- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2008

Let me just say at the outset that my generation — Generation X — is blameless. Despite our number (50 million, give or take — enough of a drop-off to merit the term “baby bust”), we were the last bunch of suckers to buy music. We were the last base of fans to sustain real, red-blooded rock stars.

Year-end album-sales numbers have begun trickling out, and they are astoundingly puny. The Aussie rockers of AC/DC made the top five with 1.3 million sales of their comeback album, “Black Ice.”

By way of comparison, Pearl Jam sold nearly that many in one week with its 1993 album “Vs.”

Yes, rapper Lil Wayne matched that feat with this year’s top-selling album, “Tha Carter III” - the first artist to move a million units in a week since 50 Cent did so in 2005.

However, “Tha Carter III” topped out at 2.7 million — nothing to sneeze at, to be sure, but indicative of the anemic state of the music market, in which strong-legged blockbusters like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” are unimaginable.

Amid the slow, grinding wind-down of the mass-music industry, finger-pointing is ubiquitous.

Let me point some more.

It seems clear that the music industry is being squeezed to death by cohorts from two baby booms. On one side are the Gen-Yers, about 76 million strong, with their penchant for piracy - their collective generational shrug at the moral implications of file-sharing.

Less obvious is the culpability of the gray-hairs from the first baby boom — the 170-million-footed beast, to paraphrase Tom Wolfe.

Make no mistake: They’re killing rock music, too. They’re not stealing it so much as letting it whither on the vine. From their comfortable cocoon of nostalgia, in which the Eagles can never be seen too many times and the same canon of hits can never be heard too many times, they are tranquilizing the industry while the baby boomleters strangle it.

The boomers are the ones with the purse strings — and their capacity to embrace repackaged dreck has proved inexhaustible.

Music critic Jim Fusilli lamented recently in a column in the Wall Street Journal that James Taylor’s new “Covers” album is a volume of play-it-safe, retro vanilla — “an album so lacking in imagination that all you have to do is read the song titles and you know what his interpretations will sound like.”

Quite so.

Mr. Fusilli notes, in fairness, that it’s not just Mr. Taylor who’s peddling the opiate of nostalgia: Similar covers projects by Dion (“Heroes”), Seal (“Soul”) and jazz vocalist Luciana Souza (“The New Bossa Nova”) all leave the impression that the history of popular music ceased after Watergate.

Can you blame them?

Would Mr. Taylor’s fans shell out for covers of, as Mr. Fusilli quixotically suggests, Conor Oberst, Mountain Goats or Kathleen Edwards?


“Covers” and its ilk lack imagination because their target market lacks adventurousness. A generation that prides itself on its openness and progressiveness can’t be bothered to explore unfamiliar music, despite the minimal effort that doing so requires in the age of satellite radio and free Internet streaming.

Woodstock’s mudsliders have gone from scorning their parents’ record collections to ignoring their children’s. (Actually, if the success of Rod Stewart’s “Great American Songbook” series is any indication, they’ve stopped scorning their parents’ record collections.)

Otiosity alone could not adequately explain boomers’ aversion to anything new or offbeat. For crying out loud, even prime-time television shows and advertisements are pelting our ears with the music of little-known artists.

To escape contemporary rock and pop today requires an active, aggressive incuriosity.

Ex-hippies, whether they know it or not, have inverted their old credo: They won’t listen to, let alone trust, anyone under 50.

You can leave it to us terminally obsolete Gen-Xers — with our visor cases full of scratched-up, fingerprint-laden Weezer and Foo Fighters CDs — to turn out the lights.

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