If you were outraged because Billie Eilish has never heard of Van Halen, I have some terrible breaking news: you are even older than you think.
In a recent interview with Jimmy Kimmel, Eilish, the 17-year-old singing superstar, was quizzed about pop culture from 1984. Why? As Kimmel told his audience, that’s when he was 17, in what was “the greatest year in American history.”
That’s debatable. When I imagine Kimmel in 1984, as a 17-year-old brat, I’m picturing a cherubic rascal who stole slices of pepperoni pizza and pranked senior citizens with whoopee cushions. I’m picturing a troublemaker who ran afoul of all authority figures, including the teachers inclined to give him a D- in algebra.
But that was the greatest part of the ’80s: everyone was free to be who they were, even if they were not who they thought they were. Kimmel could ultimately emerge from the decade as a comedic genius despite, in other ways, being a total doofus. It didn’t matter. You liked what you liked and nobody judged you. You had room to become you. Even if there was no consensus on what was and what was not quote-unquote cool, all these years later, I can type out a list off the top of my head of ’80s brands and trends in the GTA — Beaver Canoe, Swatch, Fox, Indigo, paisley, yellow, flipped collars, 501s, army surplus backpacks, tapered legs, pastel blazers, Sony Walkman — that absolutely defined the era.
So I’m truly baffled as to why poor Billie Eilish is now getting savaged for confessing in this Kimmel interview that she’s never heard of Van Halen. My God, she is 17. Who cares? What does it matter? Why should she be familiar with Van Halen? Should Kimmel be drilling her on Procol Harum or CCR? Should she be well-versed in the Moody Blues or ELO? No, it doesn’t matter.
Van Halen’s first album came out in 1978, or 23 years before Eilish was born. I mean, why should she be familiar with this hair metal band, anymore than she should be an expert on shoe cobblers or fallout shelters? In the last decade, has any child in the free world blasted “Panama,” “Jump,” “Hot for Teacher” or “Runnin’ With The Devil”? No. Whatever Van Halen was in the ’80s, in this millennium they are a distant memory. They have drifted far beyond her life experience.
What’s hilarious about the angry Van Halen fans now chastising Eilish for being clueless about their sonic heroes is that, overall, in this Kimmel interview, she’s basically clueless about the decades that predated her birth. She also had a blank expression when Kimmel asked her about “The Cosby Show,” Mr. T, “Ghostbusters,” Cabbage Patch Kids and “Gremlins.” It was like he was speaking Swahili. It was like he was asking her to build Ikea bookcases with no pictograms.
The irony of Eilish not knowing about Van Halen is that even some of its biggest fans should see the wisdom, all these years later, in her youthful ignorance. As a teenager, I once won tickets to a Van Halen concert by calling in to a local FM radio station that was running a contest. They’d play a song backwards and listeners had to guess what the song was. I remember hearing this particular reverse-garbled track and realizing, mostly by the distinctive percussion time signature, it was Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak’er.” So I called up, got on the air and won the tickets.
I promptly gave them to my younger brother. Go to a Van Halen concert? Please.
So as one old man to the rest of you old men now attacking Eilish for not having a clue about one of the most overrated hair metal bands ever, here’s what I’d say: of all art forms, music is the most generational. We get attached to the tunes of our youth and use that as a benchmark for the rest of our lives. Then we tend to see everything new as bad. That’s ridiculous. We tend to demonize the up-and-comers as having no talent and no sense of history. And that’s even more ridiculous.
Even if you appreciate the musicianship of Van Halen — Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing is clearly Top 10 in rock history — can we at least acknowledge it’s totally fine for a gifted youngster such as Billie Eilish to have no idea about them?
They had their time. This is her time.
And music, by its very nature, has no long-term memory.
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