Since the release of Disney’s latest Star Wars trilogy, the internet has been rife with memes mocking the saga’s mercurial, millennial goth villain- Kylo Ren. Indeed, compared to the menacing machismo of Darth Vader, the tantrum-throwing, Hot Topic reject of a sith lord is not the antagonist you’d expect in a galaxy far, far away. However, if art is really a precis of the times of its creators, then this son of Solo is the villain my generation has earned. I often reference Star Wars because it is a body of work that has nearly achieved the status of cultural myth. Whenever a new installment is released, young fans and old fans alike juxtapose it with the sacred Old Testament- the Original Trilogy. Most striking about this phenomenon is that generations of Star Wars fans who would agree on little else about life ultimately arrive at the same conclusion: Empire Strikes Back is the best!
In an age of incessant IP reboots, it would appear that millennials and Gen-Z might be a little too fixated on the past. However, the modern appreciation for history and tradition appears to terminate somewhere in between Bohemian Rhapsody and Furbies. This opinion might seem predictable from a person who sported double-breasted blazers and spectator shoes every day to middle school, but my disgruntlement does not derive from an atavist desire to turn America back to the 1950s. It is spurred instead by an observation of modern hubris that not only suggests everything is “better than ever,” but that everything in the past is worthy of reproach and even destruction. Indeed, it seems the advice of the second-rate sith to “Let the past die…” and “Kill it, if you have to…” has become a mantra of modernity.
Humans evolve culture over time based on new knowledge, enlightenment, and technological innovation. This is one of the great wonders of our species. In the past half century, human culture has undergone a more rapid change in a shorter period than ever before. The last vestiges of colonialism fell, equal rights triumphed in law, Democracy conquered Communism, and the internet made the world a more connected place. Most reasonable people would agree these are all very positive cultural transformations that have afforded lifestyles of comfort, capability, and creativity unparalleled in history.
Unfortunately, this age of rapid progress has wrought an epiphenomenon of pride. Because we can do virtually anything, we assume that we can’t do anything wrong. So, in our effete perfectionism, we begin to tamper with things that aren’t really broken. Among the most obvious of these cultural attributes is art.
Throughout history, art has sought to represent the best of a civilization, embodying the ideals of its people. Some works, like the Roman Colosseum or the Mona Lisa, are so revered that they’ve become metonyms for entire societies. Indeed, most of the world’s most successful civilizations- the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and colonial Empires of Europe- are inseparable from their architecture, music, paintings, and sculpture. Cultures that elevate “beautiful” art have historically held different folkways and mores than cultures that elevate vulgar and crude art. So, what does today’s art have to say about the modern generation?
To examine this question, let’s take a look at music. Unlike visual art, which has heavily bifurcated between the taste of critics and consumers, standards of musical excellence remain largely aligned between the culture and its elites. This is evident in the fact that the GRAMMYS, our culture’s most prestigious recognition of a musical achievement, has historically awarded songs that enjoy both popular and critical success. How is the music we honor today different from what we honored when the awards where first presented in 1959?
The first work ever to receive the GRAMMY for Record of the Year, which the Recording Academy states honors” commercially released singles or tracks,” was a song called “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu.” Better known as “Volare,” the Italian love ballad written and performed by Domenico Modungo featured a lush arrangement of rubato piano, harp glissandos, and romantic lyrical phrasing. An English rendition of the song, performed by Dean Martin, partially translated the original Italian lyrics:
We can sing in the glow of a star that I know of
Where lovers enjoy peace of mind
Let us leave the confusion and all disillusion behind
Just like birds of a feather a rainbow together we’ll find.
Over six decades later, in 2021, the Record of the Year was awarded to the neon-haired Billie Eilish for her song “Everything I Wanted.” Written by Eilish and her brother Finneas, the song employs a repetitive piano vamp, club beat, and the singer’s characteristically tenuous vocals to create downbeat musical experience. Its lyrics read:
Nobody cried (cried, cried, cried, cried)
Nobody even noticed
I saw them standing right there
Kinda thought they might care (might care, might care)
Two songs from two different generations. Each, in its own way, about love. Yet, present in each, two starkly different worldviews and values.
“Volare” epitomizes the notion of “Hollywood on the Tiber,” an era in entertainment where film, music, and television showed a fascination with Italian culture that coincided for often idealized Age of American Camelot. During this time, our nation’s ideal was an upper-class lifestyle of culture, worldliness, and wealth. Both the song’s Italian and English lyrics, with their rhyme scheme, poetic diction, and romantic metaphor speak to a culture that valued education and literacy. The musical composition, with its tempo rubato and organ accompaniment exhibit inspiration from operatic love arias and the ecclesiastical music of the Roman Catholic Church, two staples of Western culture. The song’s artist, Domenico Modungo, was himself a picture of grace and urbanity, performing in luxurious Italian tuxedoes with a warm, dignified stage presence.
Billie Eilish, while an undeniable musical talent, resonates with a culture of different aspirations. Her song “Everything I Wanted,” with its bland melody and the moody electronic beat, reflect a culture of great ennui and disenchantment. The lyrics, plain to the point of uninspired, speak of a sad and sophomoric need to be coddled through the traumas of life. They zestlessly bemoan suicidal tendencies and a pathological need for regular emotional affirmation. More problematic than presenting these issues is presenting codependent relationships as an acceptable coping mechanism. These abysmal lyrics paired with Eilish’s catatonic performance provide a sad summary of the modern generation- a culture content to sulk and celebrate their sadness while looking to others to handhold them through life with unfounded validation.
It is not the existence or even the success of Eilish’s woeful opus that smacks of a fallen culture. Suicide and depression are serious subjects that merit artistic exploration, and lackluster music has existed in every age. It is the fact that the culture whose art once inspired sophistication, intelligence, and worldliness now promotes brokenness, abandonment, and victimhood as the ultimate “ideal.” If great art challenges us to live up to the best of ourselves and our society, how is it positive to bow down to the things that tear us down?
Music may seem like a petty example of cultural degradation, but art is not made in vacuum. It is imbued by the milieu of its creators. Listen to popular music of Brazil, Mexico, or the Caribbean, and you can palpably hear the influence of their national artistic traditions. American music, however, not only ignores but desecrates its own musical idiom. History shows that no human culture has long thrived by disposing of its own heritage.
“Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.” There is a reason that this line is spoken by the primary antagonist of today’s Star Wars trilogy. Without a past, we are lost. There is no good, or bad, or learning. There is no foundation on which to stand, no tower from which to glance down survey the landscape whence we rose. Without a history and tradition (the good, the bad, and the ugly), the rug of existence is literally pulled out from under us. Like a sith lord, we fall into alienation, darkness, and spiritual homelessness. Our anthems no longer call us to the good and edifying but lament the sordid and insane.
New does not mean better; old does not mean outdated or evil. A generation who ignores the best of the past is just as dangerous one who preserves its most grievous sins. So, to my peers, the next time a pop standard sneaks into your Spotify playlist, or you trip across a black-and-white movie on Netflix, or you find yourself sitting next to a silver-haired senior on the bus, engage the stories they have to share. Yes, the past is full of iniquity, but if we throw all of the good out with the bad, then we simply engender the same ignorance that incubates humanity’s most sinister potentials.