At various times it has been said that a particular piece of music is the “song of our generation.” For the Boomers, it may well have been “Hey Jude” by the Beatles, or for Gen X, perhaps something like “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac. It is, admittedly, hard to pick just one. But it is a fruitful exercise to look at the artistic output of an age, particularly its music, as a way of understanding its people, the associated dreams and hurts, and the zeitgeist itself.
So it is in that spirit, that I submit to you a song from 2016 as the song of our generation – the Millennials. That song is “Closer,” by the Chainsmokers, Featuring Halsey.
It is a simple song, almost to the point of parody. Its recurring melodic hook is two notes, one whole step apart, which alternate in an uncomplicated, rhythmic pattern. Its themes are easy and close at hand, and not particularly deep in that of themselves – a lonely guy with a messy life reconnects with an old girlfriend whose dreams haven’t quite panned out. On the surface, it doesn’t strike you as anything of deep significance – and that is exactly what my head told me all of these years, in contrast to a strange stirring in my soul whenever I would hear it. The truth is, I always found “Closer” strangely transcendent, and I do mean strangely, because we aren’t dealing with elevated themes or inspirational greatness. Nevertheless, when I listen to “Closer,” (which, incidentally, went 12-times certified platinum. Yes, you read that correctly.) I now hear the Millennial heart, with all of its hang-ups, often-foiled attempts at finding meaning, longing for understanding and intimacy, and a sort of neurotic, obstinate, inarticulate assertion that something in our world is not as it should be.
The main refrain is “We ain’t never getting older,” and our culture certainly reflects that. Video games, nostalgia flicks, safe spaces, pets, and the like, take up far more of our attention that it did for our forebears. We use terms like “adulting” to describe everyday tasks like doing the laundry or preparing for taxes, as if it was foreign to us. We don’t get married very often, and we don’t have many children even when we do. The truth is, we don’t particularly want to grow up. In school, we were taught that humanity was the product of a blind, cosmic accident, that our nation is deeply, unredeemably racist, that earth is going to be destroyed by climate-change of our own making in short order, and all the while we certainly weren’t learning about God. If we did go to church, by and large we were taught of a sky fairy who didn’t seem to much care what we did with our lives once we repeated the magical incantation to receive a ticket into eternity. We nodded along, but deep down didn’t quite understand why our religion should be so radically individualistic, and thus, for this and other reasons, we left in droves. We saw our parents divorce at previously unprecedented rates, so home was no safe place either.
We are the children of the children of the revolution. The rebels’ kids. The Boomers were taught, basically, what human beings had always been taught – that men and women are different, with distinct, meaningful roles in the family and society. That growing up was part of life, and that it was good and rewarding to strike out into the unknown and build something for the benefit of not just yourself, but for society as well. That God is not only love but also holiness, and religion is for more than just wellness or self-care. They were given the great works of the past to learn from and read: Shakespeare, Milton, Sophocles, Homer, and the like. They stood on the shoulders of thousands of years of philosophy, art, and tradition. They stood on the shoulders of giants, and they chose to climb down.
We, on the other hand, do not stand on the shoulders of giants. We stand only on them, the generation that rebelled, that didn’t trust anyone over thirty, that was going to redefine existence itself in a foolish, woe-begotten misadventure. And yet, all the while, they had an anchor, roots down into a connected past. We, on the other hand, do not, and the tremendous instability and uncertainty is maddening.
Our grandparents, imperfect though they were, came from a tradition that gave them answers to the riddle of life. Our parents had questions. We have nothing, only a vague sense of being cheated somehow, in a way we don’t quite understand but feel is deeply important.
“So, baby, pull me closer in the backseat of your Rover
That I know you can’t afford, bite that tattoo on your shoulder,
Pull the sheets right off the corner of that mattress that you stole
From your roommate back in Boulder, we ain’t never getting older.”
In the first verse of “Closer,” the male singer insists, when in fact no one has asked, that he is “doing fine,” though he “drink(s) too much, and that’s an issue, but I’m okay.” In the second, the female singer describes moving “to the city in a broke-down car,” which gins up images of a non-start acting career in Los Angeles. It culminates in a neurotic-sounding repetition of notes that goes on over and over, rising in intensity, like an obsessive compulsive individual sat down at the piano – and yet it fits. The refrain prior to the chorus is “And I-I-I can’t stop… No I-I-I can’t stop…,” referring to the attraction between these two truly lost souls who meet again by chance in a hotel bar, longing for connection, love, and something real, despite the fact that it all ended in heartbreak before.
And that is us. We drink and mask and cope as a matter of course, to manage some deep existential issue we can’t articulate. We murder ourselves and overdose in unheard of proportions. We seek meaning and resolution by taking a deep breath and trying yet another shallow relationship which we know probably won’t work, but we don’t have any better ideas.
“No I-I-I can’t stop…”