For most of my life, I’ve heard that I was born in the wrong era – though nobody could seem to agree when the right one was. There are very few areas of my life in which I feel like I’m a person of my time. Most of my favorite music comes from the turn of the 19th century, the plurality of my favorite fiction writers from the turn of the 20th century, most of my favorite movies from the halfway point of the 20th, and even most of my favorite ‘popular’ music is pre-1970. My politics and religious views both come from other ages and are nearly as unfashionable today as most contemporary views would have been fifty or a hundred fifty years ago. Some people might say that these are not the views of a relic, they’re the views of a snob. Perhaps they’re right…
Nearly everything I believe in: Secular Enlightenment Judaism, Vital Center Liberalism, the importance of a humanist education, the ability to balance sublimity and fun, seems to be dying out. Jewish life, as life in every religion today seems to be, is bifurcating between believers and non-believers. Liberalism is increasingly seen even by the Left as a dirty word, inadequate to today’s demands – which only progressives can meet. Education is now a word that, at best, means extensive training in a highly specialized field without the ability to see anything in the context of others. And just as fun was banished from many older civilizations, the ability to experience anything deeper than fun seems in the final stages of being banished from ours. Video games have almost completely passed me by, gaming is something I’ve barely done throughout my life, most independent film leaves me cold, most sci-fi and fantasy books bore me. I’m as ill-equipped for 2012 as most people are ill-equipped for any other era.
I go on facebook and I see what other smart people ‘like,’ and I think to myself – ‘what am I missing?,’ or frankly more often, ‘what are they missing?’ I see all the which other upper-middle-class twenty and thirtysomethings are suppose to like: Blur, Wes Anderson, David Foster Wallace,…and those are only the one’s I’ve heard of, and I think to myself: How can anybody like this crap?
Who am I kidding? I was already as much a relic in 1990 as I am now. Twenty-two years later, the difference is that I’m more sure of it than ever, grumpier about it, and much prouder of who I am. For a number of years, I concluded the problem was me. I spent much of my adolescence in a hilariously desperate attempt to conceal my inner geek-among-geeks, mostly around the LD jocks I was placed in school with whom I worried might beat me up if they ever knew the ‘awful truth,’ which of course they knew anyway. Needless to say, these attempts were an abysmal failure. I was beaten up occasionally in spite of it, and I was probably lower in the social pecking order than I’d have been if I were proud about the things I loved.
Every era values a particular cultural sentiment too much - we can't help it. Sometimes it's romance, sometimes comedy, sometimes tragedy, sometimes epic, sometimes pastoral. At various points in our lives, our appetites for a particular genre are inexhaustible. And most often, what we like is simply a reflection of the culture that produced us.
I don't think it's any secret that we’re living in ironic times – at the end of a developing culture that stretches back to the First World War. All too many people seem to have no faith in families, friends, leaders, communities, the world at large. The culture in which we grew up is such common currency that we seem to have a pop-culture shorthand for every possible situation and emotion. Back in 1922, T. S. Eliot could ironically quote the references of his culture, and assume that a general public would understand most of them instantly. Nearly a century, Family Guy can quote a whole different set of references with the same irony and the same assumption that their audience will understand enough of them to keep tuning in. The difference is that it took 3000 years for the culture of The Waste Land to live a full life cycle before it T S Eliot could write a poem as a eulogy for it. It has been 90 years since The Waste Land was written, and in that time, an entire equivalent culture – a popular culture - supplanted Western highbrow culture, and lived an entire life cycle. What took three millennia to produce TS Eliot took only ninety years to produce Stewie Griffin.
I love irony as much as anyone, and like to think myself better at using it than at least 99 out of 100 people. But so much of what my prematurely aged ears hear in so much contemporary culture is irony in isolation; irony without context. In so much of the ‘art’ which current tastemakers love (those quotes are used as unironically as possible in the given situation), it is taken for granted that we should feel numb to any new development. Much music, however loud, has neither highs nor lows. Many movies, however clever, should not be made to move us or make us laugh too loud. I could name rock groups and movies and much else which display this malaise in abundance, but I have a feeling most people reading this could name even more. Only what I cite with disapproval and contempt, they cite with approval, sometimes even love. I simply don’t understand that.
The best which cultural history has to offer has irony in multitudes, but it also has empathy, comedy, romance, tragedy, bleakness and generosity of vision in equal measure. Preferably, the best art of all cultures can offer all that at the same time, making our responses to it forever ambiguous, making us be the judges of what we see, and forcing us to contemplate long and hard what we view. That is artistic greatness – be it Michelangelo or Matt Weiner.
We’re now growing up in an age when young kids not only find Beethoven stuffy, or Duke Ellington, they also have no use for The Beatles. We’re coming very soon to an era when music before Michael Jackson and Madonna does not exist, neither do movies before Star Wars, or TV before The Simpsons, or books before Lord of the Rings. Everything before them will be, at least to a stunningly large degree, antiques. Even The Simpsons might date – because how could a new generation possibly understand the cultural references of a culture they no longer inhabit?
Whether or not we realize it, popular culture recently pressed the reset button. We’re now talking about popular culture in terms that used to be reserved for classical culture. Rolling Stone has talked about rock music in classical terms for decades. But go to the Onion A.V. and read their reviews of old TV shows, they’re every bit as reverent (and perhaps as stuffy) as any literary criticism. The same might be said for any number of movie magazines, or reviews of Graphic Novels. One day, all too recently, America woke up to find itself a culture with a history. Watching The Godfather or listening to Sgt. Pepper was no longer a pleasure, it was a duty toward two of the founding documents of our civilization. In its wake, a new generation will rise up and find a new way to rebel. Perhaps they'll rebel with sincerity.
And just as in the final years of the previous culture, we rebel with excessive frivolity. They had The Charleston, we have booty drops. They had speakeasies, we have raves. They had the Lost Generation, we have Indy Hipsters. But nothing dates like the cutting edge. Enjoy these things while you can, because one day soon, these kids will grow up and have as much control over the culture as people just barely older than me do now. One day soon, you all are going to wake up to find yourselves every bit as much relics as I am.