Sunday, April 29, 2012

We Are Young

The desk-top AM radios at work keep playing this song “We Are Young” by the band fun in a way that I know implies #1 single.  More than a few women at work still listen to the local AM Top 40 stations as they work.  As a result, I’m exposed to some of the most heinous shit imaginable, but it at least tips me off on what kids find popular these days.  With a class reunion coming up, it also tips me off on which current tracks to include in the mix, that some drunk person in his 40s might request, although the thought of some guy my age baying out this song is something I hope doesn’t transpire that night.

And it’s not that we aren’t young.  In the grand scheme of things, we’re just over halfway there.  That’s what you grasp about life in your 40s.  You might die any time in the next 20 years over some unforeseen health issue: a massive heart attack or early cancer of some sort.  But you might also live another 40+ years.  It’s hard to grasp how life moves and works without living through it, because I’d have no concept that there was still such a long way to go at this point in my life.  When you’re in your 20s, especially towards the 30 end, you start to grasp that this “instant youth” shit you’re being over-fed culturally on a daily basis is revolting and tiresome.  People feel “old” at 26 because they’re inundated with these images of how they’re supposed to feel at this age (young! vibrant! wacky! alive!), when their reality is slow entry in adulthood, and the realization that life is what it is, and some days that’s going to suck, or just be another day, as opposed to this fireworks display of euphoria they’re being misled to believe in. 

This song itself isn’t bad.  I’m glad Fueled by Ramen is getting some sort of cash windfall, as much as this song troubles me, as I bought more than a few indie songs from the label in the 90s.  It’s catchy, even with the annoying, slick production values that date it immediately.  Of course, that ersatz euphoria noted above is the troubling issue.  Sample lyrics: 

My friends are in the bathroom getting higher than the Empire State
My lover she’s waiting for me just across the bar
My seat’s been taken by some sunglasses asking bout a scar, and
I know I gave it to you months ago
I know you’re trying to forget
But between the drinks and subtle things
The holes in my apologies, you know
I’m trying hard to take it back
So if by the time the bar closes
And you feel like falling down, I’ll carry you home

Tonight, we are young
So let’s set the world on fire
We can burn brighter than the sun

The verses are nothing to write home about, but the chorus bursts forth in a triumphant wave, that sort of “singalong in the arena” vibe they were going for, and hats off for achieving it.

I can’t figure out whether the singer knows he’s full of shit, or whether he takes himself very seriously.  I’m willing to wager he started out knowing he was full of shit, but now that there are people falling all over him and treating him like a mini-god, he’s taking himself (and this silly song) very seriously.  It has that one-hit wonder vibe to it, the kind of thing that will be played at high-school reunions 10 years from now, and a bunch of rapidly aging 28-year-olds will go “fuck yeah” and pound one down.  I understand this song first became a hit when the cast of the TV show Glee immortalized it in song.  And that’s one teenage phenomenon that is way out of my jurisdiction, as the one time I tried to watch the show, I projectile vomited for the entire five minutes it was on the TV.

What really troubled me was finding there’s an entire Wikipedia entry edicated to this song alone (which probably makes sense, as opposed to the band and/or album, because this one song is going to be it for them).  And this passage in particular: “‘We Are Young’ received immense praise and positive commentary from major music critics and is considered a breakthrough for the indie music genre. Jody Rosen of Rolling Stone called the song ‘rollickingly catchy,’ writing that ‘Ruess' knack for the anthemic is matched by Gen-Y humor – emo self-deprecation that leavens the bombast.’ … Spin reviewed the track positively based on its inclusion in the album, singling it out for ‘marrying fist-pump stadium rock to the prim indie-pop of Grizzly Bear's ‘Two Weeks,’ keeping the deliberate beats and soaring melodies but replacing choirboy primness with a percussive whomp.’”

If you want to know why I got out of writing about music professionally, there it is.  Because a song like this … my god, you’d have thrown it on my desk, I’d have shit myself laughing over the concept of having to hype it for a living.  And that’s exactly what those critics are doing.  I hesitate to call them whores – that’s too kind a word.  They’re simply liars.  Because I know they have the cultural knowledge and experience to see this song for what it is, and they should have the courage to stand their ground and write off a piece of fluff like this for what it is: cynical, mediocre product aimed at manipulating that dislocated, unreal sense of grandeur kids mistakenly attach to their youth.  But these people don’t want to lose their jobs, so they keep log rolling with everyone else.  Don’t cry for me, Argentina: if I had to do that for a living, I would be suicidal.

I’ve been thinking about this more lately due to a few things.  For one, I went to the NYC Public Library and took out the first season for The Monkees tv show (with the second on hold).  I love The Monkees – always have.  Their music was a core part of my early childhood in the late 60s and throughout the 70s via reruns and such.  The shows were fun, but they’re hard to watch now, as it’s basically Gilligan’s Island type humor with the requisite two-per-show musical romps based on the same frolics The Beatles did in A Hard Day’s Night and Help!.

But even with how much I love the band, I can see why they caught so much shit in their time, the desperate level of cynicism, no different than what I see going on now with “We Are Young,” that’s employed to sell product to kids.  The Monkees had it written into their theme song: “We’re the young generation/And we got something to say.”  The closing theme from their second season reinforced the point: “In this generation/In this loving time/In this generation/We will make the world a-shine.”

The concept of “youth culture” weighed more heavily in the 60s than at any other time in our history, before or since.  People genuinely thought a revolution was occurring, a before and after moment that would divide an older/out-of-touch generation with the newer one who understood life on some pure, basic level.  That wasn’t true.  At all.  True, a lot of good came from the 60s, but a lot of bad, too, and in the end, more than anything, I’ll take the music over anything else from that time.  The Monkees were two actors and two musicians carefully picked to helm a network TV show aimed squarely at kids and the market The Beatles had created for this kind of music.  It was done brilliantly.  The music was and is excellent.  And The Monkees themselves proved themselves up to the task, especially Mike Nesmith, who went on to have a respectable solo career in a more country vein.

But just watching these episodes now, phew, it’s harder than I had anticipated!  The Monkees caught shit because they made light of “the revolution” and because it was obvious that “the establishment” had everything to do with their existence.  Of course, it may not have been so obvious that the establishment was just as responsible for allowing any legendary rock act, be it Jimi Hendrix or The Doors, to exist.  But it was painfully obvious with The Monkees, and all of them eventually paid the price for tying themselves down to the teen market, as any act does that directly attaches their success to a certain time or age.  The same will happen to fun as they go along.  But as The Beach Boys never became The Beach Men, nor The Beastie Boys Beastie Men, fun will never become no fun.  They’ll be fun to their fans always, and serve as a nice roadside marker in the lives of the fans as they speed away into the distance of live moving on.

In tandem with all this, I recently picked up a cheap copy of Where the Wild Things Are, the Spike Jonze movie based on the 1963 book by Maurice Sendak, that I, and every kid I knew growing up in the 60s and 70s, had read repeatedly.  I loved that book – how the monsters in the forest were portrayed, the perfect invitation to kids to let their imaginations run wild as they paged through the book.  I had seen trailers for the movie when it came out, and was a little alarmed that they were using an Arcade Fire song to hype it, but I thought when I saw the puppets they had playing the monsters, man, that looks pretty cool, if I ever see a cheap copy, I’ll pick one up.

And so I did.  I have to say, Jonze did an excellent job of bringing the monsters to life.  The eyes of the puppets are amazing, heavy with human emotions.  There’s a lot right about this movie … but the fucking soundtrack.  Forever frozen in time – the early 2000s – by a shitty soundtrack.  All these chirpy, cute, hand-clappy/foot-stomping indie rock songs that are just putrid.  It deeply mars the movie for me.  For me, this is an early childhood memory, mark it down to 1970 or 1971.  Most kids of my generation read that book only a few years after it was written – I’m sure it also reached into the next generation of kids as I was always seeing those Sendak monsters in cultural references over the course of my life.  It’s not tied down to any type of music.  Had they made a movie about the book in 1970 – and used the fucking Monkees, or the Archies, or Bobbie Sherman, to do the soundtrack, it would have marred the experience in the same way.  Never mind that I can’t stand that twee sort of indie pop espoused in the movie.  Even if I liked it, I would still sense that it was out of touch with the timeless theme of the subject matter.

And the central character, the little boy, Max, was portrayed as too much of a prick for me in the movie.  I don’t recall having that feeling when I read the book as a child.  Max wasn’t a prick.  In the movie, he surely is!  He’s portrayed as fatherless, lonely and angry all the time … thus his need to strike out for a fantasy world of monsters and empires to be conquered.  Fuck.  I was a happy kid.  It was enough just to escape into a book, whatever my emotional state.  It feels like this movie was created to tap into some type of faux anger kids are supposed to relate to, I guess because so many are raised in split families these days, and somehow justify Max’s need to escape into a fantasy world.  We don’t need that justification … ever.  For any reason.  It’s OK if you want to read comics, or Sci Fi, or just get lost in a book or movie or song.  It bothered me that a character I knew to be pure and uncomplicated in my childhood was made to be, essentially, an emotionally-damaged little prick, in the movie adaptation.

So, what I’ve written about here seems to come down to reality and fantasy, and the need we have for each.  Reality of the adult world vs. the fantasies of childhood which, these days, extend well into our 20s and include mistaking getting drunk with your friends in a bar as “setting the world on fire.”  I’ve been drunk with friends in bars in my 20s.  I didn’t set the world on fire.  I was lucky not piss my pants most nights.  The best I could hope for was a short, clean break from the realities of my day-to-day life and a nice sense of human connection that doesn’t always present itself when everyone is sober.  Now, how in the hell are you going to write a hit song about that?  You don’t.  You write this.