Billie Eilish, Van Halen, and the inevitability of musical obsolescence

In lighter news, Wolfgang Van Halen, the son of Van Halen lead guitarist Eddie Van Halen, has publicly defended teen singer Billie Eilish.

Why? Eilish didn’t know anything about his dad’s famed rock band—even that it existed.

When she recently appeared on the Jimmy Kimmel Live show, the host asked her to name a few members of Van Halen. Eilish’s response was “Who? No, who is that?” Kimmel (jokingly) threatened to cry, and the older sector of the Twitterverse went wild with gibes about Eilish’s lack of knowledge about great rock bands of the 1980s.

I’m certainly okay with chiding youngsters who can’t identify the major combatants of World War II, or the three branches of the US government. Regarding their knowledge of Reagan-era popular music, though, I’m inclined to cut them some slack.

Knowledge about music (like other elements of pop culture) tends to be generational. Van Halen’s heyday was in the 1980s—along with Def Leppard, Rush, Iron Maiden, and other bands from that era that I love. That era ended a decade before Eilish was even born, though.

I think it’s great that many of these bands are still touring, and even making new music. One of my high school friends recently attended a Who concert with her husband. She noted on Facebook that she was younger than the Who—and she’s fifty-one. If you’d asked me in 1982, when I was a freshman in high school, I would have told you that the Who was a fading relic of yesteryear. Well, I now technically qualify for membership in the AARP, and the Who is still going strong—for a group of septuagenarian rockers, that is. (I wonder if they’re still bedding groupies?)

That said, I also recognize that the old bands that are still making music are largely playing to older audiences. I’m sure there are a handful of teenage Def Leppard fans—just like there were kids who obsessed on the long defunct Doors in the 1980s. Most of us, though, tend to focus on music that was new and popular during our teens and twenties. (Speaking of the Who: Although the Who is mostly a 1960s/1970s rock band, they put out two commercially successful albums in the early 1980s: Face Dances (1981) and It’s Hard (1982). This explains their popularity with people of my generation.)

Likewise, I don’t know much about the music that young people are listening to nowadays. I do know who Taylor Swift is—because her face seems plastered to the Internet. But I hadn’t heard of Billie Eilish, to cite one example. To be honest, I haven’t really become a fan of any new music since the mid-1990s, when I was in my mid-twenties.

It’s perfectly okay for musical tastes to change. That’s the whole concept behind “popular culture”. If musical tastes never changed, we’d all still be listening to Frank Sinatra and Elvis. It is also inevitable that musical acts that were universally known to one generation will become distant trivia to the next.

But I’m an old guy, and the kids can have the new stuff—including this Billie Eilish. I’m not going to stop listening to Rush, Def Leppard, and yes…Van Halen.