Whatever happened to the musical generation gap?

David Hepworth
‘All the music in the world is on your phone.’ Photograph: Hero Images/Getty Images/Hero Images

Growing up in the 1960s was a breeze. Parents weren’t expected to show much interest in music. The odd “is that a boy or a girl?” aside, they let it go. On Sunday evening drives in the country, as Pick of the Pops handed over to Sing Something Simple, you might have felt the life force draining out of you, but that was just a useful reminder of what pop was worth.

Today’s youths no longer have the luxury of such agony. They have grandparents who went to rock festivals. They have parents who patronised unlicensed raves. These grownups are only too keen to either tell them how everything they like is but a pale shadow of what went before or, more dismayingly, loudly advertise their approval and suggest that they should enjoy all this together. It takes a particular kind of egotism to assume that a young person will not get to hear the Fall without your intervention.

The musical generation gap is now a demilitarised zone across which all sorts of unexpected exchanges take place. A friend invaded his teenage son’s band rehearsal to get the bass in tune and ask them to turn it up. And, back in the 90s, my son came into my workroom to ask: “Have we got any records by Paul Simon‬?” He enunciated the name precisely, as if he couldn’t be sure I’d have heard it before. The trade isn’t exclusively one way either. The New Yorker writer John Seabrook was inspired to write his excellent book The Song Machine after being exposed to the Max Martin pop favoured by his son on the drive to school.

In the days of physical product, when music had to have an owner, your music came from your era and was clearly identifiable as such. While today’s seven-year-olds may favour Katy Perry and Ariana Grande, and their slightly more self-important older brother may go for Drake and Stormzy, they both know that it’s as easy to access the massive bulk of music that was recorded before they were born. To judge from their official blogs, 90% of contemporary singer-songwriters grew up listening to their parents’ Nick Drake and Patti Smith records. Most of them have little sense of chronology, and are therefore less likely to write something off as “old”. Teenagers today are more likely to listen to 40-year-old Led Zeppelin tracks than I would have been to listen to Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives in the 60s. More fool me.

With the growth of home networks and the increasing realisation that all the music in the world is on your phone, it behoves both older and younger generations – and all the many generations between – to realise that imposing your musical tastes on others is ill-mannered and unlikely to win converts. Apart from its other qualities, pop music is a way of working out the world. Your child will come to an opinion about some of the more extreme lyrics without your help. Today’s kids tend to not wish to embarrass either themselves or their parents. A friend’s son looked at his father’s playlist and said: “You can’t listen to this one, Dad. It’s rude.”

There are some broad principles that hold true:

  • The more provocative hip-hop and heavy metal is best confined to a car whose occupants have provided their consent.
  • If you’re about to play a piece of music with which you hope to improve the listener, stop and play something else.
  • In standard domestic circumstances, reach for those tunes that have proven mood-lightening qualities.
  • Everybody likes the Beatles, classic-era Motown, ska, Beyoncé, Pharrell’s Happy and the music from the James Bond films.

If you don’t like any of that, go to your room.

What are the songs that get your whole family dancing and singing along together? For a chance to win a 12-month Spotify Family subscription, which gives you six Premium accounts for family members at the same address, simply send in your playlist of 10 family-friendly favourites – plus why life would be that much tougher without them – here