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‘Middle-aged rock bores are the Worst People in the World’

Donald Clarke: Who cares that Billie Eilish had never heard of Van Halen?

All the Van Halens: Alex Van Halen, David Lee Roth, Michael Anthony, Eddie Van Halen. Photograph: Fin Costello/Redferns

Let’s pretend there was a bit of fuss about Billie Eilish not having heard of Van Halen. That’s not really so. But it suits us to say so. Not least because it gives us one more opportunity to clarify that middle-aged rock bores are the Worst People in the World. Let me say it again: The Worst People in the World.

Here’s what happened. In the course of a light-hearted grilling on her awareness of relatively recent popular culture, Jimmy Kimmel asked the teenage pop star to “name a Van Halen”. Not unreasonably, Billie replied: “Who?” I did the sums and, for my generation, this would be akin to expecting us, at the same age, to be hipped in to the swinging sounds of Benny Goodman. Good for her.

You know how this goes. There was a certain amount of kickback. It seems that some people booed Eilish as she emerged from the broadcast. Inevitably, a few of the same rock bores who brag about not having heard of any modern artists — ignorance of young female stars being a source of particular pride — derided her on Twitter for unfamiliarity with godawful poodle rock (and, to be fair, one great pop tune). But it was the people responding to objections they hadn’t actually read that really kept the story alive. Everyone on the social wanted to explain that they didn’t expect Billie to know Van Halen and that they bit their thumb at the decrepit berks calling her names. Nobody in particular, you understand. But we know they are out there.

Decrepit reactionary bilge combines with dog-whistle racism throughout these comments sections

Anyway, we are pretending that there really was a furious outburst from Tyrannosaurus Clarksonia. We’re saying the airwaves were alive with the mournful call of the balding prog-coot.

And there really is a lot of this elsewhere at this time. It seems as if the comments sections beneath pieces on the best albums of the year exist purely to satisfy the dreary ravings of men (they’re always, always men) who can’t believe that hip-hop hasn’t gone away yet. They don’t call it “hip-hop”, of course. They don’t even call it “rap”. These geniuses have, for close to 40 years, been enjoying a piece of satirical wordplay that would cause even Dean Swift to doff his wig. Alan Jones was “below the line” at the Guardian to air the joke one more time “Every year since the millennium has seen a regurgitation of sound alike repetitive crap,” he wrote. “And don’t get me going about (c)rap.” Ha ha ha! Do you see what he did there? He made a funny about the annoying new music that emerged only two generations ago.

Decrepit reactionary bilge combines with dog-whistle racism throughout these comments sections. “The Beatles, The Stones, Marvin Gaye, Pink Floyd, The Jam, The Smiths, Stone Roses, Kate Bush, et al have been succeeded by absolute drivel,” someone else said. “It’s time to get rid of all this hip hop/rap/electro/current pop/pretend folk/cliche chords/talentless rubbish and start posting lists that contain ‘real music’,” another fathead ventured. “If you have to ask what ‘real music’ is, then you obviously haven’t experienced it.”

‘Twas ever thus. The lack of self-awareness is staggering. Parents of rock fans who came of age in the 1970s and the 1980s were rendered inarticulate with bafflement at the culture changes of the 1960s. It was they who gasped with drooping jaws at the long-haired layabouts on Top of the Pops in the bell-bottom years. “Is that a man or a woman? That’s not music; that’s just shouting.” Yet here we are again. The Floyd fans and the Jam fans are bellowing at their own televisions.

In the rock bores’ defence, it must be admitted that something significant did change in the 1960s

Human beings have a stubborn capacity to believe that their own generation will be the first to break centuries of bad habits. Every new wave of music — waltz, jazz, swing, bebop — gets decried as barbarism, but none of them ever goes away. Every generation believes that this time they’ve got it right: the young people really are morons and their elders actually have identified the line between “real music” and “talentless rubbish”.

In the rock bores’ defence, it must be admitted that something significant did change in the 1960s. With apologies to Ms Eilish, you would be unlikely to hear Benny Goodman playing in the shopping arcade when I was her age, but, in 2019, you might well catch Van Halen’s Jump when moving from Argos to PC World. Popular music now hangs around with successive generations in a way it didn’t before The Beatles arrived. (Eilish raised an astonished eyebrow at Kimmel’s suggestion that she might not have heard of Madonna.) 

You’d think that increasing staying power would have persuaded the rock bores to mend their reactionary ways. You may as well ask them to breathe underwater or eat electricity. That’s the thing about being a reactionary.