How do you know you’ve officially entered middle-age? Is it the wrinkles? Is it the grey hair? Is it the socks worn with sandals? No. I believe you’ve officially hit middle-age when you complain about the music of the young generation.
I’ve seen the posts on Facebook: Smug 40-to-50-somethings, no doubt with The Biebs or Miley in mind, proclaiming a generational superiority of music over the teenagers around them. This is nothing new, of course. Each generation believes its music to be vastly better than that “noise” cranked out by the younger generation coming after it. No doubt some adults in Vienna back in the 1770’s thought that new music by that snot-nosed Mozart kid “sucked”. Though they likely said it in German which would’ve sounded even more derisive.
The reality is that our age of pop music has driven musical wedges between generations. We come to associate so much of who we are, what generation we belong to, by the soundtrack that accompanied our youth. Many cling to that music through middle-age and with it clings a sense of it being “real” music, music that mattered, not like the over-produced, pre-packaged crap churned out by no-talent kids and their pushy record companies these days.
Well, as a sometimes smug 40-to-50-something myself, I want to say something to teenagers that maybe they don’t hear so often: “Kids, your music is alright.”
Recently two albums have been in heavy rotation on my playlist. Both albums are created by teenagers. Not twenty-year-olds or thirty-year-olds: teenagers. There are teenage-type themes in both albums but neither is “teeny-bopper” banality. Both are musically satisfying and full of creative energy. Yet the two albums could not sound more different from each other.
The first album is Pure Heroine by the Kiwi ingénue who calls herself Lorde. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last year, you have no doubt heard her song “Royals”. The song has been played so heavily as to almost feel omnipresent. Lorde’s music is extremely minimalist, very electronic, with an emphasis on an hypnotic beat and her surprisingly wide range of vocal expression, given her young age (seventeen, same age as my son!). Guitars are nowhere to be found on her album. This is atmospheric music dealing with teenage themes of alienation, boredom, and cynicism at the adult world; full of critique of her society and culture. This kid sings intelligent, solid stuff.
Then there is Snapshot, the album by a group of young Irish lads who call themselves The Strypes. From the opening blast of feedback to the final thump of foot pedal on bass drum, these boys take off at full speed and leave clouds of dust behind them. These four, aged 16 to 18, play an extremely guitar driven form of electric blues which brings to mind ’60’s British invasion bands like The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds while having the incredible energy of ’70’s English punk rock. This is infectious and highly boogie-able music unapologetically reminiscent of so much great rock-n-roll that came before it. In the song “She’s So Fine”, when they sing one of those great nonsensical blues lines – “She float like a bee but she sting like a butterfly” – I can’t help but smile. Every time. The kids absolutely kick arse.
The kids are alright. The fact is that every generation has produced great music. And every generation has produced drivel. Even the ’60’s generation, a generation that redefined pop music perhaps forever, has to answer for Herman’s Hermits #1 hit, “I’m Henry VIII I Am “. For every classic like Paul Simon’s hit from 1976, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”, there is a “Disco Duck” or a “Muskrat Love”. For every era-defining moment like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” there is a Michael Bolton and his ersatz emoting on his #1 hit cover of “When a Man Loves a Woman”. This is the legacy of popular music: Each generation gives us songs and moments for the ages but also earcandy and earworms that cannot be exorcised from our collective cultural soul.
Why then do grumpy middle-aged folks like myself persist in lambasting the music of the young? I suppose it could be chalked up to revisionist history on our part, conveniently forgetting all the ridiculous music that blared out of our car stereos and cassette-playing boomboxes. It could also be that music moved on and we did not. Pop music is an ever-evolving thing that never really sits still. As you get older, you settle for the music that becomes your “comfort food”, your “happy place”, as you navigate the stresses and harsh realities of adult life. One day you hear some Rap or Emo or Electronica and you scrunch up your face and think, “What the #!@*!# is that???” It’s the sound of music, whether or not it is your generation’s music or not. And it is like a rolling stone; it don’t gather no moss.
So based on my definition to begin this article, have I hit middle-age? Sadly, I think I hit it ages ago as I have always been a multi-generational complainer about popular music. I was griping about young people’s music when I was a young people myself. That’s part of being a music snob, I suppose. So I don’t wear socks with sandals (except if my feet are really cold) but I do most definitely exercise my cranky-old-guy right to rake pop music over the coals when I deem necessary. Guilty as charged.
However, I do keep an ear wide open for what has energy, creativity, insight; for what is pushing boundaries, saying new things, jumping out of the mass of musical mush and screaming, “Here I am!” I love music no matter what the era, no matter what the genre, no matter if it is made by people the same age as my own kids. Even though I’m getting older I don’t want to sit still and miss out on the fun of new music, new expressions, new sounds and new perspectives. Life is too full of great musical opportunities to just gripe at them as they pass by.
So, once again, kids – your music is alright. You’ll contribute your fair share of drivel but don’t believe for a second that you won’t also give us music that is epic, too.
Here’s a link to the Strypes performance of their song “What a Shame” on the Letterman show:
When I look in the mirror, I see my Mom. Not because I’m having a vision of my dearly departed mother but because I look so much like her. I have so many physical traits like her side of the family that I’ve had people look at me and say, “You must be Eleanor’s son.” Yes, I must.
When I look down at my hands, working on some detailed project, I see my Mom’s hands. They tremble just like hers did. She became quite self-conscious of this as she got older. Likewise, I am becoming more self-conscious of my shaky hands. People think I’m nervous about something when they notice it. The only thing I’m nervous about, however, is that you’ll notice it make a comment like that. At those times I feel my Mom’s frustration.
When I consider the follicle challenges I have on my head yet see the copious amount of hair that happily grows everywhere else on my body, I think of my Mom; not because she was bald and hairy but because her brothers were bald and hairy. As I understand it, I got that genetic quirk through her side of the family. The scant hair gracing my head is quite grey now, too. Also a reason to think of Mom. She got grey very early on in life. In fact, as the baby of the family, the youngest of six kids, I have no memory of my Mom with anything but grey hair. My siblings like to say it was because of the youngest child that she went grey so young. Sorry, Mom.
When I hear someone make a joke about their “quasi-Alzheimer’s” I think of my Mom. I have said before that she lost her battle with Alzheimer’s disease but I really don’t like that phrase anymore. She had as much chance of “battling” that disease as the young Somalian pirates had of taking on the U.S. Navy at the end of the “Captain Phillips” movie. It was not a fair fight and the end was inevitable. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about ending my days in the fading confusion that comes with that horrible disease. It was difficult not to feel cheated by not having your Mom fully there for the last few years of her life. Yet even in the throes of Alzheimer’s, there were aspects of who she uniquely was that could not be extinguished. She still loved to laugh. She still brightened up when little children came around. She still remained deeply concerned about caring for people, being hospitable, having enough food for everyone.
My Mom was a compassionate and gracious person. She came from a quiet, kind-hearted family, humble to a fault. I have very few memories of Mom talking much about herself. She would elaborate on some things if you asked her but seemed genuinely uninterested in being the center of any conversation. Only very late in her life did I discover she had dreams of being a nurse when she was young. Her parents discouraged this notion, especially when it became clear she had the opportunity to marry a charismatic young man who was destined to become a pastor. To them this was by far the highest status she could achieve, being wife to someone of prominence and position. I never sensed that my Mom resented this or resented the role she played as wife and mother.
She never did much striving for significance. It didn’t seem to be in her DNA. But a funny thing happened: By not striving for significance but instead being faithful and committed to her life as it unfolded before her, she achieved a significance so far beyond the reach of so many who have given all for success, money, fame. By being the gentle person she was, by living out her values and beliefs in simple, day-by-day ways, she created a legacy that has had long lasting ripple effects.
When her kids all get together these days we laugh and sing so loudly that the mother responsible for all of that noise must’ve done something right. Sure, most of the noise comes from our Dad’s genes but the spirit of it all, the sheer joy of being joyful, comes directly from our Mom. Laughter, so strong it makes you cry – that’s my Mom. But more than that, by being who she truly was and living that out for us to see and emulate, she set our lives on a course of compassion and grace. Each of her children embrace a very practical and very human way of being like Jesus. This is no accident.
I realize now that the earthy spirituality I hold so dear – an internal value so important to me that it can’t be excised from my soul – I owe to my Mom. She lived that way absolutely unselfconsciously. She didn’t attend a seminar, read a book, hear a message and then decide to strive for being real, being joyful, being compassionate, being gracious, being loving – She simply lived the way God led her to live. And in the wake of that life there are children, grand-children and great-grand-children who also strive to live the same way. She unleashed on the world a small army of little Jesus’s cast in her mold. Was this her master plan all along? Unlikely. Mom was just being Mom and letting God work out his master plan.
All this has been very important for me to consider on this Mother’s Day. I have spent too much time fretting over my own significance. We all want our lives to matter, to leave something behind, to have a legacy. We strive and we strive for things that ultimately will make us look good, will make us come out as special, unique, gifted, significant. My Mom left behind a legacy that the world would deem insignificant. She didn’t write any books, make tons of cash, find a cure for some dreadful disease, star in movies, hit lots of home runs, grace the cover of magazines or serve in some political office. History will not remember my Mom’s name. But the effect of that one quiet life will resonate on and on beyond anything that the so-called Significant People could ever muster.
So in honor of my Mom, I want to renounce a striving for significance in favor of a goal to live the life God has given me, fully and abundantly, until he calls me home. I don’t expect to be remembered to history, either. But it is my prayer that I can continue the ripple effect of grace and compassion for many more generations to come.
To be nobody but yourself –
in a world that is trying its best, night and day, to make you everybody else –
means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight;
and never stop fighting.
My wife bought a piece of artwork with this quote on it for me many years ago. She knows me very well. She understood then and she understands now that the “hardest battle” of my life has been the fight to be truly myself. She loves who I am and wants me to experience that and, more so, wants other people to experience who I am. Yet there are times I’ve felt crushed by the weight of other people’s expectations. And times when I’ve felt that who I am was slowly disappearing.
A friend of mine recently commented to me that it seems I’m going through a “mid-life revival”. I really liked that sentiment. He was referring to the fact that I have been delving back into artwork, posting my creations on Facebook and also writing the very blog you happen to be reading right now (thanks for that, by the way). Edging closer to 50, I am putting myself out there more than ever and expressing myself in these ways more than I have for many years.
I am an artist. And like so many artists, I’m not content to stick to one area of creative expression but tend to dabble in multiple areas when I get the chance. I have always felt most fully alive when I am making visual art or making music or acting on stage or writing prose. I made the decision to enter the blogosphere because I wanted the impetus to get back into writing for the shear creative joy of it.
For many artists, the act of creating is almost as natural as breathing. But it has not always been so for me. I have had long stretches in life where I felt I was becoming someone else and that artist side of me was fading, fading away. There are a number of factors that contributed to this but most of it had to do with a Twofold set of realities in my life: (1) I am a Christian; and (2) I am a Pastor.
The evangelical Christian world is not always the most welcoming and accommodating world for the artist. Artists, when they are remaining true to their creative impulse, like to push the boundaries, ask the tough questions, challenge themselves and others to view their world from different angles and in different tones and hues. This impulse is not generally encouraged or fostered in the evangelical Christian setting. The mysterious, the mystical, the grey areas, the fringes – these are not places where the Evangelical mind and spirit tend to go. Yet they are precisely where the Artistic mind and spirit go on a regular basis. The Artist doesn’t mind ambiguity, uncertainty. The Evangelical minds it a great deal and much prefers clarity and certainty.
I am generalizing, of course. But I stand by these generalizations because they are so often the way things play out. And so often the Artist feels very much a stranger in a strange land when he or she dares dwell among the Evangelicals. I have dwelt in that place and felt strange indeed. I have sensed the tension. When I did have the Jones to create, I’d find myself self-editing, concerned that I might offend someone. Or I’d have to defend myself for acting in a play in which the character I was playing said “Oh my God.” Or I would get the less than enthusiastic responses that spoke quiet volumes of displeasure about something I had created. And often I found myself tucking the artist in me deep down somewhere where it would not rock any feathers or ruffle and boats.
Yet, ironically, I ended up in Christian ministry, a Pastor. I won’t get into how that all happened because, frankly, after almost 20 years I am still bemused by it. Imagine, if you will, already feeling on the margins of Christian life and then ending up as someone who people look to for leadership in that Christian life. My artistic sensibilities took a beating from my own sense of responsibility to “the Call” and from the expectations of the Flock. When these things conspired together the Artist in me became almost undetectable and I no longer felt the natural impulse to create. I would continue to be creative, of course, and find avenues to do so, but it became a sidebar to my life, not a main part of the story.
I was doing good things for people and trying my best to remain faithful to what I felt God was asking me to do. But my wife could see that who I am and what made me feel most fully alive were not being given adequate expression. So when she came across the quote above, she thought of me.
I do not blame my Christianity or my role as a pastor in the Church for this fight to be myself. If anything, I have found over the years that I have no one to blame but myself. It was my choice to hide things away, to bury the Artist deep within; no one forced me to do these things. If anything, this Mid-Life Revival is showing me my own responsibility in all of that and also challenging me to no longer allow that to happen in my life. And it is my faith, and the belief in a God who created me exactly the way I am supposed to be, that gives me the motivation to be nobody but myself. In fact, I have begun to see that it was the Artist in me, the part of me that liked to push the boundaries, ask the tough questions, not be content with simplistic answers, and continually embrace challenges, that has made me most effective in my years of Christian ministry. I look at the Bible and my faith from odd angles, as an artist would, and that has given a distinctiveness to what I do as a pastor.
To any of you out there who also exist in this tension-land of Art and Faith, I would ask you to take heart. You do belong. You do have a role to play. People will not always understand you. You may offend some. You may confuse others. And there may be times others question your faith or you yourself do the questioning. But as artists we’re here to give expression to alternate realities, to be on a continual quest for compassion, to make people feel a bit uneasy in order for them to see God where they hadn’t seem him before. That is a scary but fabulous calling.
The Great Artist made you an artist for a reason. So be that artist.
To those of you who are not artists, know that we will sometimes freak you out, whether you are a Christian or not. We will sometimes offend you. We will certainly confuse you. But if you let us speak, sing, act, write, draw, paint, sculpt, dance – create – you will be opening yourself up to a much bigger world. And that expanse in your spirit and mind and heart will make it that much easier to embrace all of Creation. You, too, are unique and uniquely gifted. And you, too, help people see God.
From now on until I die, I want to be unashamedly myself. I still have a lot of work to do but I feel I’m on the right track. I have steeled myself for the fight. Bring it on!