As you may have heard, an article written by Jeff Slate for NBC News with the provocative headline “Paul Simon sold his catalog to Sony for millions. He’ll still end up a historical footnote to Dylan” has generated a fair amount of controversy. I had some thoughts about that that I wanted to share.
First: That article isn’t mainly an attack on Simon (though it certainly is that). Slate’s main point seems to be that only Dylan and The Beatles are likely be remembered in any kind of major way, 200 years from now. Slate writes:
While the Beatles’ and Dylan’s places in history — not just musical history, but history — are no doubt etched in stone, even their contemporaries, like (Neil) Young, are beginning to fade from relevance. It’s hard to imagine that in 200 years or more — when historians dig into the culture of the late 20th century — anyone but the Beatles and Bob Dylan will be worth more than a passing mention.
That means Young and Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen and, of course, Paul Simon — all giants in their day — will be no more than footnotes, at best, to Dylan and the Beatles, if only because history is a blunt instrument and doesn’t have room (at least not in the broadest sense) for subtlety.
Steven Van Zandt responded on Twitter that Slate’s “view of history is simply profoundly inaccurate. The ‘60s was a Renaissance period that will be studied for hundreds of years to come. Dylan, Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards, and yes Paul Simon, et al, were our Beethovens, Mozarts, and Tchaikovskys.”
I pretty much agree with Van Zandt but would like to focus on another matter here. Which is to question if Slate’s vision of the future is really accurate.
Let’s go back to 50 years before now: 1971. More or less around the time I started seriously listening to music, as it happens.
The music of 50 years before then — 1921 — was mostly absent from popular culture. But that was largely because of technology. Recorded popular music from 1921 was not readily available in 1971. If you could find it, it was probably on a scratchy old 78. A few artists, such as Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, were still singing songs written in 20s. But recordings from that era seemed quite distant and, yes, old-fashioned.
Compare that to 2021. Yes, of course, the upper reaches of the pop charts are inhabited by younger artists. But the music of 50, even 60 years ago is still around in a way that it wasn’t in 1971. The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen can still fill stadiums and arenas, and people like Dylan and Young and Brian Wilson are still performing and recording — and also repackaging and remastering their old music, making it sound, in some cases, better than ever.
Elton John, The Four Seasons, Tina Turner, The Temptations, the late Freddie Mercury and others have been discovered by new generations of music lovers through jukebox musicals and Hollywood biopics. Meanwhile, nightclubs are full of cover bands, cranking out faithful version of Doors, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac songs, ad infinitum.
In 2015, the heavy metal band Disturbed had a hit single with a cover of Simon’s “The Sound of Silence.” A cover of the same song by the a cappella group Pentatonix has amassed nearly 100 million views on YouTube since being released in 2019. (see below) Also in 2019, the Simon & Garfunkel song “Mrs. Robinson” was used on the soundtrack of the Quentin Tarantino-directed “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
In 1971, even the music of 15 years ago — the mid-’50s — seemed ancient. In 2021, if you could find people who had never heard, say, The Beatles’ 1969 album Abbey Road or Bob Marley’s 1977 Exodus, you could play either for them and easily convince them it had been recorded last month.
Of course, I don’t know what the music scene is going to be like 200 years from now. No one does, including Jeff Slate.
But I’d like to suggest something counterintuitive: That while technology is indeed changing and improving at a dizzying pace, it is not, in fact, making the music of the past more disposable. It is actually preserving it: tearing down the wall that relegates “old” music to the past and making a kind of eternal pop-culture present, where, perhaps, the thoroughly deserving music of a Paul Simon can live forever.
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