The Narrative

Toward the end of 2019, 17-year-old pop performer Billie Eilish was a guest on Jimmy Kimmel’s show. This year she has already won a ton of awards, is nominated for six Grammy’s, and her debut album reached #1 in over 20 countries. Eilish is clearly one of the most popular music artists on the planet. But she’s also 17. So when Kimmel asked her if she could name one member of Van Halen and she responded, “Who? No, who is that?”, it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. It’s not like she plays guitar-based rock, and Van Halen hasn’t put out a relevant album during her lifetime. Consider – Eilish was born in 2001. Van Halen’s 2012’s A Different Kind of Truth was their first studio album in 14 years, their previous effort Van Halen III having been released in 1998, and even as a rock fan I couldn’t have told you the name of it. It was one of those funny “haha, she’s so young moments” that are the bread-and-butter of late night TV, and that should have been the end of it.

But it wasn’t because within roughly 12 seconds of her response people started posting on Twitter about how they couldn’t believe Eilish had never heard of Van Halen. Because that’s what people do now. Which is ironic as I suspect that many of those piling on had never heard of Billie Eilish prior to her comment. In fact I’d be willing to bet if 64-year-old Eddie Van Halen had been on Kimmel and said he’d never heard of Eilish, most of those same Twitter posters wouldn’t have batted an eye and probably would have given Eddie a “fuckin’ a!”. Fortunately Eilish’s defenders chimed in just as quickly, the coup de grace being delivered by Wolfgang Van Halen himself who basically told everyone to check out her music and chill the hell out.

Billie Eilish’s narrative doesn’t include Van Halen (or it least it didn’t until she appeared on Kimmel’s show). And honestly, what percentage of 17-year-old American young women could name a member of Van Halen? If they’re into rock they probably could, especially since the band is named after some of the members, though that’s no guarantee since the once mighty Van Halen is now relegated to the category of “classic rock”. More likely they’d have heard of the band because one or both of their parents, who would probably be in their 40s, were (and maybe still are) fans. Eddie, Alex, Michael, David Lee and/or Sammy are part of their parents’ narrative (I’m not sure that Gary Cherrone is part of anyone’s Van Halen narrative except as a footnote or cautionary tale). If you’d have asked 17-year-old me about songs that my parents liked that dated from a decade or more before I was born, I’d probably only have recognized those I heard them play in the car or that appeared in movies. Not a lot of teenagers in 1988 were rocking around the clock or looking for a thrill on a hill named after berries.

That’s a lot of writing to bring me to what got me thinking about Eilish in the first place – the concept of narrative. I listened to two podcasts on the same day last week (my daily round-trip commute is about 2.5 hours – I have lots of time for podcasts). The first was an interview with punk icon Ian MacKaye recorded by Rolf Potts in 2018, the second a talk with writer Chuck Klosterman on The Ringer podcast The Watch from 2017. Both dealt, in their own ways, with the concept of “narrative” and how it comes to be.

MacKaye maintains an archive of recordings and music ephemera. As a former member of Minor Threat and Fugazi, and the founder of the Dischord Records, he was at ground zero of the Washington DC punk scene and has been a fan, touring musician, and producer for decades. He’s also still a fan and student of music. Potts asked Ian how he uses the archive and if it’s important because it shapes the narrative about Dischord and the DC scene. That led to a brief but deep discussion about narrative. MacKaye recognized that his narrative is shaped by his personal experiences and that the “stuff” is in large part unnecessary to him because he was there, he still has his memories. He also acknowledged that he has no control over how others perceive those same events. He isn’t so much interested in using the archive to shape the narrative as he is in making it available to people who have questions, a means for them to possibly confirm or reject the more widely accepted narrative. “The Narrative”, if you will.

“The Narrative” is what becomes the de facto truth. “History is written by the victors” is a quote attributed to Winston Churchill, though perhaps Napoleon’s 1815 statement is more apt: “What then is, generally speaking, the truth of history? A fable agreed upon.” Now let’s be clear – there are certainly undisputed facts in history – this thing happened on this date and all of that. But decades of research have shown us how faulty memory can be, that what we distinctly remember happening one way may in fact have occurred much differently. There’s also the matter of perspective – we all view the things around us through the lens of all of our combined personal experiences up to that moment. As time progresses, often a capital-N-Narrative emerges, what is eventually an agreed-up set of facts and influences that are ascribed a distinct meaning and become the dominant paradigm through which a time or event is viewed moving forward.

This, in a way, is the kind of Narrative that Klosterman discusses in his book But What If We’re Wrong? (2016) (and yes, that the front cover is intentionally printed upside down). Basically Chuck asks, what if that which seems certain today will be viewed in a very different way in the future? A good example that he touches on in the book is the various “Greatest 100 Books of the 20th Century” lists that were published around the year 2000. I love lists like these, and I’m sure I’ve pored over more than one to count how many of the books I’d read. These lists are, of course, subjective, and their creation and composition are influenced by the time and place (and people) that generated them. So what if, say in 2120, a bunch of experts get together and put together their list of the “Greatest 100 Books of the 20th Century”? How would that list differ from the one compiled in 2000? Would 80% of the books be the same… or maybe only 20%? But the really exciting question, to me at least, is what books would be on the 2120 list that were basically unknown when the 2000 list was put together? It’s not unreasonable to think that someone not even remotely on the writing greatness radar in 2000 will be canonized a hundred years from now. It’s not so much that the first list was wrong. Instead it’s that the literature and the historical era of the 20th Century will be viewed differently in a future that has the benefit of being able to contextualize it more completely. And that means The Narrative will have changed.

As someone with a degree in history I know the importance of using primary sources over secondary ones. Both are, of course, tainted by the experiences and biases of the individuals who created the material. Both are products, consciously or unconsciously, of The Narrative of that moment in time. But sources from the time of the events, particularly those produced by people directly involved in them, are at least reflective of the prevailing narrative when the events were occurring as opposed to being viewed through another time’s lenses. That’s not to say secondary sources don’t have value – after all, those are what historians produce in their books and articles, and they have the benefit of a wider perspective. But they also instill their own biases into the mix. And for most people, on most subjects, it’s these distilled, condensed recountings that define The Narrative through which we understand things and events. I wasn’t alive during World War II. I don’t speak all the languages of all the belligerents involved, and I don’t have the time, money, or inclination to travel to every archive and arrive at my own in depth understanding of the war. But I can go onto Amazon and buy a book about it. And if I’m just casually interested in the subject, chances are that one book will become my Narrative of it. An entire world at war for six years (or nine, or 12, or even 31 if you consider WWII a continuation of WWI as some historians do… again, different narratives…), delivered to my mailbox and filtered down to a few hundred pages.

The Narrative, by its very nature, must be superficial.

That doesn’t mean that The Narrative isn’t useful, because at the end of the day I can’t become an expert on the Cold War, French New Wave cinema, the Apollo moon missions, and the philosophical underpinnings of Marxism, at least not if I want to hold down a job and not be the person people least want to talk to at parties. And good historians will make an effort to tell you when sources conflict about facts. But at the end of the day you could spend a lifetime studying one war, or just one battle within the greater war. There’s so much information that without The Narrative we’d probably all give up and just watch reality television all day (which, of course, has its own set of Narratives…).

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately in context to music (see – it only took me 1,500 words to finally get back to the subject matter of the blog!). I’ve read lots of books and articles and blogs and liner notes about various albums, musicians, genres and time periods. Each of these has its own narrative, and sometimes a larger Narrative emerges. For example, there’s a general Narrative of the beginning of punk rock. It touches for a moment on 1960s garage rock as a roots influence, makes a stopover in New York City to mention the Ramones, then crosses the Atlantic to London and the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Oversimplified? Clearly. If The Narrative is consumed as both the start and end point, then you’ll come away with a very basic understanding, though one shaped in part by contemporary perspectives and biases. And given that most rock criticism has been historically written by straight white men between 25-50 years of age, The Narrative is also shaped by their experiences and preferences. But that’s not to say The Narrative doesn’t provide value. Often within it are other threads that can be pulled, new rabbit holes to go down. A passing mention of the Stooges may take you to the Detroit scene, whereas Devo will bring you to Cleveland. Seeking more info about CBGBs, where the Ramones played, will broaden your perspective about what actually constitutes punk (I’m looking at you, Patti Smith) and will show how New Wave evolved out of it. Pull on that New Wave thread a bit and you might find yourself exploring the brief rebellion against it that was No Wave. And so on, and so on, and so on.

As mentioned previously, I love lists. And one of the lists I’ve spent time poring over in recent years is Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. Originally published in 2003, a slightly tweaked version came out in book form in 2005. Then, in 2012 an updated version came out. After all, there was an entire decade of new releases to factor in. I give Rolling Stone credit that they didn’t simply do a new poll and arrive at a completely new list – it looks like they tried to stay true to their original 2003 Narrative and used it as the starting point. But there were still some weird twists.

The first was that in some cases one album by an artist was simply substituted in the same slot by another of their albums. For example, Elvis’ The Sun Sessions held down the #11 slot on the original list, but in 2012 it was gone and replaced in the same spot with Sunrise. This happens a number of times. Usually it involves some kind of compilation, but a few examples are head scratchers. Paul Simon’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (1973) was originally #267 in 2003, but disappeared completely from the list in 2012 and was replaced by 1971s Paul Simon at #268. Why? Kind of odd. It’s almost like you’re saying “Paul Simon’s early solo work deserves to be represented in the Top 300, but the specific album isn’t all that important.”

Next were the albums dropped from the list in 2012. Based on some research done by others, somewhere around 37 albums were added/dropped from the original list. A few were handled as swaps, as noted above, but most of the rest (but not all… more on that in a minute) were released in the period between 2003 and 2012. So you’d expect that the bottom 30 or so albums would be dropped, the new albums would be slotted in, and everything else would be shuffled about to even things out. But… not quite. Roughly half the albums removed from the 2003 list were in the bottom 100. But what about Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel? It was #164 in 2003, but gone in 2012. Poof. A Top 200 album, just gone? But OK, it’s Linda Ronstadt, so maybe the editors felt like she didn’t fit on a rock/pop focused list. Fine. Then how did two Nick Drake albums drop out of the Top 300 (Bryter Layter at #245 and Five Leaves Left at #283)? And Roxy Music’s Avalon goes from #307 to, well, somewhere below #500? Both No Doubt records on the original list were purged. Other non-greatest-hits deletions that originally were above #450 include albums by Massive Attack, PJ Harvey, Eminem, Def Leppard, Alannis Morrisette, and Rage Against the Machine. How does No Doubt earn two spots in 2003 and lose them both in 2012? Apparently The Narrative about No Doubt changed. But why?

You’d expect the new additions in 2012 (excluding the swaps…) would be primarily albums that came out in or after 2003, with maybe a few from the 2000-2002 period that hadn’t quite risen to prominence in their early years. And generally speaking that’s true. Kanye makes it all the way to #118 with Late Registration and Acrade Fire’s Funeral cracks the Top 200 at #151. But what about Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out at #272? That album came out in 1997. Maybe The Narrative about Riot Grrrl changed enough in the intervening years to warrant its inclusion. But explain Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate at #295. That record came out in 1971. It was already 32 years old when the original list was published, and apparently didn’t warrant inclusion then. Beach Boys’ Smile came out in 1983 and debuted on the 2012 list at #381, and Stone Roses’ debut record from 1988 squeezed in at #498. Clearly The Narrative changed.

What does it all mean? Nothing, really. It’s a subjective list put together by a magazine as a way to spark conversation and sell units. But it does create a Narrative of sorts, and that Narrative is a product of the people involved in putting together their lists. Their biases and perspectives are all over it. The Top 10 albums on the 2012 list are canonical by definition, and the “newest” release on the list is the Clash’s London Calling from 1979 – so all the Top 10 albums are at least 33 years old, and only the 1960s and 1970s are represented in the Top 10. Our first post-1970s album is Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991) at #17, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982) closes out the Top 20. Ignoring compilations comprised exclusively of older material, as near as I can tell only five albums from 1980 forward made the Top 50, and one of those is a comp of sorts, Bob Marley’s Legend.

Clearly this list, at least at the uppermost echelons, skews hard towards 1960s and 70s rock. The Beatles hold down five slots in the Top 50, six if you count John Lennon’s solo material. Dylan makes three appearances, the Rolling Stones two. So either 20%, or 22%, depending on where you think Plastic Ono Band fits in, of the Top 50 are held down by three artists/groups, with all that material is from the 1960s and 70s. I’m sure that changes for 51-100, right? Not really. I’m not going to look them all up, but as near as I can tell there are around eight albums from post-1979 in that section, so 85-88% of the Top 100 albums are 30+ years old.

I get that older albums have had more time to establish themselves, both in terms of their quality and the artists they influenced. Once an artists (and this includes writers, painters, sculptors, or whatever) is canonized, they are pretty much there for life, making it harder for other, later folks to elbow their way in. One of the few areas where this is not true is sports, because we have objective measures we can consider to evaluate their places in history. But not when it comes to the subjectiveness of art. Album sales are hardly a reliable indicator of quality, especially in the last few decades with sales falling off. So we’re left with the opinions of “experts” and their biases (both conscious and unconscious), perspectives, and experiences. And these experts create The Narrative.

So what’s the point of all this? Good question. I’m not entirely sure myself. But one thing is clear to me – The Narrative exists. If it’s arrived at honestly, and isn’t an intentionally False Narrative constructed to be deceptive, it provides value. But you have to always be aware that what you’re seeing is a Narrative, one pieced together by a person, one certain to have omissions (intentional or unintentional). And you don’t have to accept as The One True Narrative. It’s a tool, a summary, a starting point. Nothing more. Explore for yourself. Cast your net wide and see what you find.