Stabbing Westward: “Shame”
Here is the thing it is important to remember, as adults, as we stare gape-jawed at the singles charts peppered with Black Eyed Peas and LMFAO and Ke$ha and the rest, eGrumbling at the futility of being culturally aware in these end times—culture overtakes us before we are ready for it. We do not have the array of tools at 14 to parse that by which we are engulfed; it simply engulfs, and we twist in its center, mutating—and it is in that larval state that we put our capital where our hearts are. Not after, when we gain a crumb of perspective and hastily push ourselves away from the singles charts and into the deeper waters of the Olympic-sized cultural pool, but during, when we’re porous and eager and, most importantly, secretly confused about the whole mess.
Take this song—I sure did, in 1996, from the radio to an ad-hoc tape mix and then around with me all day, bookended by “Closer" and "Backwater.” This video might as well have been science fiction to me, so insulated was I from such actual horrors as domestic abuse or stalking—the lyrics didn’t strike me as coming from an unreliable narrator, both because I didn’t know what one was and also because I wasn’t paying attention. The platitudes offered up by this song, though, tumbled into my lap, ripe off the vine—a phrase like “all that I believe I am” was as good as a punched ticket to the margins of my pre-algebra notes or (in rare and heady cases) the sides of my One-Stars.
Listening to it now in the clean room of my adult experiences and my (still-terrible, but) proportionally-improved attention span, it’s almost a totally different song—the production is still deliciously dense and it still kinda makes me want to get an underbuzz, but the content of the song now blooms out from that audial center, obvious now, no matter how unparseable then. Which is not to say that no teenager can understand nuance, but that the nuance can be beside the point, or, really, that the point is to have music to call your own in the first place, and to make valuations thereafter.
So naturally, then, I think about how I felt at 17 about, like, The Bloodhound Gang, or about Gravity Kills, or about Courtney Love, and the question that keeps resurfacing is: Why are we so incredibly concerned about the cultural input into youth culture when the cultural artifacts of youth culture are, by and large, just the window dressing on “being young?” The kids are alright — the kids are always alright — no matter whether their pop songs are about self-harm, immature desperation, unprotected sex, consumerism—or nothing. And, no, the purview of pop music is not limited to those who can’t yet buy Tanqueray, and yes, it’s always appropriate to demand transcendence, rather than simple convenience, from pop culture, but—
—but I keep thinking about the party in ninth grade where six of us stood in a driveway, domed by the arching pine boughs of nowhere, fastballing loose bricks at a Toni Braxton CD, over and over, until it was pulverized, running immediately thereafter back to the room with the stereo, away from songs about difficult love and easy lust, leaping and swaying into the hormonal fray of our peers, now blanketed by Hole’s “Gold Dust Woman,” a song so intensely about cocaine that Stevie Nicks can no longer remember whether it was about cocaine. Thinking about all the above like so: The purpose of the music was to create ownership of oneself; to separate oneself from one’s family; to create a private history; to finally participate. The details of that separation are under the purview of the individual, and god keep the children who interpreted these songs—any songs!—instructionally, and in the meantime there is the beat and the rhythm and the song. Just so.