By CALVIN PATTEN
The formation of narratives in cultural critiques related to generational changes affecting entire mediums is a dangerous approach.
I was reminded of this by several stories in the past weeks; notably Evan Needell ’15’s October 3 column in The Cornell Daily Sun “”Oh! Sweet Nuthin’, Don’t Mean Nuthin’ At All,” Anita Alur ’17’s September 29 guest column for the Sun, “Tangled up in Auto-Tune” and A.O. Scott’s September 11 New York Times Magazine piece, “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.” Each piece takes liberties and shortcuts in developing narratives that support the author’s gripe with modern culture — Needell identifies a lack of storytelling in music; Alur targets a loss of musicality and Scott, with a professional critic’s caution, explores the loss of “patriarchs” across a variety of media.
Generation after generation of conservative gatekeepers have critiqued culture and youth for their failures, only to be proven wrong as culture realigns or society adjusts.
Alur and Needell’s pieces can largely be considered together, as they share similar theses and rely on similar arguments, centered on a very nostalgic remembrance for older music. They also make some of the same mistakes, with failures to define and limit the scope of their narratives resulting in perilously weak commentaries. I feel that the juxtaposition between old and new is constructed in a way that is significantly more black and white than fair- like most things, generational growth in culture exists in shades of grey. This binary classifying gives way to a narrative formation that is reflective of the self-fulfilling nature of bad sports journalism- Kobe is clutch because I remember a few big shots, forget about what the stats say. Similarly, if we sift through a 40 year catalogue and compare it directly to music released within the last year, proclaiming that history’s musicians were more artistic and had more meaningful songs is redundant.
I find the idea that something is inherently better because of some archaic standard to be upsetting and too elitist for a thorough analysis. As a fan of hip hop, this is something I frequently encounter, especially in conversations about artists like Waka Flocka Flame. Waka is certainly not for everyone, but the blanket refusal of many culture enthusiasts to acknowledge that he has made significant contributions to music is really upsetting to me. Similarly, you do not need to love music that is being made currently, but rejecting it as without value is flawed.
A.O. Scott’s piece only briefly mentions music, focusing more on television, film, literature and even American History in his discussion. He quickly springboards from a discussion of Don Draper’s anticipated death into a tale of the death of Great Men (my semi-ironic words) from a “post-patriarchal” American Culture. He identifies the “Death of Adulthood” as the reduction of adult men in the arts, based on everything from literature (largely dominated by females and young adult novels) to the unending stream of bro-comedies that find the actors reverting to “childish” behavior.
Scott’s argument does rely largely on a very selected interpretation of what is “Adulthood.” For example, after designating “Tony [Soprano], Walter [White] and Don [Draper] as the last of the patriarchs,” he quickly dispenses the men of House of Cards and True Detective by calling them “angry-man, antihero dramas that too many critics reflexively identify as quality television.”
In general however, Scott is careful to never come to too strong a conclusion. While an admitted sense of loss runs throughout the piece, it is notably vacant of any of the sweeping generalizations that characterize The Sun pieces. This allows him to form a stronger critique (or at least one without gaping holes), but it also leads to a lack of fulfillment. You may disagree with Scott’s narrative, but you still read the entire piece anticipating a firm ending; he refuses to deliver. At least Needell and Alur have the gumption to make an assessment.
All three pieces suffer from another similar, overarching issue: Have we not been here before? Complaining about modern music is a pastime that certainly extends back to the Beatles (and probably well before!). Scott’s piece may seem more original, but cruder versions where a less politically correct reviewer frets about the direction of society with a previously underprivileged group having more input are as old as America itself. “Adulthood” is certainly better developed and more nuanced than that, but it still is permeated by a nostalgia for a very specific type of character: the patriarchal male.
To me, this is the point where even the most concise of generational narrative, especially with culture, breaks down. History has shown us that it is almost impossible to understand what is happening in real time, generation to generation. Our recency bias is too strong, out interpretations too disturbed by minor changes. Generation after generation of conservative gatekeepers have critiqued culture and youth for their failures, only to be proven wrong as culture realigns or society adjusts. Ultimately, regardless of your qualifications, making value judgments on the direction of a growing generation is a fool’s errand.