The first Grammy Awards of the new decade are just around the corner. On Jan. 31, the voting committee may crown a new queen of pop music, crossover country star Taylor Swift, and with it signal the musical coming-of-age of the Millennial Generation.
Nominated for eight 2010 Grammy Awards, including record and album of the year, Ms. Swift has already beaten out Michael Jackson (Generation X) for the American Music Awards’ top trophy in 2009 and won three more at November’s Country Music Association (CMA) Awards in Nashville. She’s also the youngest person to be named CMA Entertainer of the Year.
Her songs have Millennial-like happy endings. “Fifteen,” for example, gives advice on how to handle the pressures of being a freshman in high school, a message she wrote with her best friend and her younger brother in mind. It’s a change of direction that is speaking to 95 million Millennials, many of whom are already in their 20s.
Millennials were born between 1982 and 2003. In contrast to most baby boomers and Gen-Xers, they love their parents, who are known for boosting the self-esteem of their children and instilling a can-do attitude in each of their special, trophy-winning kids. Swift personifies the Millennial Generation in both her music and her social-networking approach to winning fans.
Tweens and teenage Millennials absorbed the rap and hip-hop music produced by their Gen-X elders during the 1990s, just as the GI Generation during the 1920s initially fell in love with the jazz music so intimately linked to the older Lost Generation. Similarly, boomers first found their rebellious voice in the 1950s in the early rock ’n’ roll that came from the Silent Generation that preceded them.
But in each case, as a new generation came into adulthood, it put its own unique stamp on a musical genre that then retained its popularity for two decades as the musical tastes of both the older and younger members of that generation were united. Swift’s rise to fame is an early signal that a new musical genre is about to take over America’s popular music culture again.
The transition from the Lost Generation’s small combo jazz to the GI Generation’s big band swing music came with a major slowdown in tempo. Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey delivered a sweeter musical sound that their adoring crowds could dance to, rather than the jarring, syncopated rhythms of early jazz greats like Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong.
The Silent Generation fell in love with the brand-new up-tempo backbeat of Elvis Presley’s and Jerry Lee Lewis’s rock ’n’ roll, but baby boomers put their generational stamp on the genre a decade later with the love-drenched lyrics of guitar groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
We will know a Millennial musical genre has arrived when the songs at the top of the charts represent both a fusion of earlier styles and something completely different.
The Academy Award for best song from a movie has already moved toward this Millennial sensibility. The 2005 winner was the rap song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” from the movie “Hustle and Flow.” But last year’s Oscar winner, “Jai Ho” from “Slumdog Millionaire,” combined Indian rhythms with upbeat exhortations celebrating victory throughout the world. Instead of bemoaning the fact that they “done seen people killed, done seen people deal, done seen people live in poverty with no meals,” as the group Three 6 Mafia did in that 2005 song, the Bollywood movie looked at very similar conditions and made a hit out of a tune (originally sung in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and even Spanish) whose English translation focused on a love affair that promised to make everything better.
The end of an musical era is near when its proponents pronounce its eternal life the loudest. In their 1970s reprise of a 1950s Danny and the Juniors classic, Sha Na Na told “all of you hippies out there in the audience,” that “Rock n’ roll is here to stay. It will never die.” In 1979, Neil Young said the same thing – just about the time that rap emerged to take rock ’n’ roll’s place on Top 40 radio play charts.
When Kanye West jumped on stage to protest Swift’s victory over Beyoncé for Best Female Video at the MTV Video Music Awards last September, he was foreshadowing just how shocked Gen-Xers will be when their signature genre, rap, drops from the top of the charts as fast as you can say “Napster.”
According to the Record Industry Association of America’s official tally of music sales by genre, rap’s popularity peaked in 2002, just as the first Millennials entered adulthood, and has now fallen to third place behind country and rock in America’s musical purchases.
Most members of Mr. West’s generation, now in their 30s and 40s, will not react kindly to the mantle of youth being placed on the Millennial Generation, whose optimism and group-oriented behavior represents a sharp break from the alienated cynicism and individual entrepreneurship of Gen-X. They may even manage to deny Swift her crown in this year’s Recording Academy voting for Grammy Awards in a last gesture of generational hostility.
But having already been named the new queen of pop by millions of fans on social networks throughout the world, it’s only a matter of time before Swift and her generation make over America’s music as triumphantly as they did its politics with the election of President Obama.
When that moment occurs, it will be the latest and perhaps most definitive sign that the Millennial Era has arrived.
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