“They don’t make ’em like they used to.” We hear it regarding cars, shoes, Snickers, boxers, prosthetics. Name any item, practice—even category of humans—and someone inevitably pipes up with this refrain. “They don’t make ’em like they used to,” the phrase, apparently, is the only thing they make like they used to.
Besides references to the Model-T Ford, I hear this most when talking about music. Many folks think of the ’50s through ’70s as this bedazzled age of R&B music, while stereotypically discarding “that new stuff” as unintelligible gooble-dee-gop. I’ve done it myself.
Whiners change the refrain’s object. When the Temptations and Donny Hathaway were hot, you heard, “They don’t make ’em like B.B. King and Sarah Vaughn.” During the prime of Whitney Houston, Anita Baker, Luther Vandross, New Edition, you heard, “Man, they don’t make ’em like Marvin Gaye, the O’Jays, the Tempts, Aretha.” Now, in the age of Chrisette Michele, Jill Scott, Maxwell, Dwele, you hear, “They don’t make ’em like Brian McKnight, Gerald Levert, Boys to Men, En Vogue.” (En Vogue was tops, though.) Even the writer of Ecclesiastes, in all his world-weariness, warned not to yearn for yesteryear. Sheesh. Take a breather folks.
Romanticizing that 30-year period as a time when ten or so platinum- or gold-worthy—legacy-producing—singles filled every album just creates a fantasyland every generation needs to box in their memories. Think about it. How many CDs are issued a year? How many songs on a CD? Once we get past the Aretha, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, O’Jays, Marvin Gaye, Temps, Supremes, Isleys, Whispers—a couple good thangs from Ashford and Simpson, Betty Wright (I know there are more), we’re probably all talking about the same 50 or so artists/groups and 150 or so songs—in a 30-year span. Golden Age, indeed.
I love these artists and am not being dismissive. But every song that came out of the 1970s is not a golden oldie. Some of that stuff was junk, as are some of the songs released in this new millennium. I love me some Sammy Davis Jr., but I am not checking for his “Candy Man” rendition. Nuff said.
But folks’ll still complain, if not about the quality of the sound, about the content. They’ll say what’s hot right now is too sexually explicit, too depressing regarding relationships, too “women vs. men.” Just direct them to Womack’s “If You Think You’re Lonely Now.” Point out that we knew what Teddy P was turning the lights off for and that the Isleys’ “Making Love between the Sheets” isn’t as subtle as they think. (I mean, the title says it all—even children, without knowing the birds&bees, know what they’re talking about!) As for depressing relationship outlooks, anybody heard of Billie Holiday (God love her, but I need anti-depressants to get through My Man)?
Who’s rippin’ up R&B (in a good way) these days—or are the best R&B songs in the past?