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Music Is Having a Moment — And It’s a Cogenerational One.

As anyone who watched the Grammys can attest.

By Marc Freedman | Feb 8, 2024

Sunday’s show featured three big moments reminding us that music can be a bridge not only across race, culture, and genre, but also age.

Tracy Chapman & Luke Combs swaying and performing

Tracy Chapman & Luke Combs. Much attention, rightfully, has gone to the duet between Tracy Chapman, who turns 60 next month, and Luke Combs, who is 33. Combs’s Grammy-nominated rendition of Chapman’s Fast Car brought this classic to a new, younger, and country audience.  

Commentators have pointed out that Combs was born the year after (1990) Chapman won a Grammy for Fast Car. Watching them perform it together was a revelation — and a reminder of the harmonies that can be created when generations come together. Peter Wehner called their duet “a balm for our sorely divided nation” in The Atlantic.

Joni Mitchell & Brandi Carlile. Of course, the most anticipated collaboration of the evening involved Joni Mitchell, 80. This was Mitchell’s first performance at the Grammys in a career spanning more than six decades, one that has also seen her nominated 18 times, with a total of 10 awards.  

This time she picked up the Best Folk Album Grammy for her performance at the Newport Folk Festival last Summer. That performance was precipitated by Brandi Carlile — half Mitchell’s age — who has played a pivotal role in resurrecting the great musician’s career after an aneurysm caused Mitchell to stop performing. It was especially powerful seeing Mitchell performing at the festivities along with Carlile and a group of younger musicians.

By the way, Carlile should get a special Grammy for all she has done to foster cross-generational bonds through music. Inspired by Rick Rubin’s work rebooting Johnny Cash’s career when the former was in his late 20s and the latter in his 60s, Carlile sought out the aging country legend Tanya Tucker in 2020 to work together on a new album, While I’m Livin’, Tucker’s first in two decades. It won the 2020 Grammy for Best Country Album and Best Country Song (for “Bring My Flowers Now”). And the documentary (“The Return of Tanya Tucker”) recounting their collaboration is deeply moving. Apparently, Carlile is now recording a new album with the 76-year-old Elton John.

Billy Joel & Freddy Wexler, plus Olivia Rodrigo. The third epiphany of cross-generation connection, collaboration, and musical co-creation on Sunday night involved 74-year-old Billy Joel, who closed out the ceremony.  His resurgence is the result of working with songwriter and producer Freddy Wexler, exactly half his age. As with Carlile and Combs, the younger artist served as impetus for elevating and instigating the older one’s work — in this case, fittingly, through the Wexler-written song, “Turn the Lights Back On.” 

Wexler isn’t the only younger artist who has cited Joel’s continuing influence. Olivia Rodrigo, 20 — who was nominated for six Grammys this year and performed at the ceremony — told the New York Times, “He is everything.” Rodrigo extolled Joel in her 2021 song “Deja Vu.”

Of course, all of these performances evoke the remarkable, Grammy-winning and heart expanding collaboration between Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, including their aptly titled, Grammy-nominated song, “I Get a Kick out of You.”

It might be tempting to dismiss these musical moments as fleeting, but that would miss the powerful message that they offer for our times

We’re now in a period of unprecedented age diversity, where the old and the young already make up the majority of the population. Oftentimes we see these groups as being at each other’s throats, not collaborating “cheek to cheek,” to call forth another Tony Bennett-Lady Gaga Grammy-winning duet. Indeed last month’s (January 2024) issue of Rolling Stone, no less, features an article entitled, “The Gerontocracy Waged War on Gen Z. Now They’re Fighting Back.”

The Grammys showed us a different set of possibilities, one that reflects the sentiments of our 2022 study with NORC at the University of Chicago. Not only did the research reveal deep pent-up demand on the part of older and younger people to work together on the big issues of the day, from climate change to mental health, it showed the strongest interest of all coming from younger people.  A generation of Rodrigos, Combs, and Carliles!

Now that’s something to celebrate!

What do you think about a new award –The Gennies – for artists doing the most to realize the possibilities of our multigenerational moment? Let me know at [email protected].

P.S. For anyone who wants to witness what the Grammys demonstrated “on the air” on Sunday night “on the ground,” there’s no need to travel far from where the ceremony was held in LA. The Eisner Intergenerational Orchestra, now complemented by a big band and choir, are bringing the generations together to make music and show audiences what our future could look like. Check out this video for a glimpse of the Orchestra’s magnificent work.