Is There Such Thing As A Musical 'Golden Age' (And Does It Even Matter)?
  • FRIDAY, JUNE 16, 2017

  • Posted by: Robert Steiner

You've probably heard these things before: "Rock is dead." "The best year in music was BLANK." "Today's music is so bad. Why can't people make music like they used to?" If you're involved in the music world, you probably know at least one person who talks like this; the same person who argues that music on vinyl has a certain "warmth," whatever the hell that means. These guys will go on and on about how we're living in an artistic nadir, and that the "Golden Age" of popular music has clearly passed and may not return in our lifetimes. Admittedly, I used to be one of these insufferable music snobs, going around insisting that modern music is soulless radio fodder, and that music simply was better in the past. Ah, 1971, now that was the highpoint of popular music. Why'd that era have to end?


I grew out of my "music snob" phase, thank the Lord, but recently I've been thinking about the concept of a "Golden Age," and how people always seem to think the past is better. Was music better at a certain point in time, or is that completely false? Is there even such thing as a "Golden Age," and how do you even determine what it is? Consider this reflection to be an counter-argument for the next time you find yourself up against a music snob who could use a little bit of a reality check. As someone who came to his senses years ago, it's time to put this sentiment to rest.

Let's start with the definition of a "Golden Age" in terms of music: A certain time period where a genre or movement was at its best in terms of quality, innovation, and lasting influence to the point where nothing else can compare. For example, many people think the late 1960s was the "Golden Age" of rock music, with artists like The Beatles, Dylan, The Stones, and Hendrix coming to mind. I personally love all of these bands, and for a while, I too believed that rock music didn't get any better after that. But in hindsight, that was honestly an incredibly shortsighted thing to think.


So the short answer: No, I don't think that there's such thing as a "Golden Age," for two very specific reasons: Nostalgia and taste. Whether or not you've lived through it, the past has always had a certain allure as a way of experiencing a world that's different enough from our own to be exciting. No matter the generation, you'll always find those starry-eyed people who think their grandparents or great-grandparents had it made. But that's the thing with nostalgia: You only take the time to remember the good things. That's why Millenials will tell you that the 1990s or 1980s were the best decades, and people from the 90s and 80s will tell you the 70s and 60s were the best, and so on and so forth until you reach the dawn of the century. Of course the past sounds cool when you romanticize it, but let's face it: The present's pretty alright overall. We live longer on average, there's greater overall access to food, electricity and plumbing, people don't die from the common cold anymore–all good things. Nostalgia, by definition, is all about glossing over the nasty things to paint a nice, idealistic picture of a life you either once lived or could never live again.


In music's case, people only like to remember the artists worth remembering, and as a result, the past eras of music look like they were solely populated by music legends. The music not worth remembering naturally fades into obscurity to make room for the classics. In other words, for every "Hound Dog," there's a "(How Much Is) That Doggy in the Window?", (which, fun fact, was #1 on the Billboard 200 the week the former made its debut. So yeah, tell me again how the 50s was all about rock n' roll). Going back to the late 60s example, the supposed "greatest age in rock" also includes duds like Mrs. Miller's "Downtown" (1966), The Shaggs' "Philosophy Of The World" (1969), and Ohio Express' "Yummy Yummy Yummy" (1968), which was a top 5 hit in the US. Seriously, listen to that sonic insult below and tell me with a straight face that it's good enough to beat "Think" by Aretha Franklin...'cause it did. Anyway, the point is that for all the genuinely good hits, there were also plenty of hits that were crap– just like the music world we live in today. The difference is that with the past, we get to pick and choose what songs we want to remember. When you start to remember the good and bad, the years and decades begin to look a little more similar to the here and now.


The other factor worth bringing up: Who exactly can determine a "Golden Age" in something as subjective as music? Taste is such a personal part of enjoying music, and that alone should make it too difficult to pinpoint a specific era of music as the best and have everyone agree with you. Of course people who prefer different genres will have different opinions, but even those within genres will have different preferences. Hell, the debate in rock music still rages on about the "best year" to this day, and of course someone who grew up with 90s grunge will have different preferences than a 60s jam band fan. The same thing can be said with other genres that have been around for a while and have had time to evolve with new generations with trends. Modern day Hip-Hop obviously sounds different than the days of Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow, but that doesn't make it any better or worse, just different.

What this argument really boils down to is that music is way too subjective and ever-changing for a "Golden Age" to be set in stone, and going back and worshipping the music of the past only discredits the music that's emerging. Yes, artists of the past should be praised for their influence, and yes there's some pretty damn good music from the past, but don't let sentimentality fool you. There's as much opportunity for musical growth, innovation, and evolution now than there was back then, and yeah it may arguably not be as mainstream as before, but it's still there. Music is always changing, so there's no point in dwelling on the supposed "good times" and missing out on what's going on as we speak.

So the next time the music snob in your life tries to tell you for the umpteenth time about how 80s new wave is the only time synth-pop was good, tell him to get off his soapbox and enjoy the music. There's no point in mulling over the past artistic eras and which one was the best, so we might as well get busy making a new one.


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