Whether you find yourself befuddled as you often ask people this question, or you stammer with embarrassment and a bit of rage as you are often asked this question, You might want to carry on reading. Music that stretches past the mark of ten years, usually even less than that, tends to get looked down on as dated, a novelty, something that just isn't worth the time and devotion given to today's music. It's understandable for some minds to think that; come on, what's a song written by someone who is now pushing 50, 60, or dead got to do with the way things are now? How can a musician from a different era in anyway understand our generation, who are now so far ahead of them? Those are the questions that at least I think cross people's minds, but it is more likely that they just think: how is any of it cool? As a nineteen year old who could be mistaken for having the tastes of a sixty year old, I'll give you my explanation on why sometimes it's not just okay to explore older music, it's essential.
Let's go back to the question, 'how can a musician from a different era in anyway understand our generation, who are now so far ahead of them?' On the contrary, we should be looking at this question the other way round. There is a world of knowledge that we are still yet to match up to, left by musicians old and long dead, who were too far ahead of their times for us to fathom, and still are. Take a look at some examples:
The most obvious and most talked about figure in rock music is the man above who I need not name. We may have the Mars Volta who take guitar playing to a level of musical masturbation, we may even have our countless innovators of effects pedals, and those who over develop them so they can get away with playing the blandest riffs (Edge from U2), but they'll all tell you that we're still trying to catch up with the man who was at his prime decades ago. His music is still just as fresh as it ever was and you are guaranteed that exciting quiver of the first time listen if you look past the hits that are constantly played on TV and radio to explore albums like Electric Ladyland, Are You Experienced and Axis: Bold As Love.
We'll talk now about vocal talents. Look no further than Sam Cooke. It's because of singers like Sam Cooke that new soul will never match up to standards of his era; there are many singers of today with outstanding talents, who can do great things with their voices, but they will always be following the example of vocalists of Sam Cooke's time without possibly taking it further. The sad thing is that there are singers in the Pop industry who try too hard to match up to the great soul and blues singers, and you can hear it in their voices; the endless trills, the melodrama in their wailing that also shows in their faces. To put it simply, they over-soul it, or even worse, they X-Factor it. What separates Sam Cooke from all of them is that he didn't even have to try when he sang, it came to him more naturally than it did for anyone and he sang on his terms, which makes him more of an advanced singer than anyone today who likes to call themselves a soul singer.
To a great extent Leonard Cohen is more of a poet with a guitar than a musician, but that works out well considering I'm bring up the subject of lyrics now.
"Like any dealer he was watching for the card that is so high and wild he'll never need to deal another" This piece of songwriting was introduced to me by a friend about a year ago and now I realize that it is just a minute fraction of Cohen's remarkable lyricism. All methods of songwriting are used these days; what is proving successful is the simple form of storytelling or love notes. What I'm really into right now is Wild Beasts' bizarre rhythmic alliteration. There is still no one however, who masters better analogies and imagery; it's a simple, yet profound idea in 'The Stranger Song' to compare a game of poker to men who muck about and use women. Leonard Cohen's melancholic sound has earned him many titles such as 'Bard of the Bedsit' and 'Godfather of Gloom', but as an acclaimed poet he makes nearly every word of every love song today seem like a fluffy pile of tripe.
For my final example I'm bringing up a musician who's mentioned on a surfeit scale in my writing, so I might as well bring him up once more. Tom Waits is very much an acquired taste, some may listen to one second of his voice, or even take a glance at his picture and decide that his music is absolute bile. Valid opinions of course, completely ignorant, but valid nevertheless. In terms of catching up and understanding his music, critics like to think they've got him sussed out, calling him a junkyard poet and so on, but I think we haven't scraped the surface of his creative processes. Tom Waits is decades ahead of us on all levels. His voice has the power of a tsunami, which he uses like an obscure instrument. His songwriting is masterful, containing stories that can tickle your ribs, chill your bones and break your heart all at the same time. His compositions draw the influences of legendary jazz and blues music, and put a genius avant-garde twist on it all. It's taken me about a decade to get to know four of his albums, which means it will probably take me a lifetime to explore the rest.
On no account am I saying that all new music is inferior to old music; I relish new music, there's no better time than the present to experience it, and if I didn't think this I would be a very bored individual. I just treat every old song I hear for the first time like a new one because I know that there's still so much we can learn from the previous eras, and they can still apply to our lives and feelings. So the next time your mate tells you the Doors are their new favourite band, ask them if Strange Days is worth a listen, and the next time you're asked what the most exciting album you've discovered recently is, don't be ashamed to say Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti.