Monday, August 31, 2009

What Are These Kids So Happy About?

“I don’t understand this sudden popularity of Pop Music. It’s like listening to show tunes. Why are the youth not rebelling?”
-Howard Stern,1999

“Whatever happened to wildin’ out and being violent? Whatever happened to catchin’ a good old fashioned passionate a** whooppin’ and getting your shoes, coat and hat tooken”
-Eminem “Marshall Mathers,” 2000

“Eminem’s ‘Relapse’ didn’t sell that well because these kids aren’t mad like we were”

-Author, July 2009

What the hell is everybody so happy about? Despite the fact that today’s reality includes a world economy that is in shambles, US engagement in a war with no end in sight, a public education system that pushes students through regardless of knowledge acquisition so they can attend expensive universities that will put them into extreme debt and NOT prepare them to enter the workforce, a division of wealth that might as well place the very rich and the very poor on different planets, a healthcare system that is horribly broken, alcohol/tabacco/prescription drug use (the legal vices) keeping huge segments of our population in a narcotics-induced haze and the continual dumbing down of our population through reality TV, sports and internet, and the kids just want to rock expensive gear, acquire hundreds of facebook friends and copy dances they see on youtube. (Note: This abridged list of issues only addresses some of the problems of middle America and is in no way conclusive as it does not even attempt to address the issues of inner cities, the working poor, rural areas, young parents or many other sub-groups of teenagers and young adults).

It is hard to say exactly how or when this happened but the turn of the century is a good place to start. In the 2000’s menacing rappers have been replaced with family friendly versions like Nelly and Ludacris, intellectually challenging movies are relegated to small “art house” theaters while juvenile “the good guy always wins” action movies and romantic comedies with happy endings dominate the box office, on television provocative dramas and smart comedies are continually replaced with reality dating shows or endless sports talk and Harry Potter and esteem building self-help books dominate the best seller list. While there have been several works documenting this generation’s declining academic aptitude, narcissism and sense of entitlement there have been relatively few examinations of why in the world they are so damn happy. To the casual observer the most obvious reason is that there is simply nothing left to rebel against.

Most affluent 15-25 year olds grew up in households where parents were more concerned with being “cool” or “a best friend” than raising competent adults, further many of these households not only allow but encourage underage drinking, look at drug use and minor mischief as integral to the maturing process and place the children on such a high pedestal that when they are reprimanded by an authority figure it is often treated as the fault of the offending adult and not that of the child. Further, they live in a world were the President is one of the coolest men in the country (regardless of political views it’s hard to debate Obama’s cool factor) and has support from 90% of the entertainment industry, it is difficult to convince teens and young adults to beware government intervention in their personal lives when their favorite rappers, actors and reality stars all whole-heartedly embrace the administration. Over the past several decades public and private education as turned away from rote memorization of useful facts and reading classic (and in most cases challenging) literature, in favor of “student-centered” curriculum that aims to keep them engaged and “social promotion” ensures that everyone will graduate regardless of material mastery. Their television viewing, which takes up an alarming portion of their day, is dominated by “reality shows” that depict the rich and famous as demigods to be praised for their good looks and fabulous lifestyles and if they dare to turn on the news there are so many channels that networks can cater to nearly any set of views, so they are given only the news they want in the manner they want to digest. The internet further personalizes the media viewing experience by completely eliminating information the viewer does not want to see, if a 25 year old grown man is more concerned with the winner of “Dancing with the Stars” than the current economic crisis, a school shooting or natural disaster, he can have that information delivered to his desktop and be blissfully ignorant of any news he finds unpalatable.

This bizarre aversion to anything even the slightest bit unpleasant is in stark contrast to the youth of the previous decade. 90’s kids were pi**ed! In the 1990’s rappers killed each other, rock stars killed themselves, movies were ultra-violent, comedians were bitingly sarcastic and shows like “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted” consistently showed Americans the seedy underbelly of our culture. The music of the 90’s was legitimately scary to older generations, rappers like Ice Cube, 2Pac and the Wu-Tang Clan took every opportunity to shine a light on the plight of the inner city, while other MC’s like B.I.G., Scarface and Jay-Z turned the light inward and detailed how life in post-Reagan America affected the psyches of young black males. The rise of grunge rock illustrated the growing discontent felt by suburban youth that were the product of broken homes, a failing school system and the rigid high school caste system. Movies were violent and thought provoking, Academy Award winners like “Natural Born Killers,” “Pulp Fiction” or even “Forest Gump” (a pretty sharp commentary on the last 50 years of American history and the idea that someone with an IQ of 75 would make the ultimate soldier is about as biting a critique of the military as you will find) would even see wide release in today’s “blockbuster or bust” climate. The pop culture of the 1990’s ended with a virtual orgy of anger, with 1999 being arguably the angriest year in American history: musicians like Eminem, DMX, Limp Bizkit, Korn, Rage Against The Machine and Kid Rock all either debuted or achieved widespread popularity and the multiplex was dominated by movies expressing extreme and thoughtful discontent at the state of American society, “Fight Club,” “The Matrix” and “American Beauty” were all huge hits, also,the year’s biggest concert, Woodstock ’99, was so packed with aggressive bands that the concert actually ended in a full scale riot (whether the music or the heat and extremely high concessions prices combined with high levels of drug and alcohol abuse actually caused the event to erupt in violence remains unclear, however it is rare to hear of a large, corporate-controlled event of this magnitude ending like this in today’s climate).

Compare that with the anything-for-a-dollar buffoonery of today’s commercial Hip-Hop, the whiny “Emo” that passes as rock and the movies made to cater to the lowest common denominator of intelligence that dominate the box office and the distinction is easy to observe. It is fair to say that the youth of the 2000’s are so radically different than their 1990’s counterparts that some of the biggest musical acts of the decade would either not exist or be niche/underground artist selling their music online and touring small bars and clubs. Today’s typical music consumer is so far removed from the overwhelming rage, frustration and anger displayed during the 90’s that multi-platinum artists like Wu-Tang Can, 2Pac, Nine Inch Nails, RATM, Korn, Eminem, DMX, Onyx, Ice Cube, the Geto Boys, M.O.P., Metallica, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Nirvana would fail to find an audience with today’s youth listeners. And while it may seem somewhat obvious that youth preferences change, up until the turn of this century, the underlying sentiments have been largely similar, even if the means of expression have been radically different. Frank Sinatra, Elvis Pressley, The Beatles, James Brown, The Rolling Stones, The Clash, Run-DMC and Guns-n-Roses all stood in stark contrast to the accepted status quo of the era and represented a legitimate threat to parents and the older generation as a potential influence on the youth. In contrast, today’s superstars like 50 Cent, Lil’ Wayne, Nickelback and Taylor Swift offer nothing more than a reinforcement of the materialistic ideals perpetuated by parents and teachers and an open celebration of living “The American Dream.” While several of today’s most popular artists are talented and entertaining, they are not revolutionary in terms of style, content or ideology.

The youth’s current obsession with happy, feel good music is not only illustrated by what they do buy (Brittany Spears, Flo Rida, Fall Out Boy, Soulja Boy and the bland pop singers turned out by American Idol), but by what they don’t buy. In 2009, records by Eminem, La Coka Nostra, Cage, Street Sweeper Social Club, and Slaughterhouse were all viewed as commercial disappointments (either by industry projections or the artist’s track record). These did not fail commercially because they were bad, in fact they were all very good, they failed because they were simply too aggressive for today’s youth consumer. It is not hard to see why they were overlooked by the legions of teens dressed in vans/tight denim/pastel hoodies and raised on artists like T-Pain, that music fan has no interest in hearing Joell Oritiz vividly detail life in the projects or Eminem graphically recount his near fatal drug addiction, that fan is too busy matching a scarf with his Supras and downloading the new Kid Cudi or Drake (a virtual one-man Bell Biv DeVoe) song to care about the problems of anyone else or even examine their own individual issues and challenges.

An easily identifiable example of the change in the amount of aggression seen in the youth of today as compared to the youth of the 1990’s can be seen by comparing popular white rappers of each era. House of Pain were “dirty white boy” hooligans and the kind of guys you hoped wouldn’t show up to the bar because they would get belligerently drunk, tear the place up and maybe take your girl. On the other hand, 2009’s favorite white rapper, Asher Roth, is the kind of affable young man you hope does come to the bar because he’s probably buying everybody drinks with his dad’s credit card. Or to put it another way, House of Pain said “This is the House of Pain/To come inside is insane” and Roth says “Hey, come on over and let’s hang out, it’s all good, there’s no tough guys or egos around here.” While artists like Roth and similar non-confrontational rappers like Kanye West, Lil’ Wayne and Charles Hamilton make Hip-Hop more accessible for the uninitiated, it does remove some of the intimidating mystique associated with the genre in the 80’s and 90’s and the complete lack of awareness about the state of the world around them could eventually prove problematic for the culture as a whole.

Another glaring example of the differences between pop culture today and that of the previous decade is the designer drug of choice (a clear indicator of the desires of any demographic). In the 1990’s ecstasy rose to prominence, largely through the rave and underground dance music scene. Looking back it is clear that the youth of the era were so angry and disconnected that they needed chemical enhancement just to feel emotions, dance and connect to others the same age. In the 2000’s the drug of choice is Crystal Meth, which basically has no euphoric or hallucinogenic properties, but keeps the user awake for days at a time. This basically shows that these kids are so happy and self-satisfied that they don’t want to sleep and miss a second of their charmed existence. While this example is somewhat comical, the explosion of ecstasy in the 1990’s is probably a legitimate indicator of the anger, and the subsequent need to subdue it with drugs, commonplace in that generation.

Today’s teenagers and young adults are so brainwashed by the version of American society force fed to them by their parents, schools, government, churches, radio stations, television channels, websites, entertainers, athletes, reality TV shows, news outlets, gossip magazines and social networking sites that they completely lack any sense that rebellion is necessary or even a viable option. They are the first generation since the advent of Rock &Roll over a half century ago to not only accept but embrace the fact that, for them, resistance is futile.

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