Business Musings: Generations
I write books set in the 1960s, a time of such generational upheaval that it makes the changes happening now seem tame. Maybe the research for those books (and my memories of the time) have given me more perspective than I should have at 58. Or maybe, it was in the study of history that I learned about generational change. Or maybe it was because I was raised by parents old enough to be my grandparents.
Or maybe it’s just how my mind works.
The sf field is getting hit hard right now with a clash between generations. The clash isn’t a minor one: it’s over the future of sf. It’s about bringing in diverse voices, which sf failed to do (mostly through the gatekeepers who were [and some still are] bigoted against anyone who is not a white male). Some of the voices that are coming in are strident. Many are accusatory. A few are judgmental.
All have legitimate grievances. When you’ve been pounding on a door for years, and the door finally cracks open, you don’t say thank you. You say, What the hell? I’ve been trying to get in here for a long time. Didn’t you hear me?
Some of that generational conflict broke out on social media the morning that I’m writing this. A tone-deaf member of the older generation tried to defend himself, and failed miserably. Another member (in a different genre) has attracted national news because she was so overzealous in her real world job that she literally cost young black men decades of their lives. Her behavior back then (and now) is news to some of her younger fans. It had been so long ago that I never put the writer with the prosecutor. (I don’t think she’d been writing back then.) That terrible thing she had done is back in the news—and it should be.
That’s what some of her defenders miss. We should be discussing misuse of power and the harm we do, even as we think we’re doing good.
Anyway, that political stuff belongs in a political blog. I had scheduled this morning to write a blog about the writing business, but I can’t get this political stuff out of my head.
I went into my office and grabbed Emilio Estefan’s The Rhythm of Success, and Creative Quest by Questlove (with Ben Greenman), remembering that I wanted to analyze points in both of them. (I will be writing a year-end wrap up, but that will take time to finish the research, which I started just this week.)
As I touched the Questlove book, I remembered one of his points that I was going to examine further, one that’s relevant to today.
First, let me remind you that Questlove’s book is on creativity. I recommended it in my Recommended Reading list in August, and mentioned it on a few previous blog posts. Creative Quest is one of the best books I’ve read this year. I’m still noodling some of the points he made.
Questlove is a musician who got his start in high school (at Philadelphia’s High School of The Creative and Performing Arts) in the late 1980s. The Roots officially formed in the early 1990s, and was part of an influential wave of musicians who did not have great chart-topping success (that would come later) but became major influencers at the time. Y’know, the hot new thing.
One of his final chapters focuses on success and failure (in the same chapter). There’s so much to unpack here that I set it aside, thinking I would deal with it later.
Later is today—at least for one tiny section of those chapters.
He deals with generational change. He expresses it in metaphor. (which is probably why I like the book: I think in metaphor.)
Once, as a young man, he walked along a train track after a train had left and wondered how long he had before another train would mow him down. He moved that physical thought into the creative realm.
How long does an artist have alone on a track, heading to the future, before another artist comes up behind him, and takes his place?
Questlove knows that art isn’t a zero-sum game. He doesn’t mean that only one artist can be on that track at one time. He really is discussing being the cool, the new. The person creating the wave, or riding the crest of the wave. Being the cutting edge.
That’s the focus here.
Because being the cutting edge is addictive. And it makes an impression on our brains as artists. Some artists continue to chase being cutting edge (which puts them behind the cutting edge train, to use Questlove’s metaphor). Others loudly defend that they once were cutting edge. And some move quietly forward, learning and growing, and accepting that they can only be cutting edge once in their careers.
Judging from this book, Questlove and the Roots belong to the latter group. Yes, they’re still learning and growing, but they’re never going to be the hot thing again. They might become more popular than they were in the beginning, but they will never be that new, surprising voice again.
We only get one chance at that.
Questlove reports a conversation he had with singer, songwriter, and producer D’Angelo who got his start a few years after Questlove and was part of that group of influencers. They were discussing Donald Glover, but not in his acting/producing capacity, but as a musician. As a musician, he uses the stage name Childish Gambino.
The discussion was about competition, and usefulness, and—important here—influencers. Both D’Angelo and Childish Gambino had the same influences (Smokey Robinson, Curtis Mayfield, Prince) but D’Angelo felt that Childish Gambino wore those influences “like fashion.” D’Angelo felt that Childish Gambino was, in a word, copying him and did not deeply understand the influences he was referencing.
I told D’Angelo that I agreed with him—but that he had to realize that he was an oldies act, too….His debut album was more than twenty years old. His hugely influential second album was more than fifteen years old. His innovations—the way he understood hip-hop, the way he arranged vocals, the way he moved through a melody—had been in place for a long time. If a new artist was imitating Smokey Robinson, they were also almost certainly imitating D’Angelo. [Creative Quest, Ecco, 2018 P. 266]
I’ve written before that very few artists (of any stripe—musician, writer, actor) maintain a career (once they’ve become known) for longer than ten years. Most of the reasons for that are business-related, and not relevant here.
But what is relevant here is that we often don’t discuss how it feels to be an artist who is no longer cutting edge. Because we’re still in our heads. We remember what it was like to be the hot new thing. We are also still growing and changing and improving as artists—or we can only hope we are.
This bit on D’Angelo and Childish Gambino comes in a section on success and failure where Questlove discusses competition. He adds this to the observations above:
[These new artists] are advancing the D’Angelo sound just like Childish Gambino is advancing the P-Funk sound. They are imitating, but not just imitating—they’re absorbing, digesting, and remaking, both representing and re-representing. And, because D’Angelo is still active, all this imitation is a form of competition. To me, that’s a good thing, and possibly a great one. It reminds us that we’re all on the same track, and that what goes around always comes around. Think about the trains. Never forget that they’re on their way. [Creative Quest, Ecco, 2018 P. 266]
I love that analysis. Not just because it’s warm and understanding, but because it captures the ambivalence that older artists have toward newer ones—and the way that newer artists behave.
The newer artists are absorbing what came before. Earlier in the chapter, Questlove wrote, “You don’t pick where your inspiration comes from.” [Creative Quest, Ecco, 2018 P. 265] You might not even know.
So as older artists, when we shout that we had done this, or we should be respected for that, our cries often fall on deaf ears. Worse, they seem more like a shaking of the fist followed by Get off my lawn.
Some generations do not respect the previous one. That’s what my history background and look at the 1960s showed me. The 1960s generation (who are in their 70s and 80s now) did not respect anything about their parents. And in sf, at least, that same attitude has come around. The new sf generation doesn’t respect the generations that came before, even as the work of the new sf generation builds on the tropes and stories that those generations told.
A lot of the work I’m reading from the hot new things can be seen as horribly derivative. Or it can be seen correctly (at least, I think correctly) as remaking old stories and telling them to a more diverse world. As Questlove said, They are imitating, but not just imitating—they’re absorbing, digesting, and remaking, both representing and re-representing.
And thus, art moves forward.
Where does that leave the still-active older generation of artists? Well, we can fight and say that our work still matters (Oh, and get off my lawn!) Or we can see this as a natural and healthy progression in art.
The best artists continue to learn and grow throughout their careers, accepting that they’ll never be new again in a cutting edge way. But they can be new to a new generation.
That doesn’t mean co-opting that generation and trying to tell their stories.
It does mean that the older artists need to continue to learn and grow. Older artists have a mastery that the younger ones will eventually acquire (if they continue to learn and grow). Older artists have a lot to say, not just to their generation, but to newer generations. As long as the older artist remains authentic, telling their truth.
As I was writing this, I took a break and scanned Entertainment Weekly from November 30, 2018. Leah Greenblatt’s review of Mariah Carey’s new album reinforces the point I just made (and made me chuckle at the serendipity). Here’s part of what Greenblatt wrote:
To say “a star is born” isn’t a story, it’s an intro. A thousand shiny comets have streaked across the Hot 100 before disappearing into the faraway ether of where-are-they-now; only a very few turn fame into a long game. Mariah Carey is one of those rare supernovas, with the stats to prove it….
…Carey is no longer at the white-hot center of the zeitgeist….but [the album] is a tart reminder that even when the new school rules, there’s still room for the classics.
Whether Questlove intended it or not, part of what he wrote here is a treatise on how to have a long-term career. I’m always studying artists who made it past that ten-year cutoff. (And it seems shorter for indie writers, maybe because they’re more in control of their finances so things implode faster.)
One artist I’ve watched in the past ten years is Tony Bennett. He still sings the standards, beautifully, in a way that no one else can. But he also works with younger artists. He worked with Amy Winehouse (and she broke his heart when she died). Then he worked with Lady Gaga. Their collaboration transformed both of their careers, not just in sales, but in the way they approach music.
In fact, at her residency here in Vegas in 2019, Gaga will perform her big stage show, and a few stripped-down jazz shows—jazz shows she wouldn’t have done without Tony Bennett.
There’s a value for the newer artists to embrace the older ones as human beings, but it’s not a requirement. Some generations don’t embrace, and some can’t—the divide is too big.
But the influences are there, whether they know it or not. They’re absorbing, digesting, and remaking, both representing and re-representing. And the older generation, if they’re smart, should take a leaf from Questlove’s book, and celebrate the changes.
The genre—the art—the music—those things will change with or without our permission. It’s better to listen and learn, to absorb the newness and not try to imitate it, but see it for what it is—the trains, moving forward on the track, the familiar track, that we all enter at one stage of our artistic lives—and stay as long as we possibly can.
I want to write that this blog post came courtesy of Twitter, but really, it comes from social media in general, and paper books (the Questlove) and paper magazines (EW) and online newspapers (the LA Times) and a conversation with a friend. Just the way the mishmash works in 2018.
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“Business Musings: Generations,” copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / andrewgenn.