Hello hi. Sorry for no emails last week. I’ve always believed emailing people during the holidays should be a criminal offense so I avoided it but I’m back now and have some half-thoughts I’d like to type loudly about below.
Three years ago, rapper Vince Staples said in an interview with TIME that he preferred hip-hop of the 2000s to that of the 90s. His words were largely taken out of context and the headline did him dirty: “Meet the Rapper Who Thinks the '90s Were Totally Overrated.” But that didn’t stop the old rap heads from coming out of the woodwork to make their very loud point: HOW CAN YOU NOT SAY BIGGIE AND TUPAC ARE THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME?!
Well, for starters, Vince Staples was 22 at the time of the interview, and was in diapers when Big and Pac were alive. Staples grew up on the hip-hop artists of his generation: Lil Bow Wow and Soulja Boy. Now, maybe you think Tupac and Biggie are better than Lil Bow Wow and Soulja Boy, but that doesn’t matter, because Vince Staples prefers the latter and can make music despite how you feel.
This argument about Respecting The Canon happens all the time on Music Twitter. It happens on Film Twitter, too. Basically, it happens anywhere old people congregate among younger crowds to feel relevant. It’s happening again right now with Billie Eilish, a 17-year-old who had the audacity to tell Jimmy Kimmel that she was unfamiliar with the music of Van Halen, a band that hasn’t had a hit since at least 15 years before she was even born.
This outrage cycle happens every few months. It has a different coat of paint on it each time—maybe Lil Nas X has never heard of Scarface or the singer of Greta Van Fleet can’t name a Pearl Jam song—but the one thing that lies at the heart of this conversation is that it’s always so, soooo boring.
Actually, I’m not even 100% convinced it’s a real thing that actual human people are offended by. I think it’s a false flag perpetuated by old people who feel the cold hand of irrelevance on their shoulder, created to shame young artists whose success they fear and resent. Remember that time ABC News aired a segment where the anchors were incredulous about how The Youth had never heard of Paul McCartney until he did a song with Kanye West? But then it turned out it was just Desus Nice and a bunch of other internet wiseasses goofing around and the ABC producers were actually the gullible rubes for being too old to detect sarcasm? I sense a bit of this going on right now.
But alright, fine. Let’s suppose that there really are Van Halen fans in the world who are irritated by a pop star they’ve likely never heard of disrespecting the legacy of their favorite band. I don’t want to get into semantics about when Van Halen’s precise heyday was, but let’s approximate and say 1979ish—40 years ago. Again, Billie Eilish was born in 2001. So the equivalent for Van Halen would have been music made in 1939. Do you think any doughy TV hosts were interviewing David Lee Roth back in ‘79 and asking him his thoughts on Glenn Miller’s “Little Brown Jug”? Fuck no. What made Van Halen exciting then and what makes Billie Eilish exciting now is their reckless abandon with conventions. The middle finger that youth movements throw towards the canon is what makes them resonate with new audiences who could give a fuck about the music their parents liked.
Despite having almost two decades on Billie Eilish, I’d like to go on record as being all in on her. Beyond the outrageously good production on her album, I think what I appreciate the most about her is her total defiance of the traditional music industry wisdom that says pop stars must be sleek and bombastic. If seasoned record label execs were trying to build a pop star in a lab, it would be the exact opposite of Billie Eilish. She’s a complete 180 from the hypersexualized teen pop stars of the early 2000s like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, who wore super low-cut jeans and showed off as much skin as possible without being considered actual child porn. Eilish wears unflattering baggy clothes; her hair covers most of her face; and her face is always locked in the same dead stare as the expressionless emoji. 😑 But clearly, she is touching upon something that resonates with kids and is birthing a movement around it. That older people can’t control it makes them uncomfortable.
The idea that Eilish, or any artist, needs to go back and absorb the entirety of her genre before creating music of her own is absurd. But since this argument about Respecting The Canon will inevitably pop up in another few months when Dua Lipa says she’s never heard of Fleetwood Mac or whatever the fuck, let’s spell this out:
Music is immediate. It’s not like science, whose body of knowledge needs to be built upon. It is a free and personal expression that occupies a moment in time. It needs no additional context to exist.
Someone I think about in this regard a lot is Minor Threat. Minor Threat, right from their name, was the most shining example of a youth movement that existed to break conventional wisdom and do things on their own terms. They sound like a primal scream breaking from their forebears. And, because they existed for such a short period, they’re cemented in time that way.
And yet, for as much as I love Minor Threat, and as essential as I think they were to the progression of punk, I’m not out here trying to lecture some 17-year-old hardcore kid at a Jesus Piece show about the importance of “Out of Step.” It’s didactic, it’s annoying, and again, it is so, so boring. I still remember how obnoxious it was to be 13, discovering punk bands that were happening at the time like The Bouncing Souls and AVAIL and being told that actually REAL PUNK was bands from 20 years ago that were called shit like Submutants UK or Dischaos ‘77. I don’t want to pass that on, even if I think a popular new band blows ass. I’ll say that they blow ass, sure, but I will defend their right to be unfamiliar with AVAIL.
I’ve truly lost the point of what I was talking about when I started this email so I will just close by saying: Minor Threat rules. Billie Eilish Rules. Vince Staples rules. Make music however you want. Rip it up and start again. Fuck old people. Fuck the canon. Kill your idols. Run with the devil. Subscribe to REPLY ALT. Hail Satan. ACAB. Duh.