether it's with a modern act or an act from previous generation. What's popular is always going to shift but it's interesting to see what sticks around after the years. This is not something to panic about with its social relevance - it's all about a person's own interests.