Tony Bennett, pop star

April 29, 1994

Anyone who follows pop music can only wonder where the genre will go -- that is, how far it will go -- in the wake of the latest barrier-bashing crudities by performers with seemingly more ability to shock than to make good music. Pop in the rock era has always boasted a strong vein of defiance. But not even long-time fans can savor imagining what might be left for Madonna to reveal or for 2 Live Crew to remark.

Now it looks like Generation X has chosen its next collection of pop stars. Get ready for . . . Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Johnny Cash.

You read right. As various accounts have it, teens and twenty-somethings have embraced music that was all the rage in their grandparents' day. Notice we didn't say "their parents," who, after all, sneered at the velvety croonings of the Bennetts and Sinatras while turning on to the propulsive beats being sounded from Liverpool to Motown to San Francisco.

No doubt that's part of the allure the old stuff has for the kids today: Mom and Dad hated it, so it must be cool.

To be sure, that crucial element of the pop realm, marketing, has helped make possible the old-timers' renaissance. Mr. Bennett's manager, his 40-year-old son Danny, has brought the singer to the attention of a young new audience by booking him on on such venues of cool as "The Simpsons," David Letterman's talk show and MTV's video awards and "Unplugged" programs.

Johnny Cash has won his new followers by performing at the Viper Room (a Los Angeles hangout for young celebrities), recording with the rock band U2 and cutting an album with a rap producer. Frank Sinatra's way was to make a chart-topping LP of duets with contemporary singers, including U2's Bono, who toasted Ol' Blue Eyes as "the Chairman of the Bad" at the recent Grammy Awards ceremony.

The badness of Mr. Sinatra and Mr. Cash (The Man in Black) and the elan of Mr. Bennett are not lost on teens and twentysomethings tiring of today's all-too-derivative rock. Just as apparent, and appealing, is the grace of the music to which these artists and others like them have remained true throughout their careers, whatever the audience.

Are the kids today just playing a nostalgia game, like the young people of the 1970s who aped styles of the Fifties? Maybe. But we'd like to think they've discovered for good what many of their elders have known for years: It's hard to beat a great lyric set to a great melody sung (clearly) by a great singer.

Nothing shocking about that.

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