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Critic's Notebook

Talkin' 'bout whose generation?


The 1960s: We just can't get away from them.

As the muddy dust of Woodstock nostalgia settles, the baby boom is immediately reasserting its pop cultural might. The marketing campaign for The Beatles: Rock Band game moves forward hour by hour, with Tuesday's song list announcement stoking an appetite already primed by major media coverage.

Between the attention given rock's most fondly remembered musical gathering and the campaign to remind everyone of which Fab Four still matters the most, any hope non-boomers had that they'd finally moved to pop's center seemed dashed.

Yet the truth is, it's getting hard to argue that any generation dominates pop. A nationwide telephone survey by the Pew Research Center's Demographic and Social Trends project, timed to coincide with Woodstock's 40th birthday, found that though some differences remain between elders and youth, in general they're not a source of antagonism.

Furthermore, rock was found to be the dominant music of both generations. President Obama might symbolize the rise of the hip-hop nation -- a view that Hua Hsu put forth in his Atlantic magazine piece, "The End of White America?" earlier this year -- but it's well known that Obama has Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan on his iPod.

So what does it mean that twentysomething New Jersey police officer Kristie Buble didn't recognize Dylan when she picked him up as a possible vagrant during a pre-show stroll in the rain last month? Nothing, perhaps, beyond the fact that even iconic faces age and change. But that incident also raises a thought about the changing relevance of the generational ideal.

Throughout the rock era, each new school of fans has chosen its mirror images: Elvis in the 1950s, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Dylan in the 1960s, Johnny Rotten and Springsteen repping for punk and blockbuster arena rock, respectively, Kurt Cobain reigning as Gen X's grunge king. Those artists have gained legendary status through widespread interest in their images and life stories, not just their music.

Buble's comment about Dylan was telling: She said that she'd seen pictures of the bard, and he didn't look like that anymore. He was more real to her, as he is to many, as a mechanical reproduction than as a person.

It seems obvious to also note that these icons of generational rock are nearly all white and all male. Stars such as Aretha Franklin, Bob Marley, Loretta Lynn, Fela Kuti and Tupac Shakur are incredibly important historically, but the markers of nation, region, gender and race make them harder to sell as universals. The two huge exceptions -- Madonna and Michael Jackson -- marked an era in which the monolithically assertive power of rock slipped.

In the 1980s, pop was long scorned by many as a time of superficiality and crass commercialism; only in recent years have its champions found room to argue for its importance, and most still applaud that era of giant hair and sequins in fun. But that plastic moment was also a time of great diversity in pop, when Prince and Public Enemy rose alongside Guns N' Roses and U2. It's harder to contain the 1980s within a single word like "Woodstock," though the millions mourning Jackson have been trying with "Thriller."

In fact, the 1980s looked a lot like now: a time when no one presumed that a particular musical statement or style spoke for all, and when the generational ideal felt a little hollow. Sure, there were songs of youth, like Kim Wilde's "Kids in America," but older dudes like Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel also renewed their careers to help define the zeitgeist. Personal style, ethnic and racial loyalties and an expanding sense of what was possible -- typified then by interest in African music and New Wave's fascination with technology -- mattered more than the power of an age-appropriate peer group.

A look at this summer's Billboard Top 200 reveals more similarities to those "Rainbow Connection" years than to the Woodstock era. Or rather, what we remember as the Woodstock era; plenty of folks are now arguing for a broader view of that period too.

Excluding the hits compilations "Kidz Bop 16" and "Now 31," the top 10 albums include three that qualify as country, two rootsy rockers, two hip-hop hits, two by mature soul men and one by a huge teen star. But that kiddie queen, Miley Cyrus, is also a country hitmaker, and her friend Taylor Swift is a Nashville princess and high school sensation.

One roots rock band, Kings of Leon, could be called "alternative," while the other, Daughtry, has a Christian streak. The Black Eyed Peas are both hip-hop and kiddie pop, and if leader has anything to do with the defining, they also count as rock.

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