The deaths of first David Bowie and then Prince, in fairly quick succession, have unleashed upon us – us being the global middle class, although not equally global in all places – a particular variation of the phenomenon of public mourning. I must admit to being slightly repulsed by it. I liked Bowie and Prince, and listened to ‘Darling Nikki’ with a certain relish when I was fifteen. But I was never what might be considered a fan, and stand outside the circle of public mourning in which everybody is not only a fan but a performer as well, acting out their love. Public mourning is, by its nature, a performance. What is it about our moment that induces well educated, ironically inclined individuals to openly self-flagellate and recite lyrics like 'Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life' as if this was profound or poetic? There is, obviously, more than one factor at play, and these overlap: the impact of the recording industry on individuality and generational identity, the intertwining of individuality and loneliness, the yearning for community bred by loneliness, and the rise of virtual communities of compulsive performers. In these communities, subjectivity is necessarily and compulsively absurd, and this absurdity occasionally loses its ironic cover and stands naked, reverent and ridiculous.
The idea of a 'generation' did not fully exist before the nineteenth century. It emerged from disjunctures in society that were generated in the first instance by pedagogy and subsequently (and not entirely separately) by capitalism. In colonized as well as metropolitan societies, young people were subjected to educational regimes that differed sharply from what their parents had experienced, and that produced the school as a space that was ‘away’ from home. In this world apart, children were definitively ‘different’ from their parents. This difference lent itself not only to panic and condemnation by parents who could not ‘understand the kids’, but to Romanticism and to the bourgeois experience itself, well before the turn of the twentieth century.
But the idea that music could form the boundaries and substance of a 'generation' had to wait for the years following the First World War, not least because the war produced further, sharper rents between those who fought, those who gave the orders to fight, and those who looked on. These rents, Paul Fussell wrote, were the spaces within which the ironic sensibility germinated and took over, permanently dooming Victorians and Edwardians to quaintness. With the simultaneous and mutually reinforcing maturing of gramophone technology and commercial radio, and the emergence of a broad prosperity – especially in America – that sold more things to more people than ever before, recorded music became a primary vehicle of irony and irreverence, marking generational identity more ‘naturally’ and democratically (for what is a generation if not democratic?) than the old-school-tie and even literature ever could. It also bridged, silently but substantially, the political rent between the generations, establishing a contradiction that has remained integral to the business of popular music. Those who participated in a common market of the buyers and sellers of identity could never be entirely hostile to each other.
Adapting F. Scott Fitzgerald, the American social historian Paula Fass used the phrase ‘the damned and the beautiful’ to describe this first musical generation. The damnation and beauty were both ascribed by outsiders (like disapproving pastors and salivating advertisers), but they were also embraced by the generation itself, which gave it its peculiar narcissism: that slightly doom-and-gloom inflected self-absorption that was entirely compatible with hedonism and that colored the experience of the individual undergraduate as well as the crowd at a party or a nightclub. After the coming of the baby boom and rock and roll, that narcissism filled the concert venue with its collective hysteria and waving cigarette-lighters, and gave U2 lyrics their anthemic quality: the earnest, self-adoring ‘we’ of ‘we can break through,’ ‘we can be one’ and ‘we are the world.’ In its merger of melancholy and euphoria, loneliness and community, this subjectivity of the group-hug contained more than a trace of the parallel phenomenon of fascism (to say nothing of the church), albeit with a better soundtrack. Irony turned out to be an affectation, incompatible with the valorization of permanent childhood or a 'youth culture' one never outgrew.
Even the quality of the soundtrack is misleading. Like fascism, the generational identity produced by the consumption of music has come with a devaluing of aesthetics, or philistinism, that manifests itself in inflated and distorted reactions to the deaths of rock stars. It is one thing to hold forth publicly on ‘our grief’ at the evident mortality of, say, John Lennon, or in the future, Bob Dylan and Michael Stipe. There is in those cases an undeniable ideological and aesthetic content – that might be summarized as poetry – worth mourning. But when the banality of 'Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life' followed by a few good guitar licks becomes the lexicon of grief, and we declare our undying 'love' for kitsch and dead pop musicians, what are ‘we’ mourning? Along with poetry, we would seem to be devaluing grief itself.
Most charitably, it might be argued that we are mourning ourselves: ‘the way we were’ in, say, the year Purple Rain played on FM radio. We are trying, pathetically, to recover the disposed bits of ourselves from the dustbins of generations, and from the dispersed souls – classmates, neighbors, relatives, lovers, the dead – that have made a ghostly last stand on Facebook and Twitter. The music and the musician’s name function like a photograph, and it’s not especially good photography: a selfie, so to speak. That fundamentally maudlin experience of self-love and panic (the ‘we’ breaking down into an ‘I’ that is shorter of breath, more than one day closer to death) is dignified and assuaged ultimately by its immersion in a public ritual of nostalgia. It is not cheapened, because it was cheap – affordable, throwaway, mass-marketed– in the first place.
May 4, 2016