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Dylan, Gaga and why we cling to our own music

By LZ Granderson, Special to CNN
  • LZ Granderson says Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger sounded pretty bad at Grammys
  • Some get defensive, saying music of earlier generation better than copycats today, he says
  • Music has always copied: Gaga channels Madonna, who borrrowd from Monroe, he says
  • Granderson: We bond with music of our time; still, music should connect us, not divide

Editor's note: LZ Granderson is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN The Magazine and and has contributed to ESPN's Sports Center, Outside the Lines and First Take. He is a 2010 nominee and the 2009 winner of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation award for online journalism and a 2010 and 2008 honoree of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association for column writing.

(CNN) -- Bob Dylan sure sounded bad, even for him, croaking through "Maggie's Farm" at the Grammys on Sunday. Mick Jagger wasn't much better.

Blasphemy, I know, but judging from Twitter posts and voices in the blogosphere still going on about their performances, I'm not alone in my thinking. The energy was there, but the vocals were not. Which raises the question: Maybe the rock icons shouldn't have been on stage in the first place?

It's not an easy discussion because inevitably it gets muddled in music's generational war, neatly summarized by Dr. Cornel West's post-Grammy tweet: "What made artists great in my day compared to the ones of today is that they were originals" followed by, "Today, many artists are merely copies, which means there is a #courage deficit."

Wow. A touchy subject for sure, and maybe even a harder one to argue when faced with some past-their-prime performances.

But let's be magnanimous. Here's one theory of why this kind of thing comes up every year when old and young share the Grammy stage:

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We have a youth-driven culture that devalues aging --and thus the hard-won experiences that comes with it --and this makes many in the older cohort feel the need to justify their musical tastes by dismissing the effort of those that followed. As a result, this thinking goes, Dylan and Jagger belong no matter how they sound. And Lady Gaga is of course merely a Madonna copycat, because if the singer they enjoyed in their youth is deemed passe, so are they.

This, naturally, ignores that Madonna wasn't born sealed in plastic wrap like a CD. She, too, was influenced by her peers and borrowed from her predecessors. And 25 years from now, some new artist is going to be influenced by what Gaga is doing now. And like clockwork, some of her middle-aged Monsters are going to cry foul in the same way Madonna's fans are now and Marilyn Monroe's fans did when Madge was being a Material Girl (channeling the original Blond Bombshell).

We may think we're defending the integrity of the music we enjoy, but what we are really fighting for is our place in a culture that is trying to replace us. We are rebelling against a media that tells us we are old and no longer relevant. We are holding on to the beauty and joy that is tied to those songs that provided the soundtrack to some of the more important moments in our lives.

If we really were fighting for art for art's sake, we wouldn't be threatened by a Gaga or the critique of Dylan's performance because we would know art is not stilted and disconnected. It oozes and drips.

There are no true originals, only the byproducts of cultural evolution. We all owe portions of the sounds we prefer to the generation before ours and the many generations before that.

This need to claim a superior moment of creative expression, like some sort of 15th-century explorer claiming the New World, is ridiculous. Remember, Christopher Columbus didn't discover America. Native Americans were already here. So whatever we think Gaga or Madonna or Marilyn Monroe started, they probably didn't. They just had better PR.

I didn't understand a damn word Dylan sang Sunday night, and I've listened to his earlier recordings and I don't understand them either. But, Kurt Cobain mumbled his way through songs and yet for some reason "Smells Like Teen Spirit" makes all of the sense in the world to me. Why? Because I had just moved out of the dorms and was on my own for the first time in my life and that song came on as I was unpacking boxes.

I'm sure there are Dylan and Justin Bieber songs that connect with their fans in a similar subjective manner. If we could get to the point where we can talk about the objective elements of a performance -- such as pitch -- then we would see music, like all forms of art, flows on a continuum. And that the lines between generations are not vertical, to divide, but rather horizontal, to connect.

"Imagine" isn't a transcendent song because John Lennon sang it. It's because the themes and melody of the song touches a longing many of us have to make the world a better place. Just as Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours" expresses the helplessness we feel when we finally decide to surrender to love, to God, to life, and Eminem's "Not Afraid" captures the timeless struggle we all have to face our own demons.

So Dylan didn't sound great. Taylor Swift wasn't too hot during her Grammy performance last year. It happens. But sadly, award shows encourages us to rank and choose sides, fostering a counterintuitive relationship to music, which above all, is meant to be experienced.

Preferably on key.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.