Sorting through a pile of LPs the other day I came across the first album by 60s American pop-music Frankensteins The Monkees. I threw it on the turntable. I’d heard most of the songs before, but something that hadn’t struck me before in the self-titled theme to their TV program struck me this time around-what I suppose could be called the hippie minstrel element. Every lyric is saying “we’re young but we’re not threatening and especially not political.”
Particularly striking is this stanza:
We’re just tryin’ to be friendly
Come and watch us sing and play
We’re the young generation
And we’ve got something to say
What is striking here is of course not the pedestrian lyrics themselves but the suggested elision. It’s claimed there’s something they have to say then nothing of any consequence is said. Their political neutrality, the pledge of allegiance to the standards and practices of the TV station, is referred to through the subtle employment of the word “restless” earlier in the song.
We don’t have time to get restless
There’s always something new
They’re not the “angry young man”. They’re not angry at all, and especially not at you. Like the rest of the things in the television set, they desperately want you to like them. The extent to which they actually represented the youth culture of the 1960s is negligible beyond the fact that some of them wore jeans. Still, the Monkees as a commercial product existed in the time period along with many other examples of hippie minstrel and must have done so for a reason. The misreading came from somewhere.
The archetypes we see in these hippie or beatnik minstrel artifacts are given to the internal contradiction of any sort of caricature-the thing is shown as not being dangerous for fear that it is in fact dangerous; nervous reassurances by the older folks making the commercial culture that the young people aren’t to be taken seriously but also the need to pump their heads full of stereotyped “moderate” declawed versions of themselves or “dangerous threatening” versions as seen in various motorcycle movies. That this would seem to mirror the similar dichotomy of the “black friend”/”angry black man” cliches from the mass culture of the same time period doesn’t suggest anything besides a narrow common origin of the two phenomena: the aging generation, disproportionately in the positions of power, who get to control what go through the big megaphones that define what cultural products we end up getting bombarded with.
The younger generation scares the older generation until the process repeats. This makes sense. The younger generation are actually there to take your jobs. No matter what you do, we will end up replacing you.
An LA Times columnist went viral this week. His name is Chris Erskine and the column in question is a piece of writing so monumentally bad it inspires. But first, who is Chris Erskine?
The strained smile, the creepy mustache, the blue glowing light presumably leading to the afterlife behind his back. It’s hard to imagine this man was ever less than 50 years old. What look was aspired to here? My mind searches for a specific person on whom Erskine could’ve modeled himself. But all that comes up when I brainstorm is the Jungian archetype of middle aged white irrelevance.
A quick look through his earlier columns confirms that middle aged irrelevance is his brand, and that the “Millennial Pledge” for which he’s taken so much flack is in fact the pinnacle of strivings. His writing is a combination of lazy sentimentality and cliches mangled or otherwise. Like most humor writing in newspapers. There’s nothing exceptional whatsoever about it. On the subject of parenting, Erskine drops lines like:
“Just give them a ton of love — the best bubble wrap.
And let them chase the moon.”
No self-respecting writer would let their name be attached to lines like that. Certainly not on a weekly basis. And that’s the point. Erskine might be the voice of his generation.
What is interesting in this whole thing is that Erskine has pulled off the trick of becoming momentarily relevant for being the hyperreal summoning of all that is mediocre and irrelevant. The incoherence of his suggested things millennials pledge to do points to the fact that there is no single monolithic “millennial” identity.
The overwhelmingly favored tone of the viral is the exceptional mediocre. In the face of a lack of large unified targets to attack, the person who can come to embody an abstract strain of something hated will pull in the attention and hate clicks. Erskine, by virtue of his socks-with-sandals obliviousness, is a troll par excellence. The LA Times gets traffic, and I’m sure Erskine isn’t losing any sleep over this.
Erskine’s name may as well be Kenneth Goldsmith. Or Thomas Friedman. The mediocrity industry rolls on…