© 2016 by Allan Dyen-Shapiro

  • Allan Dyen-Shapiro

Can you still go "Down to the Twist and Shout"? Should you?


My wife is outstanding at winning radio contests. And all sorts of other contests. As such, much of our entertainment is free. With free tickets, we went to Mary Chapin Carpenter's concert last night. Do bear with me here--I promise I'll link this back to futurism, which is a promised subject on this blog. I promise also that this is the last analysis of pop culture as futurism post for a while, and I'll finally get back to the long-promised part VI of my series on Everglades ecology and environmentalism.

I went to the concert expecting nostalgia. For me, Mary Chapin Carpenter was the soundtrack of my first year of married life. My wife and I, who rarely agreed on music, both liked her a lot. I bought my wife all of her CDs, and she listened to them on her long, San Francisco Bay Area commute.

Back in the 90s, Carpenter was one of the faces of "New Country," a folk singer marketed as country, who personally carried the banner of the thirty-something independent woman who didn't need a man or traditional women's roles. Now, she's 58, post-divorces, living alone in remote area of the Blue Ridge Mountains with her cats and dogs. In the 90s, when she sang, "Everything is so benign, the safest place you'll ever find, at least until you change your mind," to berate a housewife who walked out on the marriage that was crushing her after her too-long acceptance of a miserable existence, so "Now she's in the typing pool at minimum wage," it sounded defiant. Screw your upper middle class suburban feminist rhetoric about women having choices, the song said. There was no choice: traditional gender roles were slavery. Equality or nothing, baby.

This song ("He Thinks He'll Keep Her") sounded vastly different from a middle aged woman, going on two decades since her last hit. Indeed, in the context of her new songs, all of which seemed to focus on characters who had lost their way in life and were just kind of plodding through at their own pace, it was depressing. It seemed to say no matter what path you choose, there are infinite ways to stumble, and after that it's lonely.

Indeed, Carpenter's songs stood out at the time for taking on social issues, as she was one of the few successful pioneers of New Country to poke beyond the interests of suburbanites. Sure Steve Earle took on these issues with gusto, but he was largely excommunicated from the country crowd, making a final break with the song on his Jerusalem album where he sang with a sympathetic perspective about an American who joined al-Qaeda. Most of that crowd sang for young folks out to have a good time. And I'm the last to say there's anything wrong with having a good time.

But if a woman with so many hits in her thirties can morph into a depressive middle aged relic playing the has-been circuit, what's out there for the future generations? Well, let's approach it from the lyrics I just quoted:

Hey, millennials, the "typing pool" was a ready source of employment for any woman who could type, back in the pre-computer era, where anything the (mostly) men generated longhand had to be typed up for the business to function. Yeah, people with no skills could be employed. And if they did their job well, not only weren't they fired (barring cases of sexual harassment, but those still exist, so I don't need to tell your generation about this), they were often promoted. Secretaries often earned decent incomes that brought their families into the middle class. Jobs for all who want them--what a quaint, 1990s concept.

Hey, children of millennials who are reading this in 2036, projected onto their retinas from an archiver program that sifts through the ancient Internet to find arcana that seems vintage enough for hipster cachet, a "job" was what the majority of men and women did for a large part of the day back near the turn of the millennium, for which they were paid money. But then came the looter economy of the Reagan and post-Reagan era in which the old economy dissolved in a series of scandals, most prominently the S&L crisis of 1986 and its resolution that stretched into the mid-90s, which served to transfer wealth from the working and middle classes to the ultra-wealthy; the Asian credit crisis of 1997-1999 and subsequent hoarding of the dollar that permanently divorced monetary policy from the main street economy; the dot.com bust of 1999; the early 00s recession stemming to some extent from the attack by Osama bin laden but much more so from the policies of George W. Bush; the 2006 - 2008 crash of the housing market that spawned the "Great Recession"; the 2015-2016 re-emergence of control by divide and conquer in which immigrants and racial/ethnic/religious minorities were blamed for malaise among white fundamentalist Christian males who no longer ran the country, leading to much hatred and sporadic violence; the rise of automation that made robots much cheaper than humans and obviated most classes of non-skilled and many classes of skilled labor; the 2025 adoption of a universal basic wage that paid most Americans to sit home, eat Cheetos and watch TV; and the ecological collapse you are now experiencing that disrupted even that depressing existence, leaving most of your generation dead from gun violence at squatter camps in the few regions more or less spared from flood, drought, salinization of ground water, catastrophic storms, and crop failures.

So, 2056, you have resurrected me through my blog posts as an artificial intelligence (hat tip to Jo Walton's excellent short story "Sleeper" as a recent example of this cool science fiction trope), intending to ask me questions, aiming to understand what went wrong. You say you more or less understand my post, blogging having survived as a distraction among those still capable of reading in spite of the standardized tests designed to discourage literacy, but you want to know what I meant by "middle aged." That meant adults in their fifth, sixth and seventh decade of life. Yes, some of them did survive being shot. No, there was no need to make them into Soylent Green; foodstuffs were fashioned from high fructose corn syrup and dead animal flesh. Yes, the world could still feed itself.

So why didn't the people just rise up and smash the foci of oppression, take back the wealth and redistribute it, and turn their attention to environmental conservation and remediation? Well, there's an inherent contradiction in your proposed program for one thing. If you have anarchy, who is going to enforce climate treaties? But more than that, it was a sense of what then-psychologist Michael Lerner called "surplus powerlessness"--the media, the schools, the government, and the corporations colluded to make folks feel the system was not only unchangeable but also, as the earlier philosopher, Voltaire, had lampooned, the best of all possible worlds. Some even tried to pretend the system was moral.

And here's where one has to fault the young folks of the 1990s to whom Mary Chapin Carpenter sang: pre-occupation with the personal---the perfect relationship, the beautiful home in the suburbs, the conspicuous consumption and mass fluffy entertainment---diverted attention from the struggle against oppression in all its forms and environmental devastation. And for her, as well as for many of that generation, even the personal didn't go as planned.

Maybe it's time to check out what Rage Against the Machine is singing about these days.


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