Monday, April 25, 2011

A Generation's Crankery

I suppose one of my pet peeves is the tendency towards easy, "common-sense" thinking.  In social situations, especially among the like-minded, this often consists of a sort of piling-on session, a mutual masturbation of group think. 

An ancient - likely timeless - form of this, is the tendency of an aging generation to besmirch the up-and-coming, often in terms of qualities traditionally associated with the aged, such as wisdom, selflessness, or hard work.  Around the age of 40 or so, having entered into what Eric Erikson called the Care stage, in which generativity, or concern for one's generational progeny, a generation inevitably begins to become skeptical of the world it has left behind, or specifically, the capacity of those it has left it to to take up the task of caring for it.  Rose-colored glasses are inevitably de rigour, and reductionism and anecdote are driving fallacial tendencies.  It may be the case that the phenomenon is rooted in neurosis, and a repressed fear of self-inadequacy or failure has resulted in projection.  But I'll leave that to others.

My thoughts today are inspired by an example of this in an article in the NY Times titled, A Generation’s Vanity, Heard Through Lyrics.  The author, John Tierney, sets out what he considers the curmudgeonly evidence for what is in essence, the age-old fist-shaking decree -  "Today's kids ain't got no respect!".  The thesis is largely backed up by a study that uses computers to analyze the appearance of certain words in popular song lyrics over recent decades, finding an increasing degree of "narcissism and hostility".  The opening salvo is an interpretation of a Rivers Cuomo (Weezer) lyric that ironically turns a traditional Shaker hymn into something decidedly less sublime.
Where 19th-century Shakers had sung “ ’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,” Mr. Cuomo offered his own lyrics: “I’m the meanest in the place, step up, I’ll mess with your face.” Instead of the Shaker message of love and humility, Mr. Cuomo sang over and over, “I’m the greatest man that ever lived.”
A caveat follows, but Tierney's mind is made up. 

I think it is all absurdly reductionist. The willingness to find easy interpretations in the Rivers Cuomo lyric said it all. Computer analysis of verbal references in popular songs?

We ought to begin with the very question of what narcissism means. We should then ask what the art is attempting to express, or what transformations it has itself undergone. What does music mean to us today compared to decades ago? How has the music industry changed?  Those would merely be the tip of the iceberg, but crucial to laying the groundwork for any project so vast (and possibly hubristic?) as the psychoanalysis of a generation based on music preferences.

None of this is to say that the thesis isn't true. But a serious thesis needs serious thinking. And extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. So far, what has been presented seems largely ad hoc, tailored to fit assumptions in an area - generational criticism - traditionally fraught with bias.

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