Sunday, August 16, 2009

Talking about my generation

This weekend is 40 years since Woodstock — the event that had 500,000 people in a muddy field in upstate NY. (I wasn’t there — I was too young and it was too far away — but I did attend the 1982 US Festival in which Steve Wozniak spent his millions to get the Police, Cars, Kinks, Santana, Tom Petty, Pat Benatar, Jackson Browne and Fleetwood Mac all in one hot and dusty county park.)

In honor of the occasion, the normally serious Pew Research Center asked 1,815 Americans (16+) ostensibly about the generation gap, but mainly about their taste in rock music.

While the survey doesn’t cover sex and drugs, it’s clear that rock ’n roll has won as yesterday’s boomer children are today’s middle aged parents:

Two-thirds of respondents say they listen to rock often (35%) or sometimes (30%), placing it ahead of the six other musical genres tested in the survey: country, rhythm and blues, hip-hop, classical, jazz and salsa.

Back in 1966, a national survey found that rock and roll was by far the most unpopular music in the country. Nearly half of adults (44%) said they disliked it, and only 4% said it was their favorite kind of music.
Looking at the raw numbers, the top artists across all ages were
  1. Beatles
  2. Eagles
  3. Johnny Cash
  4. Michael Jackson
  5. Elvis Presley
  6. Aretha Franklin
  7. Frank Sinatra
They only sampled 20 artists, and so some of the results are skewed by who made the survey and who didn’t. So Aretha Franklin (40 year career) is there but not the Temptations (more #1 hits); the Grateful Dead (more rabid following) but not Led Zeppelin (broader following).

Perhaps more interesting were the generational breakdowns, the “never heard of” figures and the “dislike” numbers. Country stars generally had higher dislike figures, but — not surprisingly — Madonna topped out on the dislike figure a 31%. (Coldplay — best known for Viva La Vida — topped out the unknown at 45%). Most of the top 7 acts had single digit “haven’t heard of” figures, with 1% for the Gloved One, 3% for The King and 4% for the Fab Four.

Interestingly for me, the top act for adults aged 30-64 was the Eagles, authors of the best-selling album of all time. (The 29.4 million albums sold seemed unlikely to be eclipsed until Michael Jackson nostalgia moved “Thriller” into contention for the top spot). This was a favorite album for both my sister and I, while I still use her childhood piano book (of said hits) for regular practice of my garage band (even if I’ll never be able to match the harmony vocals of a Randy Meisner).

The Eagles are unknown to 16% of the sample (presumably under 30 or over 65), by far the highest in the top 7. It could be that their lack of airplay since their first breakup in 1980 is the problem. But if you look at it, Elvis (who died 32 years ago Sunday), Michael Jackson and Madonna all have smaller unknown figures — not because of their music, but because of their personal notoriety for their non-musical proclivities.

So oddly, the Eagles are less known because they carefully managed their public image. Anyone who’s read the Don Felder tell-all memoir knows the Eagles had the normal rock star proclivities for sex and drugs, even if they couldn’t keep up with Aerosmith or the Stones on the former or the Grateful Dead for the latter.

Only four of the 20 made the top 50 of the Forbes Celebrity 100: Madonna, the Boss, Coldplay and Kayne West — with 2008 earnings above $50 million. Most of the biggest names are either dead or semi-retired, even if Sir Paul ended 2008 about $50 million poorer than he began it.

Update Monday 11am. Alas, Bob Dylan is even less well known by today’s 20-somethings than I thought possible. I really liked the reader comment on that story: “ How does it feel… / To be without a home / Like a complete unknown / Like a rolling stone?”

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