If you laughed at Billie Eilish not knowing about Van Halen, hang on

When I was 17–the same age as Billie Eilish is now–I was already deeply into music. But because the first FM rock station in my area had just signed on, I suddenly realized that I’d been missing out on a universe of music. Up until then, my whole musical experience was informed by three Top 40 radio stations and what my friends were listening to–which was mostly the stuff I’d missed on those three radio stations.

But then there was a woman a couple of grades ahead of me named Sharon who asked me to transfer some of her older brother’s records to cassette so she could listen in the car. She brought over stacks and stacks of LPs from older artists that were brand new to me.

This was the first time I’d heard of The Doors, Van Morrison, and Cat Stevens. The whole experience was mind-blowing. You mean there’s music not being played on my favourite AM station? How could that be? What else have I been missing?

I’ve just outlined two different ways of learning about music: “horizontal referencing,” which is hearing about stuff from my peers and “vertical referencing,” that is, learning about music from people older than me. (Thanks to Steve for these terms which appeared in a message in a recent mailbag version of the Lefsetz Letter.)

Billie Eilish stirred some Twitter mirth when she admitted to not knowing about Van Halen. But think about it: Why would she? Let’s put this into perspective.

Eilish was born on December 18, 2001, a mere three months after 9/11. Van Halen’s best years–the DLR era–occurred almost 20 years earlier.

If you were born in, say, 1984, would you at 17 (i.e. the same year as Eilish was born) known about The Byrds, The Moody Blues, The Jefferson Airplane or Sly and the Family Stone? Probably not–unless you had super-cool parents or older siblings willing to share their music.

Better yet: If you were born in 1964, how much would you have known or cared about big band and be-bop from the 40s? I didn’t think so

As great as Van Halen was, they’re just not in the same realm as truly eternal acts like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and U2. They’ve been embraced by several generations and remain ubiquitous in our culture, reaching across the decades. Their music continues to speak across generations. The chances of today’s 17-year-old hearing about them are pretty good. In fact, I’ll bet if you asked Billie about her favourite Beatles or Madonna song, she’s have an answer.

Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that just because it’s easy to access tens of millions of songs through streaming music services that everyone knows everything about music. Why would expect a 17-year-old to be as well-verse in the history of popular music as someone much older?

Remember the mid-90s punk revival with Green Day, The Offspring and the rest of them? If you were in your coming-of-age-musically years, chances chances are that it was through them that you learned about The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, and The Clash. These new bands became a gateway drug to those who came before them.

Don’t get me wrong. Van Halen was fantastic, one of the greatest rock bands of that era. But because they’ve lacked cross-generational ubiquity, a young person’s discovery of them will have to come to them in other ways. Maybe there will come a time when they’ll be resurrected in the hearts and minds of youth after something similar and brand new comes along (think maybe Greta Van Fleet pointing in the direction of Led Zeppelin or Fleetwood Mac rising again thanks to new acts like Haim.)

If you snickered at Billie for this gap in her musical knowledge, be prepared to endure a lot of “OK Boomers.”

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

7 thoughts on “If you laughed at Billie Eilish not knowing about Van Halen, hang on

  • December 5, 2019 at 11:26 am

    Full disclosure: I have no idea who Billie Eilish is.
    Here’s my anecdote to support Alan’s point. I have a sibling who is 8 years younger than me. One day when she was about 10 years old she was in a car with a friend being driven by that friend’s mom. On the radio came a song by The Police. My sibling sang along, knowing every word. The friend had no idea who it was and had never heard the song before. The mom driving the car asked: “How do you know this song?”. The response: “I have an older brother”. ‘Nuff said.

  • December 5, 2019 at 12:39 pm

    I have learned about music from many sources.Family ,friends and even strangers.Music is like food ,do you consume the one plate that is put in front of you with the other Lemmings or do you go out to the all you can eat buffet and try everything. I got country from my parents,rock n roll from AM radio,the British Invasion from my cousin,psychedelic rock from FM radio, rock from my sister,hard rock from my brother ,even metal from my kids. I can not find a plate big enough for all the music i have heard and want to hear.

    • January 18, 2020 at 12:05 pm

      “…they’re just not in the same realm as truly eternal acts like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and U2. They’ve been embraced by several generations and remain ubiquitous in our culture, reaching across the decades. Their music continues to speak across generations.”

      Wow. What an absolute ignoramus. I still hear David Lee Roth era VH on the radio, in stores, in bars, in passing cars…ALL THE TIME. I’m a die hard fan who went to see them on their last two world tours (which collectively netted hundreds of millions), and I saw tens of thousands of people at both shows, including 14-year-olds and even early 20-somethings wearing VH t-shirts. Now, they might not be in the same realm as Led Zeppelin or The Beatles, but Madonna and U2? LOL Those two aren’t anywhere near the realm.

  • December 5, 2019 at 12:57 pm

    I have a personal experience that supports this point. When I was in Grade 10, I purchased The Cult’s Electric. Expecting a part II of sorts to The Cult’s Love, I instead got exposed to this awesome rocker of a recording. That led me to Led Zeppelin. Even though I recognized parts of Zep’s songs, I never really got into their catalogue until that point. I felt like I had just personally discovered the best band of all time. The purchase of each of their albums quickly followed. A 16 year-old, musically inclined youth in 1987 who had never really, REALLY heard Led Zeppelin? Impossible, right? Nope. That was me. So this actually does happen.

  • December 5, 2019 at 1:53 pm

    Van Halen is insanely over rated anyway.

    • December 6, 2019 at 9:01 am

      Wow… Van Halen is the most innovative and virtuoso rock guitar player of all times… Just listen to the solo in Beat It (by Michael Jackson – for those who missed out on that era)


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