I was part of the generation gap generation and my parents detested rock and roll. One time in the 1970s, when I was a teenager, a friend of my dad’s (who was firmly on his generation’s “team”) pronounced to me that, with respect to music, “You know what you LIKE, but I know what’s GOOD!”
That sounded fine to me. I didn’t see the point of trying to figure out what was good; knowing what I liked was good enough for me and, ironically, those words remained a touchstone in my life over the years. I felt empowered by them.
Now that I’m (much) older, however, it also occurs to me that I know what I DON’T like, and that’s also good. Moreover, I can tell you WHY don’t like what I don’t like.
You Probably Won’t Agree with Me About This
Take this viral video of 1,000 young people performing “Learn to Fly” by the Foo Fighters. Now I confess I’m a tad out of touch with popular culture. I had never heard the song and didn’t even know who the Foo Fighters were before a friend sent me this link some months ago. But I can clearly state why it bugs the shit out of me.
Sure, the song has a good groove, and the young musicians and singers are ebullient and beautiful and upbeat and joyous and blah blah blah. And the whole thing feels so formulaic, it’s nauseating. The tune is cotton-candy catchy. The lyrics are a rehash of every theme and meme deployed in classic rock ballads since the dawn of time, with references to angels, revolution, looking for this, looking for that, making my way home, learning to fly and “everything’s all right.” Vacuous grandiosity. And the youths themselves, in all their tribal exuberance and budding sexual glory, are too well-fed and adorable to stomach.
I left the following snarky response to the video on youtube (which you might see if you click the link above!): “Little known fun fact! This song was actually composed by an early model artificial intelligence engine programmed to create a generic ‘youth anthem’ for millennials.”
And okay, fine, call me an old fart, tell me I’m just jealous, pining for the simple emotions and bursting libido of my own long-gone youth, and maybe you’re right. But …
A Great Song
But contrast “Learn to Fly” with THIS song, “Three Roses” by America, which I first heard as an adolescent over 50 years ago, and which still sends my soul into sweet moony orbit. You’ll notice that the guitar work is unostentatious yet exquisite, the harmonies not showy but spot-on, and the entire effect is lovely. The song has a subtle, unpretentious beauty.
And the lyric is humble and honest and unique in its little way. It’s kind of a mindful love song, not over-the-top with gooey sentiment, but just very present with feeling. “Three roses were bought with you in mind … I’ve got to stop and see what I’m all about, stop and feel what I’m on with you.”
Okay, so Google says that the words are actually “…feel what I WANT with you,” not “feel what I’m ON.” But I’ve been hearing “on” for decades now and that’s how I choose to continue to hear – and sing along with – the refrain. Incidentally, I never interpreted “on” as a drug reference; it always just struck me as a very open-ended “dropping into” what the singer was feeling in the company of this person he’s singing to. It felt wondrous and spacious to me and it still does; it still uplifts me, and even at my advanced age, it still inspires in me an exciting sense of love’s limitless possibilities.
So don’t go telling me that my problem is I can’t get sentimental anymore.
I also like that the first line of the song draws a picture of the singer’s lover reading a book. I love to read myself, and there’s something precious about him watching her read. (See also “Book Song” by Fairport Convention, but I don’t want to overwhelm you now with links.)
INTERSTELLAR: A Truly Awful Movie, One of the Worst Ever
I didn’t get around to seeing INTERSTELLAR when it was in theaters, and from what I heard, I thought I might have missed out on something special, a truly thoughtful sci-fi flick. But I finally watched it a few months ago, with my generous godson Taoh, who had to endure my impatience with it and my judgment that it was garbage, which I may have mentioned again to him once or twice since, because it’s hard to just “let go” of such a traumatically aesthetically distasteful experience and I guess I’m still processing it.
So where do I start? SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t seen the movie, I’m about to give away pretty much everything.
So. The story is set in the near future after we’ve trashed the planet and the climate is all weird and crops are failing and there are these frequent horrible dust storms that make people sick and suffocate them. Matthew McConaughey stars as a farmer who used to be some sort of aerospace engineer, back when the world still had any use for NASA types.
As it turns out, to his surprise, there actually is still some employment to be found in his old field. He stumbles upon a hidden enclave of the remnants of the old space program, and they convince him to pilot a rocket ship into the vast reaches of the cosmos and travel through an interstellar wormhole in hopes of either finding another planet in some far-flung galaxy that might be habitable for humans, or else somehow uncovering some ultimate secret of gravity or physics that can miraculously rescue humankind.
Now the thing is, he has kids, one of whom is only ten. And their mom’s already dead. So he’s got a tough decision to make. Hang out on Earth with his kids while they all eventually die a slow suffocating death by disease or starvation, or head out into the inconceivably enormous universe with an infinitesimally miniscule shot at making some discovery that will save the world. He goes for Option B, despite his ten-year-old’s tears and recriminations.
And that’s probably my biggest beef right there. I mean, come on. The movie actually allocates a lot of lip service to human love as some kind of elemental force, but faced with a choice between remaining with his tender, emotionally needy children or blasting into space, the hero goes into space, indefinitely, and he winds up missing their whole lives. Besides being sad, I think that’s just plain wrong.
Speaking for myself, if the human race was on the brink of extinction, but there was some vanishingly tiny chance that “all of us” could be saved if I abandoned my motherless children and got on a rocket ship, I’d stay with the kids. I’d be with them through whatever was coming and help them deal with it as best they could, even with dying and death. Sometimes the outlook is grim; sometimes happy endings aren’t available, but love is about being with each other through all of it, right? Love isn’t only about triumphing over circumstances.
Anyway, why are we so scared of death? We’re all going to die as individuals – that’s inevitable – and even our species will cease to exist at some point, so why does the end of humankind land on our ears as the worst conceivable disaster? It may even be natural, not tragic. From our perspective it may look like “we could have avoided it” if it happens in this century, but that may be a misconception from a god’s-eye-view.
Of course, I hope we do NOT collectively suffocate ourselves due to climate change and food and water shortages; I hope we do not descend into a miserable squabbling endgame as a species. But love doesn’t simply mean overcoming the forces of darkness together. Sometimes the darkness is bigger than us. We can’t stop day from passing into night. Why should we assume that it’s our glorious human destiny to conquer all our self-sourced forms of darkness – like ignorance, greed, pollution, etc.? It seems to me that the only place to wage those battles effectively is within ourselves, and even on that relatively limited “battlefield” it’s a titanic struggle. And while there may be some final victory possible for a few enlightened souls, I’m not holding out such expectations for myself — though that doesn’t mean I’m giving up, heaven forbid; I think the struggle itself gives meaning to life; it’s the ultimate “work” we are all here to do …
But I digress. There were other things too that really annoyed me about the movie, like the ending. The McConaughey character does in fact discover some elemental secret of gravity and nonlinear time out in some fifth dimensional space within a black hole (it’s pretty gobbledygooky actually, though cinematically impressive the way they stage it – he communicates with his daughter across space-time by sending her Morse code messages in the form of patterns of books that he causes to fall to the floor from the bookshelf in her room, which she brilliantly interprets as a message from her long-gone dad about the nature of gravity) and this, as we see in the final scenes, enables humanity to create simulated earthlike environments within hermetically sealed massive bubble-like space stations studded throughout the solar system, so even though they’re artificially constructed via human engineering, they feel just like pristine earth and they have hospitals and ballparks and roadways and automobiles and green lawns and fresh air and blue skies and ocean beaches … technology uber alles! So bye bye, Earth! I guess we won’t really be needing YOU anymore! Who needs nature when you got human ingenuity and science?
Another quick point: McConaughey is not the only person on the spaceship; there’s a crew with him, but the only quirky, human-like character is the robot.
Finally, the character McConaughey plays perfectly embodies our culture’s time-honored, clichéd, toxic stereotype of masculinity. He has deep feelings but he’s tough and doesn’t show them much, which I suppose makes the love he feels for his kids more poignant. (Gag.) He is also capable of violence when necessary, which we could have assumed all along given his demeanor, but one scene establishes that he’s not only a genius but can also fight physically in a righteously manly fashion when necessary. So that box is checked.
God, what a dumb movie. On so many levels.
I worked as a community college English teacher in the 1990s and one of my colleagues, a humanities teacher, used to say, “Art reveals our values to us.” I believe my critiques above reflect some of my own values, and it’s interesting to apply my former colleague’s words to other artistic works I respond to, positively or negatively.