Music and Generational Polarization
Gary D. Erickson
We live in a world of rapid change. If you have reached eighty years or older, you have probably seen more change than any generation in the history of the world. You have seen the advent of Styrofoam, Saran wrap, Teflon, and Velcro. You have observed the evolution of the automobile, watched a man walk on the moon, witnessed the breaking of the sound barrier, and viewed pictures of the Mars land¬ings and close-up photos of the rings of Saturn. You have witnessed the discovery of DNA that has revolutionized forensic research. Doctors now do organ transplants, open heart surgery, have cured polio, and discovered an array of antibiotics and thousands of other miracle drugs. You have seen the birth of the fast-food market. You have seen the development of amazing weapons of warfare: the atomic bomb, nuclear subs, guided missiles, and remotely operated drones. You witnessed the advent of television, video, com¬puters, the Internet, iPods, PDAs, cell phones, digital cam¬eras, camcorders, digital calculators, GPAs, microwave ovens, and the laser.
You have seen homosexuality become mainstream and premarital and extramarital sex become commonplace beha¬vior. You have seen racial integration. A few years ago div-orce was the exception, and now it is one in two. Gone with the Wind was first movie to use the word “damn,” and this opened the door to all kinds of vulgarity in the media. Por-nography has become pervasive. Immigration has brought not only Europeans but a flood of ethnicity and all races of people to this part of the world. The birth control pill was invented and helped spawned a sexual revolution. In the religious realm, you have seen a growth of atheism, Islam, secularism, cultism, and a resurgence of Pentecostalism.
In the past sixty years, we have seen the birth and pro¬liferation of rock and roll. This new style spawned or in¬fluenced an array of other styles: rock, R&B, rap, blues, folk rock, classic rock, pop, reggae, heavy metal, punk, and many other hybrids and blends. We have witnessed the in¬novation of recorded music, amplification, and new musical instruments. We have seen the growth of a mammoth, worldwide music market as we moved from LP albums to eight-track, to cassettes, to CDs, and now to downloadable mp3s. We are now in a digital revolution, causing the re¬cording industry to scramble for ways to retain a profitable marketplace! We are now witnessing television s musical phenomenon called American Idol. This music competition allows the public to vote for their favorite singer and gar¬nered almost 100 million voters in 2008.1 This number is staggering when one considers there were approximately 122 million voters in the 2004 presidential election!
With this hurricane of change, no wonder we have musical conflicts. No people in the history of the world have seen more changes than those of us living in this post¬modern world—especially those living in North America. George Barna, a Christian researcher, says that every five years society reinvents itself. We have seen changes in mor¬als, changes in technology, changes in travel, changes in religion, changes in medicine, changes in communications, changes in entertainment, and changes in culture. These rapid transitions and innovations have created differences between generations in the present demographic milieu in the North American population (values, emotions, beliefs, and preferences). This has affected financial decisions, fash¬ion preferences, recreational choices, religious beliefs, mu¬sical style, food consumption, and moral concerns. Cultural circumstances in which each generation has grown up have impacted their thinking processes dramatically.
Demographic researchers have divided our present pop¬ulation into four groups: Builders, Boomers, Busters, and the Net Generation.2
1. Builders: born between 1909 and 1945.
2. Boomers: born between 1946 and 1964.
3. Busters: born between 1965 and 1976.
4. Net Generation: born between 1977 and 1997.
The Builder Generation
This group spans a forty-year period. The reason for the wide demographic is due to their values being the same. The GI Builders (born from 1901 to 1924) were the genera¬tion that experienced the Great Depression and WWII.
These events had a profound effect upon their lives. They built the great bridges, dams, interstate highways, railroads, and the airlines. They built the national parks system, con-ducted massive tree-planting projects, and developed ser¬ums and medicines that helped the world. They were disciplined, courageous, and committed to their country. They respected and trusted government and acknowledged authority.
The Silent Builders (born between 1925 and 1945) did not suffer like the GI Builders. Nevertheless, they adopted the values of the former generation. They felt trapped be-tween the GI Builders and the Baby Boomers.
The Boomer Generation
Nine months after WWII ended, the maternity wards filled and stayed full for the next seventeen years (76 mil¬lion children were born). The pill was introduced in the 60s and the population rate dropped. Three major things af¬fected this generation:
1. Dr. Benjamin Spock’s new philosophy of child rear¬ing: Rather than the cold, sterile, structured methods of the past, he recommended that children be treated like little people. They were to be reasoned with and never spanked_ Parents wanted their children to have a better life than they had. As a result, the children grew up spoiled and pam-pered. A more permissive approach was used for disciplin¬ing children, who then grew up focusing on themselves thinking that they were unique and privileged. Rather than building and waiting for results, their motto was “Don t wait, get it now!”
2. Television: Even though the early programs were innocent compared to today s, it alienated society and they became glued to the set. TV watching became ingrained as a part of the North American culture and shaped our beliefs, attitudes, and actions. Advertisers could create instant national fads through advertising campaigns. Problems on the television were always solved before the hour was up. This added to the concept “We want answers, and we want them now!”
3. Education: This generation became the most edu¬cated generation in history. They took a more intellectual outlook at running their lives. The previous generation was more concerned with learning skills for doing work. This generation was more concerned with education. Boomers looked upon their parents as being less educated and re¬jected their views about money, sex, religion, drugs, and war. This created a massive generation gap. The Boomers adopted a new morality (loose sexual behavior, shunning responsibility, drug use, dabbling in Eastern religions, burn¬ing draft cards, and so forth).
In more recent years the Boomers have demonstrated a yearning for simplicity and traditional values. Nostalgia is popular. They have become more attentive parents after ob¬serving the earlier Boomers failures in this area.
The Buster Generation (Generation X)
This group does not have the size (44 million) of the Boomers. Like the Silent Builders, they are sandwiched be¬tween the Boomers and the Net Generation (over 80 mil¬lion). This generation is difficult to define, for they haven t taken their full place in adult society yet. The following characteristics describe them. They are skeptical of others and institutions. They are pessimistic about mankind and the future. They feel abandoned. Being emotionally neg¬lected as children by their parents (workaholic parents. latchkey kids, working mothers), they feel cheated. They want a high quality of life: This means a high fun quotient without sacrifice. They are independent—behaving as indiv¬iduals, they listen to counsel but reject demands made on them when not given the opportunity to debate. They are comfortable with change. They are used to a fast pace and lack of stability. They are not concerned with traditions. They are more sensitive to people. They have a desire to build lasting relationships. They are pluralistic. They have no problem holding two contradictory perspectives. They will accept divergent approaches to religion, politics, and relationships. They are pragmatists; denying the existence of absolute truth, they handle each situation on its merit.
MTV first aired when they were in adolescence. This medium elevates feeling and sensation above thought, is fast-paced and exciting, and is sensual entertainment. They have the lowest percentage of voting participation, are more educated than any previous generation, and have fewer tan¬gible skills. They have the highest suicide rate of any age group (5,000 each year). Being nonconformists, they do not respond well to authority. They buy into the politically cor¬rect movement. They seek equality, opportunity, individual¬ism, and justice for all people, regardless of their back¬ground. Having grown up with computers, they are a group with great computer savvy.
The Net Generation
This group comprises thirty percent of the population (81 million). They are even larger than the Boomers. They have a positive view of themselves (happy, responsible, self-reliant, optimistic, and intelligent). Coca-Cola did a survey of 27,000 twelve- to nineteen-year-olds (Generation Y) and discovered they are self-reliant and that finding a good job is a top priority. They love family, and although their definition many not be traditional, they tend toward reliance on them. They are consumers. They love brand names but are skeptical of slick marketing. They are mobile with aspirations to travel. They are mediavores. This gener¬ation is addicted to media (do homework while listening to CD, television, and talk on Internet). They are fun lovers. This generation is not like the previous one. They are op¬timistic about the future.
In a survey done by Northwestern Mutual Life Insur¬ance Company, only 37 percent considered marriage the cornerstone of societal values. This generation tends to look up to their parents. Parents are more involved with their children than past generations. There is also a growing knowledge of the negative impact bad television, movies,
music, and so forth have had on children. This generation is the computer experts. Having grown up with computers, working with and playing on them are as natural as breath¬ing. Some think the computer generation s thinking process has been affected. It has had an effect on how they collect, organize, and analyze information. They have shifted from the traditional “linear” style of learning (moving from point A to point B) to a “parallel” or “mosaic” style (moving ran¬domly among a series of points). Mosaic learning can per¬mit faster processing of information.
A strong identifying mark of this generation is “toler¬ance.” They are able to live with all sorts of contradictions in their lives without complaint. This is good but could make them prey to fall for anything.
As you ponder these differences, consider how this will affect music preferences in the church. Not only are there philosophical differences. Each age group formed different musical affections as popular trends influenced them. Music is like food. We like what we are fed as children and young adults. Eskimos eat raw whale blubber, and the French eat snails. We tend to prefer what we have grown accustomed to. During the teen and young adult years, each generation polarized around the popular music of that era. Hearing these musical sounds brings nostalgic feelings and stimu¬lates reflective memories. It also feels comfortable and un¬threatening. Some new sounds may seem strange and make one feel uncomfortable and disconnected. For older Chris¬tians, some new sounds feel out of place in the church serv¬ice. For some they may even seem vulgar and disrespectful.
The younger generation may find the old music styles simplistic and even amusing. They may consider them out¬dated, jaded by time, and even inferior in quality and cre¬ativity. As a result, these tunes may not inspire but distract due to their passé sound. The young person may think, “This church is for old people.” They may conclude that a church is stuck in time and unprogressive. Jaded music may be a red flag to some that a church is out of touch with this generation.
Christian believers living in this era are being called upon to show great toleration and patience. It is one of the difficult tests of this age. The uniqueness of the age requires that everyone makes an extra effort to try to understand where others are coming from. It will require imagination to comprehend what life may look like for those of another generation.
When I was a kid, I took empty toilet tissue rolls from the garbage and used them as make-believe binoculars. Of course, this only put limits on my vision and made me run into things as I stumbled around the house looking through these small holes. If we are not careful, we can have “tunnel vision” in a cultural sense. We all have a tendency to view things from our perspective and not from others —espe¬cially those with whom we disagree. It could be called “cul¬tural tunnel vision.” It challenges our comfort zone to view things from a broad perspective. When it comes to music in the church, we all need to throw away the toilet tissue rolls and look at things as they really are. The church today has a mix of generational fixations and prejudices. What is the church to do? We cannot divorce ourselves from those with whom we disagree! We have to learn to get along. Temper¬ance on both sides of the aisle is essential. The young rock¬ers have to tone it down a bit, and the geriatrics brigade has to turn it up a notch. We have to meet somewhere in the middle. Music directors have to walk a musical tightrope. Sensitivity to the diversity of a congregation and prayerful evaluation will be required.
1 Bill Keveney and Ken Barnes, “David Cook rocks his way to the ‘American Idol title,” USA Today, May 23,2008, http://www.usatoday.com/life/-television/news/2008-05-21 -american-idol-winner _Nhtm.
2 Rick and Kathy Hicks, Boomers, Xers, and Other Strangers (Focus on the Family, 1999).
The above article, “Music and Generational Polarization” was written by Gary D. Erickson. The article was excerpted from chapter 10 in Erickson’s book, Christian Music in Transition.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.