Periscope Depth

your former glories and all your stories

Guys, I figured it out. One of the key dilemmas of human experience. The question of why the artists we discover in our youth – our turbulent adolescence, the college years where we develop our critical stance – seem so much better to us than the artists who start their careers when we’re old. “Today’s music is crap,” say the old, but when the old were young, the last generation’s elderly said the same. Whence this paradox? Why is it so hard for a mature audience to appreciate new sounds? Why do we look so fondly on the art of our past?

Anyhow, I figured it out. It’s cool. No problem. Listen: we stay in love with the artists of our youth because they’re older than us, and it’s really hard to respect anyone who’s younger than us.

I was thinking about this through the lens of music, but it works for any representational, composed art: literature, film, etc. I fell in love with Pearl Jam, Led Zeppelin and The Who as a kid. While I’m no longer the obsessive fan I once was, the type of sound they produced – grungy, fuzzy rock full of passion – still resonates with me. That’s what I seek out. The sort of rock that’s popular today, like that yearning Doughtry crap, does nothing for me. But if I’m being honest with myself, I must admit that were I a teenager today, that’s probably the crap I’d like. And it’s not just rock music. I still like Republica and can’t stand Far East Movement, even though they’re the same act in all the ways that matter.

The reason is because Eddie Vedder et al are older than me. And they always will be.

This doesn’t mean I love every rock band that’s older than me. You’ll never see me at a Patti Smith concert. But it means I’m highly unlikely to love a rock band that’s made up of people younger than me. Those kids! What do they know?

This is weird because it works even for acts whom I’ve outlived. I’m older now than Biggie, Tupac, Cobain or Hendrix ever were, but they were older than me when I first started listening to them. So they will always be older than me, even though I’ve survived them, like Tommy Lee Jones’s father in No Country for Old Men.

Why is this? I’d guess because composed representational art (music, literature, film) is a way of experiencing something vicariously. As a species, we survive and adapt because we can share experience. We’re not limited to what we see or touch ourselves. We can also integrate the experience of others and, if we take it seriously, learn from it.

What makes us take someone else’s experience seriously? Age helps. It’s not a guarantee – the disrespect of the young for the old is documented better than lunar eclipses – but it helps. Even young punks look up to slightly older punks for social cues.

If composed representational art is another form of experience, then it makes sense that we find the art made by artists we consider “older” more respectable. We can still enjoy the art of the young, but it often lacks the emotional resonance we find in the artists we admired in our youth.

Of course, this is all half-baked evolutionary psychology, so it’s probably wrong. But it explains why I keep “discovering” artists from my childhood – Kate Bush, Siouxsie and the Banshees – and why contemporary pop is so much hollow ringing.