No Music For You

Amanda’s got a great response to a dreadful article by the evidently culture-deaf Mary Eberstadt, who posits, “If yesterday’s rock was the music of abandon, today’s is that of abandonment.” While Eberstadt sees divorce as the big problem, Amanda notes:

Eberstadt quotes Eddie Vedder, who is amazed that his and Nirvana's songs really spoke to a larger generational angst, and then she basically cruises by the point in her eagerness to argue that my generation's angst was created by the high divorce rate in the 70s and 80s. I do think that Vedder's right--Pearl Jam and Nirvana hit gold by tapping that angst--but I think that feeling of alienation has larger causes than a bunch of divorces. It's been thoroughly documented, but worth repeating, that Generation X's alienation is directed at the nation at large more than our individual families. We grew up in midst of the rise of the New Right and the zeitgeist of our childhood was the gleeful abandonment of the idea that the general welfare was something to be valued, which meant that community investment in the well-being of children was abandoned as well. Contrast the Boomers, who grew up amidst enthusiasm for expanding opportunities for them, including the creation of federal aid programs to make college accessible to my generation, who got to have the Reagan administration argue that ketchup should count as a vegetable in our diets. The underground music that gave birth to Nirvana and Pearl Jam spoke directly of the larger anger that people had about growing up in a nation that had abandoned the idealism of the 60s and with it had given up hope of creating a better future, which means they'd given up on us, the inheritors of that future.
I absolutely agree, and I highly recommend reading Amanda’s entire piece, which is just great, because I’m going to pick on Eberstadt for other reasons.

Her article suffers from the same problem as most genre-nonspecific papers that seek to find answers about social issues in popular music—it’s far too easy to cherrypick samples from across the musical spectrum that suit one’s purpose, while ignoring legions of artists and lyrics that don’t support the thesis, or may even undermine it. Forget even the ridiculous divorce stuff; classifying “today’s” music as predominantly preoccupied with “misogyny, violence, suicide, sexual exploitation, child abuse,” or as “deafening, foul, and often vicious-sounding stuff,” ignores not only the current music that doesn’t fit those particular bills, but also disregards entire historical movements that existed long before many of the kids listening to Blink-182 were even born. How does a high divorce rate in the 70s and 80s account for punk, which predates it? I guess when something is so decidedly inconvenient for one’s dubious contentions, it’s best just to leave it out.

Eberstadt posits:

Misogyny, violence, suicide, sexual exploitation, child abuse—these and other themes, formerly rare and illicit, are now as common as the surfboards, drive-ins, and sock hops of yesteryear.
Many of which served as backdrops for thinly veiled references to sex, drug use, and all other manner of naughtiness to which Eberstadt would no doubt object. Can she honestly say she’s never noticed an underlying meaning to any of these lyrics?

Lucy in the sky with diamonds.
Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain
Where rocking horse people eat marshmellow pies,
Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers,
That grow so incredibly high.
Newspaper taxis appear on the shore,
Waiting to take you away.
Climb in the back with your head in the clouds,
And you’re gone.

— “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” The Beatles, 1967

"Children, behave!"
That's what they say when we're together
"And watch how you play!"
They don't understand
And so we're running just as fast as we can
Holding onto one another's hand
Trying to get away into the night
And then you put your arms around me and we tumble to the ground
And then you say, "I think we're alone now
There doesn't seem to be anyone around
I think we're alone now
The beating of our hearts is the only sound."

— “I Think We’re Alone Now,” Tommy James & The Shondells, 1967

Young girl, get out of my mind
My love for you is way out of line
Better run, girl,
You're much too young, girl
With all the charms of a woman
You've kept the secret of your youth
You led me to believe
You're old enough
To give me Love

— “Young Girl,” Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, 1968

The last one demands no keen interpretative skills to discern it isn’t about exchanging high school rings.

And while one might argue the selected songs aren’t indicative of most of their era’s songs, that’s the danger of cherrypicking. I picked a couple of songs to refute the claim that allegedly scandalous topics serving as the subject of pop music is a new phenomenon, not to make a point about the entirety of 60s music as a means to drawing conclusions about its listeners.

I don’t think sociological explorations of music are without value; far from it. (In fact, I once wrote a thesis tracing the history of exploration of gender and sexual identity in alternative music movements.) But if you’re going to use music as a backdrop for a cultural investigation, it helps to identify the particular subcultures within music fandom, rather than pretending that the same folks showed up at Tupac’s shows as at Nirvana’s. That’s not to say there’s no crossover, but they were largely different audiences with dissimilar backgrounds, like the artists themselves.

I’m also immediately suspicious—and, inevitably, rightfully so—of authors who commence from a starting assumption that modern music and artists are fundamentally different (worse) than their predecessors in terms of sound and/or content, or that any generation can be explained or defined by a small percentage of popular music, or any other slice of pop culture.

Conservatives love to do this kind of disingenuous extrapolation—David Brooks has forged an entire career on it—but it’s just a bunch of bunk, and with search engines providing easy access to lyrics databases, this kind of swill will become even more popular. So here’s a new rule: No one is allowed to write a sociological thesis using music as their primary source material until they can correctly identify the following people, pick out which one doesn’t belong, and accurately explain which one(s) suck and why.

The End.

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