A couple weekends ago we were in a Starbucks in San Fernando, and as we waited for my wife's coffee I heard a familiar song on the sound system: "This Charming Man."
For those who don't immediately recognize the title, it's a 1983 song by The Smiths. I was in high school when the song came out.
To give a bit of perspective (from my perspective): I remember how when I started buying CDs and sought the band's second album, Hatful of Hollow, I could only find it as an import (and at the time I ended up paying something like $25 bucks for it). That disc did not feature the aforementioned track, but that it was so tricky to find their music points out how when the song was new, it was not the sort of thing one heard on the radio outside of college stations (or KROQ) here in the U.S. (although it did chart in the U.K.). And now it was playing as background in a chain store.
However, that it had become essentially muzak is not where I'm going with this. I concede that the song and I are not as young as we used to be, and we are both more mainstream now than we were back then.
What came to mind was this: Although the song was over 25 years old it still sounded good; it didn't sound like something from a bygone era in music. In part that's because it's a good song that holds up, and in part that's because, arguably, the music industry never moved past the sound of the '80s, so it still fits in with music coming out now. And in case it's not clear: That's not a bad thing.
However, I thought of how in the mid-'80s a song that was around 25 years old at that time would sound if coming over the speakers in a coffee shop. Would the sound from the late '50s/early '60s seem dated in the mid-'80s?
Yes. Or, at least, that's my take on it.
Of course, is it really that the state of popular music (or a portion of the rock genre) has embraced the sound that a generation ago was emblematic of the outcasts, or is it merely that I come from the generation who came of age with that sound and thus have a biased slant on the situation?
I suppose I'd need to find someone from the generation who grew up with those songs from the late '50s/early '60s and ask him to try to recall what he thought of those same songs in the mid-'80s relative to those aforementioned oldies. Do I expect this hypothetical person would support my implicit theory—that pop/rock has not changed as dramatically in the last 25 years as it did in the period of 25 years that preceded it—or would he suggest that the music one remembers from one's formative years (teens through early 20's) retains a certain nostalgic air of being contemporary even well past that era because one has that memory and association.
Certainly pop music had changed quite noticeably in the intervening two-and-a-half decades since Morrissey and Johnny Marr crafted their Starbucks-featured gem, and without question there are songs from that same period that sound terribly out of date when heard today. And a case could (and probably should) be made to argue that a good song is, by that very definition, one that retains a timeless quality, is one that influences the next generation of musicians and songwriters so its style becomes something of the standard so it's almost inevitable. And there's always a certain revivalism going on in popular music at any given time where there's someone mining the sound of their predecessors on purpose, with the specific intention of sounding like that prior generation.
However, I can't shake the impression that, to overgeneralize about the relative states of music, a typical 1960 song heard circa 1985 would sound more outdated than a typical 1985 sounds today (and not merely due to technological advances in production).
There is no proving that one way or the other, but I welcome efforts to try. (With any luck they won't be as rambling as this has proved to be.)