Musically, we’re all stuck in the middle with you, Ken Bruce | Barbara Ellen

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What’s the deal with ears – why do they seem to age at triple the rate of the rest of the human body? I don’t mean physically, but rather in terms of what music an individual deems magical, or even tolerable. And how, for many, there’s only one true music – the music of their youth – and everything else is cacophony, sacrilege, torture.

Maybe this explains how the “boomer” has risen again in a terrifying new form. Since moving from BBC Radio 2 to Greatest Hits Radio, DJ Ken Bruce has almost doubled the number of listeners to his morning show, in what’s being perceived as a kind of grassroots rebellion of the grey pound.

I initially thought: what’s this got to do with me? I might be a tragic lapsed goth, but my music taste isn’t some cobwebbed shrine to tunes past. (Is it?) It turns out that Bruce, who seems a nice enough cove, likes to play music falling between the 1970s and 1990s. Bruce’s tastes aside, it’s a period that covers Nirvana’s Lithium, most of acid house, Massive Attack’s Teardrop, and everything in between. Let’s face it, the term “boomer” is no longer tied to dates. It’s a stance, an attitude… a blockage, a problem. A state of cultural freeze that can strike anyone at any time.

That’s what I mean by the new boomer being terrifying: it’s people like you and me. Of course, it doesn’t do to generalise: there are plenty of older people who love new music. And who’s to judge if someone’s tastes are wholly yoked to the past? (Was my brief confused flirtation with Chicago drill any more edifying?) Still, is this the best people can hope for? To get (literally) stuck in the groove, like a stylus on scratched vinyl.

Why does cultural freeze set in, and can it be overcome? Clearly, the antidote is staying at least passingly alert to new music, so why don’t more of us do it? One answer is that much of our culture has become retro-stamped and, while that can be a beautiful thing, sometimes it isn’t. Nor, weirdly, is new tech likely to improve matters. You’d hope the Spotify generation wouldn’t become as stuck, but at least people used to have to trudge out and buy their favourite music. Now the algorithmically curated musical wallow, the flotation tank of instant nostalgia, is just an idle click away.

What’s to be done about the new boomer? You can’t arrest people for playing air-guitar to Money For Nothing. (Can you?) Nor, in fairness, can you stop someone like me being suspended in amber somewhere between post-punk and disco. As much as all this is about resistance to the new, a pitiful incuriosity, it’s also about the magnetism of memory. Music is the most Proustian of art forms. People might have a fondness for retro-TV, but they don’t tend to stick on old episodes of The Sweeney to recall their first love.

Then there’s the fact that everyone secretly thinks their own era is the best, the most evergreen. The music might be old but, to them, it’s as new as, well, they were when they first heard it. All things considered, it could be a case of, if you can’t beat them… Anyone in the market for a Kate Bush Spotify playlist?

Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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