In the past few years, “OK Boomer” became the insult du jour by Millennials and Gen-Xers towards us Baby Boomers, we who were born between 1946 and 1964. The sometimes-sincere jibe has been used to blame us for all society’s ills, from global warming to nuclear proliferation to white privilege. It’s like we’re the world’s husband — no matter what it is, it’s our fault (and it usually is).
But you know what? There’s one thing we Baby Boomers did better than any other generation in humanity’s history or future: music. Here’s why:
Factor 1: The Blues
To be sure, the revolution started a generation before with the great Blues musicians that sprang from the Mississippi Delta juke joints like B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters. Led Zeppelin’s “Travelling Riverside Blues”, Cream’s “Crossroads” (led by Eric Clapton), and the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water” clearly show the indelible influence of the Bluesmen who lifted the hearts of sharecroppers after long days in the cottonfields under the hot Delta sun. They did so by giving melody and verse to the hardship, adversity, and heartbreak of Black men and women whose families had spent generations under the yoke of slavery followed by the Jim Crow era. In his book Revolt of the Rednecks, Albert Kirwan recorded the observation of overseers watching Black workers out in the cotton fields in the 1870's: “And they sing, as only they can sing.”
This was the pain that gave rise to Blues music, and the Blues provided the foundation for most popular music today, from Classic Rock to Hip-Hop and even to K-Pop. Don’t just take my word for it. Watch B.B. King’s 1999 performance at the White House of his greatest hit The Thrill Is Gone, with Eric Clapton at his side, clearly the apprentice to King’s mastery of the craft. An even better treat is to listen to King himself describe why he named his guitar Lucille, He shows how he makes her sing, how he can pull just about any emotion out of her. Lucille is a Gibson semi-hollow body ES-355 electric guitar…
Factor 2: The Electric Guitar And The Moog Synthesizer
…and it was the advent of the electric guitar that really kicked off the musical revolution led by the Baby Boomers. The electric guitar was the instrumental centerpiece of almost every band. Yes, a lot of artists still depended on acoustic guitars or pianos, but just try to imagine anything by Led Zeppelin or The Who or The Rolling Stones without it. Or better yet, try Jimi Hendrix’ rendition of the National Anthem at Woodstock in 1969.
A few years later came a lesser-known, though every bit as important, innovation: the Moog Synthesizer (yes, that’s a Wikipedia page, but it’s a really good description. Sue me.). Ever heard of Switched-On Bach? To the modern ear, that’s really simple electronic music, even bordering on the primitive. But when the Moog was invented in 1964, this was freaking revolutionary. Nothing like it had ever been heard before. The technology (the Moog and its follow-on incarnations) was quickly adopted by everyone from The Beatles to The Doors, and some bands like Emerson Lake and Palmer often made it their primary acoustic instrument in hits like Fanfare For The Common Man. The Moog Synthesizer is the common ancestor of almost every bit of the electronic music you hear today.
Factor 3: Television For The Masses
The synchronicity of those factors — Blues music, the electric guitar, and the Moog Synthesizer — might still not have been enough for a true musical revolution but for the advent of true mass media. Even in the late 1940’s, the only time most Americans (much less the rest of the mostly-ravaged-by-war developed world) watched television was in a tavern or in the window of an appliance store. But America’s economy boomed with the spread of electronics, and by the end of the 1960’s, most American households found themselves glued to the television set on most nights of the week. In 1964, the Ed Sullivan Show presented the first live American broadcast of The Beatles (using their electric guitars, mind you), and it was an Event-with-a-capital-E. It was estimated that seventy-three million people — about forty percent of the entire American population — watched that broadcast. When it comes to popular entertainment, there has never been anything before or since like Beatlemania. Nobody else — not Michael Jackson, not Taylor Swift, not even Beyoncé — even comes close.
Factor 4: Social Upheaval
In a way, Beatlemania serves as a metaphor for the entire musical revolution, in that it is unlikely that humanity will ever experience anything like it in the future, for the revolution depended not only upon the temporal confluence of those three factors, but also upon the social upheaval that spread across the planet during the 1960’s and 1970's. Sure, we had large protests against the Iraq War in the 2000’s, but those were like small-town PTA meetings compared to the protests against the Vietnam War. These protests were part of what led to the Summer of Love in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969. Listen to Buffalo Springfield’s iconic anti-war song For What It’s Worth (and think of how it applies even today). Perhaps even more influential was the Cold War, the thermonuclear Sword of Damocles that hung (and still hangs, if somewhat less threateningly) above the necks of all humanity.
Mixed in with the anti-war sentiment was the new drug culture — not only marijuana, but heroin, cocaine (check out Clapton’s song at the Royal Albert Hall), and most of all, lysergic acid diethylamide, also known as LSD, the drug of choice for fans of, say, Iron Butterfly’s psychedelic anthem In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.
Most of all, this was the time of the Civil Rights Struggle, the heady days of MLK’s March On Washington, of the Stonewall Riots, of the Watts riots, of the end of miscegenation laws with Loving v. Virginia, and of hundreds of other events great and small that occurred across the nation and across the world. This mixed in with the Women’s Liberation Movement — “bra burning” was a thing — and the Abortion Rights movement that culminated with Roe v. Wade. As anyone paying the least attention to the news today can attest, those struggles are far from over, but with a bit of perspective, one sees that in terms of social development, America — indeed, the world as a whole — has come incredibly far in just one lifetime. The rights that People of Color and LGBTQ’s have today were unimaginable in the America of just one lifetime ago.
All the above factors combined to give us the greatest musical revolution in human history. In all honesty, considering the prejudice, injustice, and atrocities that gave us Blues music and the social upheavals of the 1960’s and 1970’s, I’m not so sure I’d want to see another musical revolution of this magnitude.
But the music itself? It was still the best ever. Nothing else comes close. Hopefully, nothing ever will.