June 24, 2009

How Multiculturalism Killed the Counter Culture

When I was eleven in 1970, Alvin Toffler published a book entitled Future Shock, which prophesied ever faster cultural change. In the wake of the tumultuous 1960s, this sounded like a sure bet. Hence, Future Shock became a huge bestseller.

Yet, looking back, 1970 seems to be right about when the rate of transformation started to slow down.

The late 1960s remain the fastest-changing period in my lifetime. For example, I was recently telling my son about the worldwide demonstrations in 1968, when he asked, “€œDid feminism play a big role in 1968?”€

“€œOh, no,”€ I corrected. “€œNobody cared about feminism in 1968. Feminism was 1969, not 1968.”€ On further reflection, I helpfully added, “€œEnvironmentalism, however, was 1970, not 1969.”€

At that point, it struck me how bizarre it must seem by today’s slow-motion standards to assign huge historical movements to a single year with such confidence. For a child of the 1960s, however, it seems natural.

We”€™re still living in the shadow of the Sixties as the rate of cultural change (outside communication technology) has slowed considerably.

For instance, everybody admits today that romantic comedy movies have gotten boring. But it’s not just because they all star Matthew McConaughey. The tedium of today’s romantic comedies stems in part from the fact that middle class social norms for dating and mating haven”€™t changed much in recent decades, after the sharp shock imposed by the introduction of oral contraceptives in 1964. Last winter’s He’s Just Not That Into You had to derive much of what few new laughs it managed to muster up from the complaints of young women about having to monitor all the different devices and services that guys aren”€™t calling them on. Everything else about modern romance had been hashed over endlessly in previous films.

In the arts, perhaps the most important change since the 1960s is the decline in what had then been the greatest engine of artistic change: the generation gap.

Generational conflict over aesthetic styles is most common in a relatively ethnically homogenous society, such as 19th Century Paris, rather than in a multicultural city, such as Ottoman Istanbul.

In Paris, it became standard practice for each new cohort of painters to position themselves as the rivals and inevitable successors to the older, established artists. In the 20th Century, young artists began to issue manifestos denouncing their obsolete elders and explaining why only their new breakthrough (Futurism! Vorticism! Dada!) could meet the urgent needs of today. The generation gap appealed to bourgeois young people up through the 1960s and 1970s because, after all, what other dimensions did they have to distinguish themselves upon?

While strident and self-interested, this kind of generational conflict produced a lot of interesting art. In 2000’s From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present, the venerable historian Jacques Barzun (1907″€”) pauses at one point to offer up a dozen lessons he’s learned in his 93 years. One is:

A movement in thought or art produces its best work during the uphill fight to oust the enemy; that is, the previous thought or art. Victory brings on imitation and ultimately Boredom.

Boredom is most apparent precisely where the generation gap yawned widest in 1970: pop music. The top-rated television show of this decade, American Idol, is aimed simultaneously at adolescents and their moms, a marketing target that would have been impractical four decades ago.

Similarly, when my sons were younger, I enrolled them multiple times in LA guitar teacher John Mizenko’s Join the Band program. In each session, the instructor would team his students up into about a dozen groups”€”each with two guitarists, a bass player, and a drummer”€”and teach them to play three songs. After eight weeks, the ad hoc bands would perform for their parents and siblings at a rock club like the Knitting Factory on Sunset Blvd. Each group would typically play two fairly recent songs (Green Day being the most popular), and one classic for the dads in the audience, such as “€œIron Man”€ by Black Sabbath or The Clash’s version of “€œI Fought the Law.”€

While innovation was the hallmark of popular music from, say, the invention of ragtime in the 1890s, most major styles of pop music in today’s America have changed only marginally from about 1979, when the first hip-hop hit, The Sugarhill Gang’s “€œRapper’s Delight,”€ reached the Top 40. In an earlier, more creative era, rap would have been a passing novelty, but instead it has engulfed black music like an Ice Age glacier. The Sugarhill Gang’s lyrics might sound dorky now—“Me, my crew, and my friends are gonna try to move your feet”—but the group actually coined the line, “Throw your hands up in the air, and wave them around like you just don’t care,” which has been repeated ad nauseam by hip-hop artists for the past three decades. 

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Although increasing ethnic diversity is widely assumed to make the arts more “€œvibrant,”€ the triumph of the ideology of multiculturalism appears to have instead helped cause pop music to stagnate stylistically.

There’s a fundamental connection between the growth of ethnic pride and the decline of generational rebellion, because to rebel against your forefathers is to rebel against your race. Thus, for a group of young black musicians to issue a manifesto pointing out that 30 years of rap is plenty would be racial treason. Although long exhausted musically, hip-hop has become so emotionally entwined with African-American identity that we”€™re all stuck with it.

Whites can”€™t speak (or even think) in those terms, but that doesn”€™t mean they aren”€™t starting to feel parallel emotions. At my kids”€™ “€œJoin the Band”€ concerts, looking around at the all-white audience of doting parents who”€™d paid to have their kids learn to play “€œBlitzkrieg Bop”€ by The Ramones, I realized I was a little like an Irish-American dad who had enrolled his daughters in an Irish step dancing class to instill some ethnic tradition. As a generic white guy, The Ramones, along with the rest of electric guitar rock, is turning out to be part of my family’s ethnic heritage.


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