The Dangers of Comparing Sinatra to Bieber

My friend Holly had an excellent post yesterday about this graphic that has been all over Facebook news feeds lately. By comparing Frank Sinatra to Justin Bieber, the poster essentially gets at something that “us young people” hear all the time. Not only was life better back when the Baby Boomers were growing up, but the music, literature, food, and just about everything else was better too! Ok, that may have been a slight exaggeration, but it’s not far off. There’s something implicit (or explicit depending on how deeply you think about this graphic) that hints that we were better off as a society back then. This same line of thought says that music now-a-days is more shallow than ever.

I couldn’t agree less with these sentiments.

Here’s the thing about music. There has always been good music, if you look for it. And conversely, there has always been terrible music, if you look for it. Comparing the two, throughout any generation, is bound to bring up discrepancies. Take for instance Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Do the Twist” — yep, I’m going there.

Come on let’s twist again,
like we did last summer!
Yeaaah, let’s twist again,
like we did last year!

Do you remember when,
things were really hummin’,
Yeaaaah, let’s twist again,
twistin’ time is here!

Now can you honestly tell me that these lyrics are a far cry from “shake it like a polaroid picture”? It’s the same thing, just translated through to the culture. Which brings me to my main point…

The invention of popular music as a genre fundamentally changed the way we relate to music.

Think about the genres of music. There are some genres that have an element of timelessness to them. Chopin composed music 170 years ago and still has some of the most moving music I’ve ever heard. Genres like jazz, blues, and classical all have an element of timelessness to them. Ray Charles’ “Georgia on my Mind” and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” still pack the same punch now that they did back then.

But pop music is different. Pop music is set in a time and a place — which is exactly why there is a category called 80’s music. This is why VH1’s nostalgia pieces work so well. I love the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s use the pop music of the day to bring us back to those times in our lives. And some of these pop pieces have been less than incendiary to say the least. Comparing Frank Sinatra to Justin Bieber is like comparing apples to month-old milk. You just can’t do it.

If you’re going to compare Frank’s lyrics to some modern music, here are 3 songs you could try — all released in the last year. All with great wonderful lyrics (and no, Bon Iver’s “Holocene” does not make an appearance, although it could).

1) “Poison & Wine” by The Civil Wars

I wish you’d hold me when I turn my back
The less I give the more I get back
Oh your hands can heal, your hands can bruise
I don’t have a choice but I’d still choose you

Oh I don’t love you but I always will
Oh I don’t love you but I always will
Oh I don’t love you but I always will

2) “Helplessness Blues by The Fleet Foxes

What’s my name, what’s my station, oh, just tell me what I should do
I don’t need to be kind to the armies of night that would do such injustice to you
Or bow down and be grateful and say “sure, take all that you see”
To the men who move only in dimly-lit halls and determine my future for me

And I don’t, I don’t know who to believe
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see

3) “Someone Like You” by Adele

I hate to turn up out of the blue uninvited
But I couldn’t stay away, I couldn’t fight it.
I’d hoped you’d see my face and that you’d be reminded
That for me it isn’t over.

Never mind, I’ll find someone like you
I wish nothing but the best for you too
Don’t forget me, I beg
I remember you said,
“Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead.”

What songs would you add to this list? What are some more recent songs that stir in you?



  1. The poster is definitely over simplistic. But to be fair it is a poster and not a lengthy thesis.

    I agree it’s easy to come up with counter examples to the ones shown but I don’t think you can really argue against the poster’s basic message (at least as I see it): that the most commercially successful / trendsetting music has lost all traces of authenticity, humanity and sophistication and become little more than scientifically manufactured and cynically marketed ‘content’ instead.

    There main problem with criticisms and discussions about ‘the state of popular music’ is that hardly anyone knows anything about the industries which create, market, promote and generally endorse it all. The music industry, mass media, Hollywood, Disney etc are never going to tell you uncomfortable truths about the music scene which they and their advertisers need you to believe in and thus spend your money on.

    And because of this all questions remain (in the mainstream consciousness at least) not just unanswered but unasked.

    – Why do all Disney pop princesses (Spears, Aguilera, Cyrus etc) start out pink, sparkly and cute and end up (almost overnight) in leather and chains, pole dancing and generally acting like ho’s?
    – Why are there always so many cases of multiple personality disorder/ DID in Hollywood and the music biz?
    – Why do so many stars suffer from ‘exhaustion’ and have ‘mental breakdowns’ requiring stays in metal institutions when they are millionaires with their own personal trainers, chauffeurs, security who stay in luxury hotels and Hollywood mansions?
    – Why so many suicides (or …’suicides’)?
    – Why do so many successful female artists (Rihanna, GaGa, Beyonce etc) dress up as robots and do photo shoots with guns and incorporate (highly sexualised) militaristic themes in their videos and stage shows?
    – What’s up with all that occult, freemasonic and satanic symbolism in videos and during award ceremonies like the VMA’s?
    – Why did the 60’s hippie counter culture originate in LA when there was no music scene there to speak of and why did so many of the 60’s icons from Jim Morrison to Frank Zappa come from high ranking military intelligence families?

    We live in an information age. Social interaction and sharing of information has never been as easy and as sophisticated as it is today. The most heavily promoted ‘artists’ express more highly specific information in a single outfit, or pop video than some artists might have expressed in their whole careers 50 year’s ago. So why do we feel like we are being dumbed down?

    Close you eyes for 30 seconds and imagine what music – even popular mainstream music – should be like in the 21st century given how far we have advanced in so many other ways….(sending spaceships to mars etc).

    Now watch this.

    Don’t you think it’s weird that more people aren’t questioning just what on earth is going on here?

  2. Thanks for the response. I agree with a lot of what you say. The music industry has certainly put its money-over-talent foot forward and has let a lot of corporations/industries control a lot of the output.

    That being said, I would disagree that all commercially successful music lacks authenticity, humanity, and sophistication. Perhaps I’m a bit foolishly optimistic in this way… but right now here are the top 10 albums according to iTunes (not a perfect barometer as it is just one sales point, and a digital one at that. But I think it reflects the commercial audience we are talking about). Anyways… the Top 10 are

    1. “21” – Adele
    2. “Whitney — The Greatest Hits” – Whitney Houston
    3. “Mylo Xyloto” – Coldplay
    4. “Barton Hollow” – The Civil Wars
    5. “19” – Adele
    6. “Sinatra: Best of the Best” – Frank Sinatra
    7. “Stronger” – Kelly Clarkson
    8. “2012 Grammy Nominees” – Various Artist
    9. “Nothing But the Best” – David Guetta
    10. “Bon Iver” – Bon Iver

    Now granted, not the greatest group in terms of overall artistic merit, but all things considered… I’d say there’s a fair amount of authenticity, humanity, and sophistication to what a number of these musicians do (minus the obvious Kelly Clarkson and, to a lesser extent, David Guetta).

    I think you’re correct in that a lot of what has become of the music industry is more spectacle than substance, but I still think that there is some legitimacy to modern music.

    Would I ever compare Sinatra to Bieber? Absolutely not. No comparison possible. But given the insane increase in volume of music created from 1936 to 2012, I think that’s to be expected. Anytime you have more music created, the amount of said music that will be crap goes up as well.

    • “….. I would disagree that all commercially successful music lacks authenticity, humanity, and sophistication….”

      Sure, I agree. I was really referring to this small inner group of uber commercial artists (Madonna, GaGa, Beyonce, Jay-Z, Spears etc) who seem to lead the way in terms of setting the trends for commercial music, fashion and celebrity…. of mainstream culture in general. Their effect on music (including other artists) is HUGE. And their effect on social attitudes and behaviour is also huge, especially when you think of their cumulative effect over the years in terms of the Hegelian Dialectic.

      The evidence suggests that the members of this super successful ‘cabal’ were either created deliberately by ‘the powers that be’ in the industry to push certain agendas and dictate certain trends in pop music and youth culture………. or they were suitable candidates who were persuaded to sell out to that same agenda.

      Yes it’s true that in addition to this super elite group there are more genuine and authentic artists like Adele, Fleet Foxes and so on but these artists still always tend to be very ‘genre conforming’ and kind of neutral in terms of their effect on culture. They do not really offer an equally extreme yet diametrically opposed viewpoint to the GaGa’s and the Jay -Z’s. Instead they sing about a narrow range of subjects: heartache or random dreamy stuff or vague life affirming stuff. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that. It’s just that when ‘the cabal’ are consistently promoting misogyny, violence, war, consumerism, trauma based mind control, satanism, tranhumanism, extreme body modification, ego mania, narcissism, sexual abuse it would be nice if there were other artists promoting the other end of the spectrum just as vociferously 😉 (call me old fashioned!)

      What concerns me is not so much the stuff which is out there, it’s about how it is all being filtered by those with the power and money …… it’s about what gets promoted into the mainstream (and why) and what gets overlooked or even suppressed by the industry.

      Today cynically manufactured music does not just mean ‘lowest common denominator’, it means music, videos and stage shows designed to steer youth culture in very specific directions using methods that are every bit as sophisticated as any advertising campaign…. only a hundred times more powerfully.

      The links in my last comment explore all this in more detail… I’ll shut up now! 🙂

Please keep your comments positive. I reserve the right to delete rude or insulting comments. If your comment is critical, please make sure it is also constructive. Thank you.

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