I had some engaging discussions with friends recently about who the greatest Indian music composer is. For the most part, the debates revolved around two legends: A R Rahman and R D Burman. (Due to our limited knowledge of Tamil music industry, we kept Illayaraja out of consideration.)
I won’t get into why I think A R Rahman is the greatest, but behind the discussions about the aspects of music (melody, genre, innovation, etc.) I felt that there lies some cognitive biases that affect how we compare the present with the past.
While comparing a contemporary artist — or a piece of art — with a historical one, I think there’s a hidden yet perceptible hesitation to grant more eminence to a contemporary artist than to a veteran. I propose several theories that might explain why:
(1) The veteran artists are often widely respected and revered by our generation as well as our elders that any comparison that do not favor the senior artists is perceived as disrespectful.
(2) Cultural pessimism. Every generation believes that people are not up to the standards of their parents and grandparents. Be it the music industry, or movie industry, cultural values, or the overall state of society, we think that things are getting worse. This pessimism (that our culture is in decline) is one of the reasons why many of us can’t accept that a contemporary music composer (such as A R Rahman) can be better than someone like R D Burman.
(3) We tend to compare the ‘current’ with the ‘best from the past’ — and as a result, the current (music) seems to pale in comparison. Today’s listeners have enjoyed (and endured, if you’re not a fan) pretty much everything that A R Rahman has created. But when it comes to old songs, we are familiar with only those that stood the test of time. Comparing all of the current songs with the best of the past is unfair — which conveniently overlooks mediocre numbers from the past to affirm that old is gold.
Surely a bulk load of junk was created in the 60’s and the 70’s as well, we just don’t remember those very well. Today’s junk is more accessible — and hence, intrusive and annoying — than yesterday’s.
(4) The diversity of contemporary music industry implies that much trash will be produced. Those suboptimal, low-quality songs should be kept in perspective and we should consider them as a luxury that only a more progressive, innovative and diverse music industry can afford.
All these arguments, in and of themselves, are not enough to conclude that the contemporary music is superior. All I am saying is these cognitive biases tend to impale our ability to make a fair comparison. I am sure there are biases that work in the opposite direction as well. Can you think of any?