Understanding context has nothing to do with age, it has to do with caring enough to delve into something to the degree that you are compelled to understand it, or at least try to. It makes life more fun. I’ll use music as an example, but this basic idea applies to any subject matter. The Beatles are a great example, or Charlie Parker, or Louis Armstrong, or Jimi Hendrix, or Stravinsky, just to randomly pick a few. You can listen to recordings by each of these artists and enjoy it (or not), but to really understand their music and their contribution to culture, you have to understand their historical context. Their artistry and music stands up whether you understand this context or not, but to fully appreciate them as artists, you have to understand what preceded them, what the zeitgeist of the time was.
Louis Armstrong is a really interesting illustration of this concept. I can fully understand someone hearing one of his “hot five” recordings from 1928 and thinking “that’s great, but it’s just an old scratchy recording of a jazz trumpet player.” But that’s not really understanding what you’re listening to. What you are listening to IS SOMEONE INVENTING A NEW ART FORM OUT OF THIN AIR. It’s like one minute there was nothing, and the next minute there was THIS. I’m really fascinated by this phenomenon, and if you are into creating things, you see it over and over again.
In the early 1940s, jazz was cruising along and suddenly there was Charlie Parker, and now, seemingly overnight, there was not only a completely new way to play alto sax, THERE WAS A NEW TYPE OF JAZZ THAT WOULD CHANGE HISTORY. If you understand what came before, it was as if he suddenly appeared, fully formed, from some alternate reality.
Then there is the Beatles. It’s hard to even know where to begin – how did this happen? First of all, before the Beatles, pop artists didn’t write their own material. Yes there were exceptions – Buddy Holly and the Crickets wrote and performed “Peggy Sue,” Carl Perkins wrote and performed “Blue Suede Shoes,” but these were outliers. The Beatles recorded “Please Please Me” on one day in 1963 (with the exception of two tunes) and overnight, everything changed. Suddenly the concept of a band, playing their own instruments, and singing songs they wrote, seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Except that it wasn’t. That’s the thing about genius – in hindsight it seems so obvious. And since these artists were creating new paradigms that became templates for what was to come after, it now seems normal.
Looking back, especially if you weren’t alive (and into music) when this was happening, one can be forgiven for not “getting this.” But understand the context and suddenly a whole new world of appreciation and wonder opens up. It’s part of the magic of being human.