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Should Billie Eilish be Expected to Know of Van Halen?

December 3, 2019

Van Halen, courtesy of Joe Bielawa/Wikimedia Commons

 

During an interview segment on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” the host was running through artists from a generation before Billie Eilish's birth. Though the 17-year-old was evidently familiar with Madonna, Eilish responded, “Who?” when Van Halen was mentioned. 

 

The veteran Los Angeles glam metal band's apex came in 1984, the year "Jump" reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart – 17 years before Eilish was born. Looking at the year-end Billboard chart from 17 years before I was born, in 1972, I can sing more than one line from three songs in the top 10. I’m sure some of these songs are perfectly nice, and scrolling through the entirety of the Hot 100, there are more than a few songs I consider truly excellent, but there are also many that I cannot possibly know any more than whatever knowledge Eilish has of Van Halen.

 

That this segment existed in the first place is a continuation of a treasured pastime – feigned indignation that a younger generation lacks encyclopedic knowledge of what came before it. Even when said generation has no reason to have that knowledge.

 

The notion of a teenager, say, not recognizing a landline phone greatly amuses the generation that made such devices obsolete in the first place, and the same generation is equally fascinated (and frequently angered) by someone Eilish's age not being familiar with a musical artist who last had a top 40 hit (Van Halen's "Can't Stop Lovin' You") six years before she was born.

 

But it isn’t merely that monocultural Baby Boomers cannot fathom not being familiar with a band that was never the most popular nor culturally significant artist in popular music – it’s that this would be viewed as an affront.

 

And let me be clear about something: I like Van Halen. I find their music to be generally enjoyable, even if I’m mostly burned out on the mega-hits after listening to an abundance of classic rock radio (but I still very much turn it up for second-tier hits like “Unchained” or “I’ll Wait”). I think my life is slightly enhanced by the existence of Van Halen, and I think they’re populist enough that this probably is true for most people. But this doesn’t make Van Halen an especially important band. They make fun music that I enjoy, but their music does not necessarily transcend era.

 

But where the silliness of caring about if a 17-year-old has heard of a band two generations past its prime really becomes apparent is when you reverse the roles. Has David Lee Roth heard of Eilish? I have no idea. But the key is that nobody would expect him to have, despite the fact that each of them has sung on the same amount of number-one hits. If he has, it would likely be regarded as a bonus.

 

At least one member of Van Halen has. Wolfgang Van Halen, the band's current bassist, who expressed support for Eilish on Twitter.

 

"If you haven’t heard of @billieeilish, go check her out. She’s cool. If you haven’t heard of @VanHalen, go check them out. They’re cool too. Music is supposed to bring us together, not divide us. Listen to what you want and don’t shame others for not knowing what you like."

 

The 28-year-old's comments befit a member of a band whose fame and success makes them immune from pointed criticism, much less minor slights, such as the one Eilish provided.

 

The singer, who turns 18 later this month, became the first artist born in the 21st century to hit number one on the American pop charts, and she did so with a song, “Bad Guy,” that eschews expectations of what a 17-year-old pop star would produce. It is a dark, minimalistic song influenced by trap and alternative music that sounds less like Britney Spears and more like Fiona Apple, as written and performed by somebody easily young enough to be Fiona Apple’s daughter.

 

It seems that the logical conclusion for this story should be for Van Halen to do a tongue-in-cheek cover of “Bad Guy” or for Eilish to cover “Jump” (I think the latter is more likely, but I’d prefer the former because, well, I think her song is better), and bygones will be bygones.

 

And in a vacuum, I prefer a world where different generations are versed in each other’s music, but I also recognize that this is not a requirement. Reverence for the past is not a requirement (for many artists, a direct repudiation of the past is preferred). And if you’re a Van Halen superfan, who is upset that the band isn’t known by every teenager on Earth, just remember that their music hasn’t disappeared, and even if the kids these days aren’t air-guitaring along to “Eruption,” that doesn’t mean that you can’t.

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