[opinion] On Austin Cooper and Essential Albums

With NPR’s move to have their interns blog about their thoughts on classic albums, or the state of music, the public radio organization certainly seems to have hit a collective nerve. Whether it’s Emily White’s admission that she hasn’t paid for much music, or now to Austin Cooper’s initial foray into Public Enemy’s seminal It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, people are angry – ANGRY, dammit! – that the younger set is experiencing music differently than they did when they were the same age.

The Emily White story has been beat to death, so I won’t rehash it here, but let me say that I really don’t much care. I see all sides of the issue, and I pay for my music for the most part, but there’s not enough at play to draw my ire on any of the sides of the debate.

The Austin Cooper outrage is more my speed, however. Let’s give the kid a break; he’s 19 years old. If I were to give a run down of what I was spinning constantly when I was his age, it wouldn’t have included Public Enemy. In fact, if you wanted a run down of all my music listening from birth through today, I can almost guarantee it wouldn’t include any Public Enemy beyond “Bring The Noise” and “911 Is A Joke.”

Does that revelation somehow make my musical experience incomplete? It might, but I’d be willing to bet that my lack of listening to It Takes A Nation Of Millions… doesn’t make any difference in my own understanding of popular music. I realize that it’s an important album. It offers scathing social commentary for its time period. If you want to understand the plight of African Americans in the late-Eighties and early Nineties, it’s invaluable. But that commentary, while historically important, isn’t being voiced through a current artist.

Cooper talks about the first rap song he liked – Drake’s “Over.” That’s a good thing, even if you did decide to chide him for his choice of artist. Because if he really likes Drake, or through his enjoyment of Drake he experiences any other number of contemporary rap artists, the chances that he runs into It Takes A Nation Of Millions… organically increases exponentially.

And that is how music should be experienced – not through force feeding or shaming, but through recommendation and trust. Cooper would have gotten around to Public Enemy at some point if that were really where he was interested in going (not unlike me). But in the end it’s never been the albums that I HAD to listen to because they were placed in some Canon of Greatness that I’ve enjoyed more than the ones I’ve come to on my own terms.