Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Power of Youth

In November of 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine published its list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time." Of course, they only took note of songs released after 1950 (with one exception released in 1949), so Chopin's Polonaise in A-Flat Major and Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture did not make the list. (That's a travesty, because the 1812 Overture has cannonfire as percussion. Cannonfire!) If one were to take the list at face value, it would appear that the 1960s was the only decade that produced music worth listening to. Virtually every Beatles, Beach Boys, and Rolling Stones song is on this list. The number one song is "Like a Rolling Stone," by Bob Dylan, undoubtedly picked for only two reasons: the title, and Bob Dylan. The most recent song to make the list (at the time of publication) was "Hey Ya," by Outkast, coming in at #180. That's a nice song, but better than "Thriller," by Michael Jackson (which didn't even make the list)?

To me, the list is indicative of one of the more interesting facets of human nature: how different age groups perceive each other. In 1967, when Rolling Stone Magazine was first published, it was representative of the hippie folk scene that defined counterculture at the time. While youths were fighting, killing, and dying in Vietnam, other youths were protesting the war. Today, many of those youths are grandparents, and like all grandparents before them, they think that things were a lot better when they were in charge.

It's easy to scoff at personalities like Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) or Andy Rooney, and for good reason. These are men who are set in their ways and seem to be confused at the advances in technology (Senator Stevens infamously compared the Internet as "a series of tubes"). But put in perspective, the editors at Rolling Stone Magazine are not that far behind. For all intents and purposes, the compilers of that list were the elderly. Maybe not in terms of numerical age, but definitely in terms of state of mind.

In all cultures, humanity is taught to respect its elders. After all, they've lived longer, and presumably have survived many of the same experiences that youth inevitably goes through. Their survival is evidence of their wisdom, and it would behoove young people to pay attention to what the elders have to say, lest youth set themselves upon a course that is irreversibly destructive.

What the elderly consistently seem to forget is that throughout history, it is its youth that provides the vision and will to explore radical ideas, ideas that help shape humanity's course through time as forward progression, not reactionary regression. Paradoxically, as time progresses, these trailblazing youths are accepted into the establishment and are cited as evidence of the power of age and wisdom. However, we don't see this because we focus on the outrageous negativity that seems to generate from young people simply because they are young. We condemn Lindsay Lohan as an alcoholic, but it's OK to hear stories of how Peter O'Toole went on a bender with Richard Harris back in the day, or nostalgically remember the good old days of John Belushi.

Yet humanity always expresses suprise and admiration when a young person does something noteworthy, as if accomplishment is reserved only for the aged. Let's look at four historical figures and their ages when they first burst onto the scene:

Name: Albert Einstein
Accomplishment: Theory of Relativity, redefining old Newtonian notions of gravity and time
Age: 26

Name: Martin Luther King
Accomplishment: Led Montgomery Bus Boycott, kick-starting the Civil Rights Movement
Age: 26

Name: Thomas Jefferson
Accomplishment: Wrote the Declaration of Independence, a document that applied Enlightenment ideals in political ideology
Age: 33

Name: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Accomplishment: Dying before he became really popular
Age: 35

Who else? Post whom you think we should remember as an icon of youthful innovation.