Please forgive me for mentioning the name Miley Cyrus again. In a recent MTV interview, she explained her infamous VMA performance by saying that she just wanted to “make history.” There’s something about that statement that explains a lot about the state of our culture right now in an age of mirrors when rock stars have brands that they strategically develop instead of actual idiosyncratic personalities that no PR consultant has had anything to do with shaping. What was it like in other eras when people simply lived history instead of having the accursed burden of needing to make history? What will have to happen for authentic culture to become possible again or is there no return to the age before meta-discourse?
I’ve been reading this amazing and somewhat frightening book called You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier. He makes a very interesting claim that I somewhat agree with:
Popular music created in the industrialized world in the decade from the late 1990s to the late 2000s doesn’t have a distinct style–that is, one that would provide an identity for the young people who grew up with it. The process of the reinvention of life through music appears to have stopped… I have been trying an experiment. Whenever I’m around “Facebook generation” people and there’s music playing… I ask them a simple question: Can you tell in what decade the music that is playing right now was made?… So, far my theory has held: even true fans don’t seem to be able to tell if an indie rock track or a dance mix is from 1998 or 2008, for instance. [128-130]
Of course, now that I think about it, there is dubstep, and that didn’t really exist ten years ago. But dubstep irritates me the same way that screamo irritated me ten years ago. It’s like screamo except the vocals have been sublimated into the bass. But that’s neither here nor there. The point remains that we live in an era of unusual self-consciousness and meta-analysis. If it is the case that there is no distinct culture for the Twenty-Teens, then that is because the pundits and bloggers would shred it apart with analysis if it ever emerged like a bunch of piranhas ravaging a freshly hatched fish.
I think it’s fair to say that people make real culture when they aren’t burdened with the pressure of making history. So how do we transcend that burden? Am I on the mark in naming it as a special curse that uniquely afflicts the Facebook generation? I don’t think our parents told us that we were supposed to be rock stars when we grew up, but something was in the water (or am I just projecting?).
Okay, here’s my proof of the utter degeneration of our age: selfies. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it means taking a picture of yourself trying to look cool, attractive, seductive, or whatever, and posting it on social media. There’s been quite a blow-up in the Christian blogosphere over a fundamentalist Christian mom telling off teenage girls for taking erotic selfies of themselves and posting them on the Internet.
Yes, I’m in total agreement that girls are not responsible for boys’ sexuality. But can we say something about how pathetic selfies are in and of themselves? I’m opposed to “slut-shaming” in the sense of making assumptions about girls’ fashion decisions, but shouldn’t we be ashamed of the fact that we’ve all become “sluts” who are so desperate for others to watch our every move? Are we not allowed to critique the narcissism of constantly taking selfies regardless of whether you’re wearing a towel or an astronaut suit?
I realize that part of what’s going on is a natural phase that teenagers go through, but there are a lot of 35 year old teenagers on facebook. Earlier generations didn’t have the technology to be their own personal paparazzi and maybe that’s why they were able to make authentic culture. The nervousness of obsessively watching ourselves live life keeps us from living it to the fullest.
In any case, if you’d like to see the best selfie I’ve ever taken, here’s one that I took while I was on my one and only rock and roll tour in 2004 at Super Happy Fun Land in Houston, Texas, thinking I was some kind of Ziggy Stardust with a head-wrap and a mustache.
Notice that the top button of my pink shirt is not buttoned. Oh and here’s another selfie on that highway that Bob Dylan sang about in Clarksdale, MS, right next to the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil.
Maybe some day the world will realize I was making history!