Tuesday, March 12, 2019

When We Were Young

On weekend mornings, when it's not raining, I like to go for a walk to get in some exercise. Treading the trails alone can be boring (I'm not really the meditative type) and so I usually take something to listen to. For the past few months, this has been music. (Podcasts may make a comeback in the future, if I decide to take up a more leisurely pace again.) My typical go-tos have been Prince and Janet Jackson; their music tends to have beats that drive an energetic walking pace.

This is the music of my college and twenty-something years, and I hadn't really listened to it in some time before adopting it for my morning walks. Listening to Prince's Graffiti Bridge or Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation, I was struck by how much it was the music of youth and change.

We are the New Power Generation
We're gonna change the world
The only thing that's in our way is you
Your old-fashioned music
Your old ideas
We're sick and tired you tellin' us what to do
I immediately appreciated the irony. I was 22 when Graffiti Bridge was released. But now I'm 50, and I'm the one who's in the way. And Graffiti Bridge now lives squarely in the realm of "old-fashioned music." (There's always something strange about having music you remember as the hot new track showing up on an "oldies" playlist.")

But the question that I have is: Why didn't we change the world?

Being a member of the unimaginatively-named "Generation X," I've largely been a bystander in the inter-generational (and class) warfare between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials. (By the way, did anyone actually tell the Baby Boomers that there was a war on?) Which strikes me as strange; because for all of our grooving out to songs of changing the world and raising our voices in protest, we've become the primary footsoldiers of the status quo.

Looking back on it, I think that part of it is that we never really cared. There's a reason why most of the more socially-conscious tracks from Rhythm Nation didn't make it onto Design of a Decade. We didn't want a call to arms. We wanted to tear it up on the dance floor. (I suppose that "we" should be in quotes, not only because I'm not really qualified to speak for my entire generation; I also don't dance. Rejoice in this.) I don't think that I'd ever actually listened to the music of my youth, in terms of actually attempting to hear and understand the narratives and messages of the lyrics, until a year or so ago.

When I had a somewhat short-lived semi-radical phase, during which I was convinced that "the Establishment" was corrupt and evil, I understood the effects of the policies, institutions and social mores that I disagreed with. But the causes were unknown to me. Again, I think that lack of interest was at work. All I cared to know was that the world was a bad place, and that there were bad people who were willing to stoop to any level to make sure it stayed that way. But then "real life" started to put in appearances. And I had more important things to worry about.

And the same perverse incentives that had created the world that I understood to be so broken enlisted me as an active participant in its perpetuation. Revolutions are messy. And they're expensive. And I became too busy with rent, car payments and the phone bill to set aside anything to pay for the one that my younger self had wanted. And since there was no revolution in the offing between then and now, I'm pretty sure that I can say that few, if any, of the rest of my fellow "Gen-Xers" did things any differently. Rather, we invested in securing our places in the world as we found it. Rather than ragequit and flip the table, Generation X applied itself to learning how to play the game. And some of us played better than others. Here and there, a few people dropped out. Some of us ascended to the highest levels of the corporate power structure. If your borders of age cohorts fall a certain way, there has even been a Gen-X president. But many of us are simply quietly working to maintain, rather than change, the world we live in, and the incentive structures, broken as they are, that (however badly) built it.

The man isn't telling us what to do anymore. We've taken that baton and are running with it. Maybe "we" should do something about that.

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