When the Mode of the Music Changes

You can tell a lot about people based on their musical preferences. I borrow my title from a radical group from the ’60s, the Fugs, and one of their old songs:

It would be pretty hard to know me well without knowing when and where I grew up and how I had been influenced by the music of my youth. I assume that the same is true for everyone. The concept has been most fully explored by Morris Massey, who wrote about the three main periods in a person’s maturation process:

The Imprint Period. From birth to about the age of seven: we absorb everything around us and accept much of it as true. We trust our parents, until or unless they demonstrate that they are untrustworthy. We develop most of our major values—both good and bad—during this period. We tend to assume that what we are learning is true for everyone for all time.

The Modeling Period. From about the ages of eight to about thirteen, we learn by imitating others, not only our parents, but also other people, especially older adolescents and accomplished adults. This is an experimental stage: We try things to see how they feel, including beliefs, both political and religious.

The Socialization Period. From about 13 until the early 20s, we are increasingly influenced by our peers. In “olden times,” this influence would have come mainly from older-but-still-young people in our tribe, village, or community. Shared values are, after all, what make the sense of “community” possible. Our sense of “tribe” has expanded in modern times, with the changes in communication technologies.

As we develop as individuals, we look for ways to get away from our earlier programming, we naturally turn to those who seem more like us—part of our “tribe.” Other influences at these ages include the media, especially those aspects that seem to resonate with the values of our peer groups. My mom and dad hit critical stages of their adolescence in the 30s and 40s. My dad loved the popular music of the 30s and 40s; my mom loved my dad. Until about the time I turned 13, I heard a lot of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and other greats from the Golden Age of Jazz and the music of the 1940s—World War 2.

I was 13 years old when Bill Haley and the Comets released “Rock Around the Clock”:

That was basically the birth of Rock & Roll, which blended African-American blues and jazz with country music. Elvis Presley became the most loved or hated musician in the country depending on one’s age. In general, young people loved him, and older people—at least older white people—tended to hate him—unless, of course, they were in the music business. The mode of the music had changed….

Although I never mastered music well enough to sing or play an instrument, while I was in college I had a lot of friends who were gifted musicians, performing both so-called “classical” and folk music. Quite a few of them played professionally. Then came the war in Vietnam. And, at about the same time, the mode of the music changed again. Heavy Metal and Acid Rock gained popularity with young people and notoriety with older folks. When I wasn’t slaving away over a typewriter in Vietnam, I put on headphones and listened to Cheap Thrills with Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company and Music from Big Pink, featuring a group called simply, “The Band.”

Just as my father had not been able to make the shift from the music from the ’30s and ’40s to the music of the ’50s and ’60s, I have not made the shift from rock & roll and folk music to rap and hip hop. The mode of the music changed….

This is, of course, a metaphor for the way everything changes. I grew up driving a car with a stick shift (4 on the floor). For the past several years I have been driving cars with automatic transmission. News stories suggest that my next car may drive itself. For most of my driving life, I would have hated the idea. At this point, especially given the traffic on our interstate highways, I would be glad for a car that I could put on “automatic,” lean the seat back, and sleep until needing to exit the highway. I also started political life as an Eisenhower Republican. I lost my enthusiasm for Republican politics with Richard Nixon.

At that point, I became an “almost-Democrat.” I can’t say, “Democrat,” as I have disagreed with a number of positions taken by the Democrats over the years. As Lord Acton famously said, Power Corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Politicians are prone to self-aggrandizement. Politicians, regardless of party, tend to pass laws that benefit themselves and those who curry favor by rewarding them financially. For all practical purposes, there are no poor people in Congress.

History suggests that increasing the divide between rich and poor can cause serious problems: France at the end of the eighteenth century, Russia in the early twentieth-century and China in the 1940s. In each of these cases, the mode of the music changed. And when the mode of the music changes, you can’t be sure what the result will be. What tune would you like to be singing (or listening to) for the next several years? The tune I would prefer is “peace and good, brotherhood”:

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