If there is one subject on which the parents of America passionately agree, it is that contemporary adolescent popular music, especially the subgenres of heavy metal and hip-hop/rap, is uniquely degraded — and degrading — by the standards of previous generations. At first blush this seems slightly ironic. After all, most of today’s baby-boom parents were themselves molded by rock and roll, bumping and grinding their way through adolescence and adulthood with legendary abandon. Even so, the parents are correct: Much of today’s music is darker and coarser than yesterday’s rock. Misogyny, violence, suicide, sexual exploitation, child abuse — these and other themes, formerly rare and illicit, are now as common as the surfboards, drive-ins, and sock hops of yesteryear.
In a nutshell, the ongoing adult preoccupation with current music goes something like this: What is the overall influence of this deafening, foul, and often vicious-sounding stuff on children and teenagers? This is a genuinely important question, and serious studies and articles, some concerned particularly with current music’s possible link to violence, have lately been devoted to it. In 2000, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry all weighed in against contemporary lyrics and other forms of violent entertainment before Congress with a first-ever “Joint Statement on the Impact of Entertainment Violence on Children.”
Nonetheless, this is not my focus here. Instead, I would like to turn that logic about influence upside down and ask this question: What is it about today’s music, violent and disgusting though it may be, that resonates with so many American kids?
As the reader can see, this is a very different way of inquiring about the relationship between today’s teenagers and their music. The first question asks what the music does to adolescents; the second asks what it tells us about them. To answer that second question is necessarily to enter the roiling emotional waters in which that music is created and consumed — in other words, actually to listen to some of it and read the lyrics.
As it turns out, such an exercise yields a fascinating and little understood fact about today’s adolescent scene. If yesterday’s rock was the music of abandon, today’s is that of abandonment. The odd truth about contemporary teenage music — the characteristic that most separates it from what has gone before — is its compulsive insistence on the damage wrought by broken homes, family dysfunction, checked-out parents, and (especially) absent fathers. Papa Roach, Everclear, Blink-182, Good Charlotte, Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam, Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, Tupac Shakur, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Eminem — these and other singers and bands, all of them award-winning top-40 performers who either are or were among the most popular icons in America, have their own generational answer to what ails the modern teenager. Surprising though it may be to some, that answer is: dysfunctional childhood. Moreover, and just as interesting, many bands and singers explicitly link the most deplored themes in music today — suicide, misogyny, and drugs — with that lack of a quasi-normal, intact-home personal past.
To put this perhaps unexpected point more broadly, during the same years in which progressive-minded and politically correct adults have been excoriating Ozzie and Harriet as an artifact of 1950s-style oppression, many millions of American teenagers have enshrined a new generation of music idols whose shared generational signature in song after song is to rage about what not having had a nuclear family has done to them. This is quite a fascinating puzzle of the times. The self-perceived emotional damage scrawled large across contemporary music may not be statistically quantifiable, but it is nonetheless among the most striking of all the unanticipated consequences of our home-alone world.
Demigods of dysfunction
To begin with music particularly popular among white teenage boys, one best-selling example of broken-home angst is that of the “nu-metal” band known as Papa Roach and led by singer/songwriter “Coby Dick” Shaddix (dubbed by one reviewer the “prince of dysfunction”). Three members of that group, Coby Dick included, are self-identified children of divorce. In 2000, as critics noted at the time, their album Infest explored the themes of broken homes and child and teenage rage. The result was stunning commercial success: Infest sold more than 3 million copies. mtv.com explained why: “The pained, confessional songs struck a nerve with disenfranchised listeners who were tired of the waves of directionless aggression spewing from the mouths of other rap-rockers. They found kinship in Papa Roach songs like ‘Broken Home’ and ‘Last Resort.’”
In fact, even their songs about other subjects hark back to that same primal disruption. One particularly violent offering called “Revenge,” about a girl hurting herself and being abused by her boyfriend, reflects on “destruction of the family design.” Of all the songs on the album, however, it is the singularly direct “Broken Home” that hit its fans the hardest, which summarizes the sad domestic story it elaborates in a pair of lines: “I know my mother loves me / But does my father even care.”
Another band that climbed to the top of the charts recently is Everclear, led by singer Art Alexakis (also a child of divorce, as he has explained to interviewers). Like Papa Roach, Everclear/Alexakis explores the fallout of parental breakup not from the perspective of newly liberated adults, but from that of the child left behind who feels abandoned and betrayed. Several of Everclear’s songs map this emotional ground in detail — from not wanting to meet mother’s “new friends,” to wondering how the father who walked out can sleep at night, to dreaming of that father coming back. In the song “Father of Mine,” the narrator implores, “take me back to the day / when I was still your golden boy.” Another song, “Sick and Tired,” explicitly links the anger-depression-suicide teen matrix to broken homes (as indeed do numerous other contemporary groups): “I blame my family / their damage is living in me.”
Everclear’s single best-known song, a top-40 hit in 2000 that ruled the airwaves for months, is a family breakup ballad ironically titled “Wonderful” — to some fans, the best rock song about divorce ever written. Though the catchy melody cannot be captured here, the childlike simplicity of the words brings the message home loudly enough. Among them: “I want the things that I had before / Like a Star Wars poster on my bedroom door.”
Another group successfully working this tough emotional turf is chart-topping and multiple award-winning Blink-182, which grew out of the skateboard and snowboard scene to become one of the most popular bands in the country. As with Papa Roach and Everclear, the group’s interest in the family breakdown theme is partly autobiographical: At least two members of the band say that their personal experiences as children of divorce have informed their lyrics. Blink-182’s top-40 hit in 2001, “Stay Together for the Kids,” is perhaps their best-known song (though not the only one) about broken homes. “What stupid poem could fix this home,” the narrator wonders, adding, “I’d read it every day.”
Reflecting on the particular passion with which that song was embraced by fans, Blink-182’s Tom DeLonge told an interviewer, “We get e-mails about ‘Stay Together,’ kid after kid after kid saying, ‘I know exactly what you’re talking about! That song is about my life!’ And you know what? That sucks. You look at statistics that 50 percent of parents get divorced, and you’re going to get a pretty large group of kids who are pissed off and who don’t agree with what their parents have done.”1 Similarly, singer/bassist Mark Hoppus remarked to another interviewer curious about the band’s emotional resonance, “Divorce is such a normal thing today and hardly anybody ever thinks how the kids feel about it or how they are taking it, but in the U.S. about half of all the kids go through it. They witness how their parents drift apart and all that.”2
Then there is the phenomenon known as Pink, whose album Missundaztood was one of the top-10 albums of 2002, selling more than 3 million copies. Pink (dubbed by one writer the “anti-Britney”) is extremely popular among young girls. Any teenager with a secular cd collection will likely own some of her songs. Pink mines the same troubled emotional territory as Blink-182 and numerous other bands, but even more exclusively: Missundaztood revolves entirely around the emotional wreckage and behavioral consequences of Pink’s parents breaking up. A review of the album on abcnews.com noted, “Missundaztood is full of painful tales of childhood — divorce, rebellion, disaffection and drugs. It’s the stuff that may make parents shake their heads, but causes millions of alienated kids to nod in approval.”3 In Pink’s especially mournful (and perhaps best-known) song, “Family Portrait,” the narrator repeatedly begs her father not to leave, offering even the pitiful childish enticement, “I won’t spill the milk at dinner.”
Yet another popular group generating anthem after anthem about broken homes and their consequences is Washington, D.C.-area-based Good Charlotte, profiled on the cover of Rolling Stone in May 2003 as the “Polite Punks.” Their first album went gold in 2002. Led by twins Benji and Joel Madden, whose father walked out one Christmas Eve and never returned, Good Charlotte is one band that would not even exist except for the broken homes in which three of its four members (guitarist Billy Martin being the third) grew up. The twins have repeatedly told interviewers it was that trauma that caused them to take up music in the first place, and family breakup figures repeatedly in Good Charlotte’s songs and regularly shapes its stage appearances and publicity. (In a particular act of symbolic protest, the twins recently made the legal changeover to their mother’s maiden name.)
For Good Charlotte, as for many other newly successful singers and groups, the commercial results of putting personal trauma to music have proved dramatic. Their first and eponymous album sailed up the charts partly on account of a teenage angst ballad ironically entitled “Little Things.” The song opens with a dedication to every teenager wrestling with the issues of adolescence — all those “little things,” including Mom’s stint in a mental institution and Dad’s abandonment of the kids (“We checked his room his things were gone we didn’t see him no more”). Another song on the album is “Thank You Mom.” Rather anomalously by the standards of yesterday’s rock and punk, but not at all anomalously in the worlds of their descendants today, this song is devoted wholly, and without irony, to the mother who raises children after their father walks out (“You were my mom, You were my dad / The only thing I ever had was you, It’s true”).
Rolling Stone groused about this band: “What the hell happened to punk?” Now that’s a fair point. But whatever happened, the result has literally turned to gold; Good Charlotte’s second album, called The Young and the Hopeless, sold more than a million copies. Two of its thirteen songs are apotheosized lyrics for an absent father. One is “My Old Man” (“Last I heard he was at the bar / Doing himself in”). Another song, “Emotionless,” reads much like the related narrations of Everclear, Papa Roach, and many more. The narrator here reminds his missing father of his sons and little girl, wondering, “How do you sleep at night?”
Like numerous other groups, Good Charlotte weaves another prevailing theme — teenage suicide — in and out of the larger theme of parental abandonment. Perhaps the best known is the antisuicide clarion “Hold On,” in which the singer implores a desperate teenager to remember that although your “mother’s gone and your father hits you . . . we all bleed the same way you do.”
Papa Roach, Everclear, Blink-182, Pink, Good Charlotte: These bands are only some of the top-40 groups now supplying the teenage demand for songs about dysfunctional and adult abandoned homes. In a remarkable 2002 article published in the pop music magazine Blender (remarkable because it lays out in detail what is really happening in today’s metal/grunge/punk/rock music), an award-winning music journalist named William Shaw listed several other bands, observing, “If there’s a theme running through rock at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it’s a pervasive sense of hurt. For the past few years, bands like Korn, Linkin Park, Slip-knot, Papa Roach, and Disturbed have been thrusting forward their dark accounts of dysfunctional upbringings. . . . As the clichéd elder might mutter, what’s wrong with kids today?” Shaw answers his own question this way: “[T]hese songs reflect the zeitgeist of an age group coping with the highest marital-breakdown rate ever recorded in America. If this era’s music says anything, it’s that this generation sees itself as uniquely fractured.”
As he further observes, so powerful are the emotions roused in fans by these songs that stars and groups themselves are often surprised by it. Shaw relates the following about “Coby Dick” Shaddix of Papa Roach, who wrote the aforementioned song “Broken Home”: “He’s become used to [fans] coming up and telling him, over and over: ‘You know that song “Broken Home?” That’s my f— life, right there.’ ‘It’s a bit sad that that’s true, you know?’ [Shaddix] says.” Similarly, singer Chad Kroeger of Nickelback reports of a hit song he wrote on his own abandonment by his father at age two: “You should see some people who I meet after shows . . . . They break down weeping, and they’re like, `I went through the exact same thing!’ Sometimes it’s terrifying how much they relate to it.” That Nickelback hit song, titled “Too Bad,” laments that calling “from time to time / To make sure we’re alive” just isn’t enough.
Shaw’s ultimate conclusion is an interesting one: that this emphasis in current music on abandoned children represents an unusually loaded form of teenage rebellion. “This is the sound of one generation reproaching another — only this time, it’s the scorned, world-weary children telling off their narcissistic, irresponsible parents,” he writes. “[Divorce] could be rock’s ideal subject matter. These are songs about the chasm in understanding between parents — who routinely don’t comprehend the grief their children are feeling — and children who don’t know why their parents have torn up their world.”
That is a sharp observation. Also worth noting is this historical point: The same themes of adult absence and child abandonment have been infiltrating hard rock even longer than these current bands have been around — probably for as long as family breakup rates began accelerating.
Both musically and emotionally, many of today’s groups owe much to the example of the late grunge-rock idol Kurt Cobain, who prefigured today’s prominent themes both autobiographically and otherwise. A star whose personal life has legendary status for his fans, Cobain was a self-described happy child until his parents’ divorce when he was seven. The years following were a miserable blur of being shuffled around to grandparents and other caretakers, including a spate of homelessness. The rage and frustration of that experience appear in some of Cobain’s famously nihilistic lyrics, including the early song “Sliver,” about a boy kicking and screaming upon being dropped off elsewhere by Mom and Dad yet again. The later, markedly cynical “Serve the Servants” reflects on how his traumatic childhood became exploited for personal gain. As with Cobain, so, too, with his friend Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder. For more than a decade Pearl Jam has reigned as one of the best-known bands in current rock, and Vedder as one of the most adulated singers; indeed, the band’s distinctive sound commands instant recognition among almost every American under the age of 30 with working ears. And Pearl Jam, like the aforementioned groups, has achieved that success, according to Vedder, partly because of the group’s frankness about the costs of fractured families and about related themes of alienation and suicide.
In a 1994 interview that focused on the death of Kurt Cobain, Vedder noted with particular insight:
“We [that is, Vedder and Cobain] had similar backgrounds, yeah, things that happened with our families and shit. . . . I think that’s something that comes out in what we wrote in our songs, definitely. . . . But what makes it more similar is the way people responded to what we wrote and sang about, the intense identification. . . .
“And I think it was maybe a shock to both of us that so many people were going through the same things. I mean, they understood so completely what we were talking about . . . . Then all of a sudden, there’s all these other people who connect with them and you’re suddenly the spokesman for a f— generation. Can you imagine that! . . . when our first record came out, I was shocked how many people related to some of that stuff . . . . The kind of letters that got through to me about those songs, some of them were just frightening
“Think about it, man,” he says. “Any generation that would pick Kurt or me as its spokesman — that must be a pretty f— up generation, don’t you think?”4
Well put. And as it turned out, Cobain and Vedder were only the beginning.
Even less recognized than the white music emphasis on broken homes and the rest of the dysfunctional themes is that the popular black-dominated genres, particularly hip-hop/rap, also reflect themes of abandonment, anger, and longing for parents. Interestingly enough, this is true of particular figures whose work is among the most adult deplored.
Once again, when it comes to the deploring part, critics have a point. It is hard to imagine a more unwanted role model (from the parental point of view) than the late Tupac Shakur. A best-selling gangsta rapper who died in a shoot-out in 1996 at age 25 (and the object of a 2003 a documentary called Tupac: Resurrection), Shakur was a kind of polymath of criminality. In the words of a Denver Post review of the movie, “In a perfect circle of life imitating art originally meant to imitate life, Shakur in 1991 began a string of crimes that he alternately denied and reveled in. He claimed Oakland police beat him up in a jaywalking arrest, later shot two off-duty cops, assaulted a limo driver and video directors, and was shot five times in a robbery.” Further, “At the time of his drive-by murder in Law Vegas, he was out on bail pending appeal of his conviction for sexual abuse of a woman who charged him with sodomy in New York.”
Perhaps not surprising, Shakur’s songs are riddled with just about every unwholesome trend that a nervous parent can name; above all they contain incitements to crime and violence (particularly against the police) and a misogyny so pronounced that his own mother, executive producer of the movie, let stand in the film a statement of protesting C. DeLores Tucker that “African-American women are tired of being called ho’s, bitches and sluts by our children.”
Yet Shakur — who never knew his father and whose mother, a long time drug addict, was arrested for possession of crack when he was a child — is provocative in another, quite overlooked way: He is the author of some of the saddest lyrics in the hip-hop/gangsta-rap pantheon, which is saying quite a lot. To sophisticated readers familiar with the observations about the breakup of black families recorded several decades ago in the Moynihan Report and elsewhere, the fact that so many young black men grow up without fathers may seem so well established as to defy further comment. But evidently some young black men — Shakur being one — see things differently. In fact, it is hard to find a rapper who does not sooner or later invoke a dead or otherwise long-absent father, typically followed by the hope that he will not become such a man himself. Or there is the flip side of that unintended bow to the nuclear family, which is the hagiography in some rappers’ lyrics of their mothers.
In a song called “Papa’z Song Lyrics,” Shakur opens with the narrator imagining his father showing up after a long absence, resulting in an expletive-laden tirade. The song then moves to a lacerating description of growing up fatherless that might help to explain why Shakur is an icon not only to many worse-off teenagers from the ghetto, but also to many better-off suburban ones. Here is a boy who “had to play catch by myself,” who prays: “Please send me a pops before puberty.”
The themes woven together in this song — anger, bitterness, longing for family, misogyny as the consequence of a world without fathers — make regular appearances in some other rappers’ lyrics, too. One is Snoop Doggy Dogg, perhaps the preeminent rapper of the 1990s. Like Shakur and numerous other rappers, his personal details cause many a parent to shudder; since his childhood he has been arrested for a variety of crimes, including cocaine possession (which resulted in three years of jail service), accomplice to murder (for which he was acquitted), and, most recently, marijuana possession. (“It’s not my job to stop kids doing the wrong thing, it’s their parents’ job,” he once explained to a reporter.) In a song called “Mama Raised Me,” sung with Soulja Slim, Snoop Doggy Dogg offers this explanation of how troubled pasts come to be: “It’s probably pop’s fault how I ended up / Gangbangin’ ; crack slangin’ ; not givin’ a f—.”
Another black rapper who returned repeatedly to the theme of father abandonment is Jay-Z, also known as Shawn Carter, whose third and breakthrough album, Hard Knock Life, sold more than 500,000 copies. He also has a criminal history (he says he had been a cocaine dealer) and a troubled family history, which is reflected in his music. In an interview with mtv.com about his latest album, the reporter explained: “Jay and his father had been estranged until earlier this year. [His father] left the household and his family’s life (Jay has an older brother and two sisters) when Shawn was just 12 years old. The separation had served as a major ‘block’ for Jay over the years . . . . His most vocal tongue lashing toward his dad was on the Dynasty: Roc la Familia cut ‘Where Have You Been,’ where he rapped ‘F— you very much / You showed me the worst kind of pain.’”5
The fact that child abandonment is also a theme in hip-hop might help explain what otherwise appears as a commercial puzzle — namely, how this particular music moved from the fringes of black entertainment to the very center of the Everyteenager mainstream. There can be no doubt about the current social preeminence of these black- and ghetto-dominated genres in the lives of many better-off adolescents, black and white. As Donna Britt wrote in a Washington Post column noting hip-hop’s ascendancy, “In modern America, where urban based hip hop culture dominates music, fashion, dance and, increasingly, movies and tv, these kids are trendsetters. What they feel, think and do could soon play out in a middle school — or a Pottery Barn-decorated bedroom — near you.”6
Eminem: Reasons for rage
A final example of the rage in contemporary music against irresponsible adults — perhaps the most interesting — is that of genre-crossing bad-boy rap superstar Marshall Mathers or Eminem (sometime stage persona “Slim Shady”). Of all the names guaranteed to send a shudder down the parental spine, his is probably the most effective. In fact, Eminem has single-handedly, if inadvertently, achieved the otherwise ideologically impossible: He is the object of a vehemently disapproving public consensus shared by the National Organization for Women the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, William J. Bennett, Lynne Cheney, Bill O’Reilly, and a large number of other social conservatives as well as feminists and gay activists. In sum, this rapper — “as harmful to America as any al Qaeda fanatic,” in O’Reilly’s opinion — unites adult polar opposites as perhaps no other single popular entertainer has done.
There is small need to wonder why. Like other rappers, Eminem mines the shock value and gutter language of rage, casual sex, and violence. Unlike the rest, however, he appears to be a particularly attractive target of opprobrium for two distinct reasons. One, he is white and therefore politically easier to attack. (It is interesting to note that black rappers have not been targeted by name anything like Eminem has.) Perhaps even more important, Eminem is one of the largest commercially visible targets for parental wrath. Wildly popular among teenagers these last several years, he is also enormously successful in commercial terms. Winner of numerous Grammys and other music awards and a perpetual nominee for many more, he has also been critically (albeit reluctantly) acclaimed for his acting performance in the autobiographical 2003 movie 8 Mile. For all these reasons, he is probably the preeminent rock/rap star of the last several years, one whose singles, albums, and videos routinely top every chart. His 2002 album, The Eminem Show, for example, was easily the most successful of the year, selling more than 7.6 million copies.
This remarkable market success, combined with the intense public criticism that his songs have generated, makes the phenomenon of Eminem particularly intriguing. Perhaps more than any other current musical icon, he returns repeatedly to the same themes that fuel other success stories in contemporary music: parental loss, abandonment, abuse, and subsequent child and adolescent anger, dysfunction, and violence (including self-violence). Both in his raunchy lyrics as well as in 8 Mile, Mathers’s own personal story has been parlayed many times over: the absent father, the troubled mother living in a trailer park, the series of unwanted maternal boyfriends, the protective if impotent feelings toward a younger sibling (in the movie, a baby sister; in real life, a younger brother), and the fine line that a poor, ambitious, and unguided young man might walk between catastrophe and success. Mathers plumbs these and related themes with a verbal savagery that leaves most adults aghast.
Yet Eminem also repeatedly centers his songs on the crypto-traditional notion that children need parents and that not having them has made all hell break loose. In the song “8 Mile” from the movie soundtrack, for example, the narrator studies his little sister as she colors one picture after another of an imagined nuclear family, failing to understand that “mommas got a new man.” “Wish I could be the daddy that neither one of us had,” he comments. Such wistful lyrics juxtapose oddly and regularly with Eminem’s violent other lines. Even in one of his most infamous songs, “Cleaning Out My Closet (Mama, I’m Sorry),” what drives the vulgar narrative is the insistence on seeing abandonment from a child’s point of view. “My faggot father must have had his panties up in a bunch / ’Cause he split. I wonder if he even kissed me good-bye.”
As with other rappers, the vicious narrative treatment of women in some of Eminem’s songs is part of this self-conception as a child victim. Contrary to what critics have intimated, the misogyny in current music does not spring from nowhere; it is often linked to the larger theme of having been abandoned several times — left behind by father, not nurtured by mother, and betrayed again by faithless womankind. One of the most violent and sexually aggressive songs in the last few years is “Kill You” by the popular metal band known as Korn. Its violence is not directed toward just any woman or even toward the narrator’s girlfriend; it is instead a song about an abusive stepmother whom the singer imagines going back to rape and murder.
Similarly, Eminem’s most shocking lyrics about women are not randomly dispersed; they are largely reserved for his mother and ex-wife, and the narrative pose is one of despising them for not being better women — in particular, better mothers. The worst rap directed at his own mother is indeed gut-wrenching: “But how dare you try to take what you didn’t help me to get? / You selfish bitch, I hope you f— burn in hell for this shit!” It is no defense of the gutter to observe the obvious: This is not the expression of random misogyny but, rather, of primal rage over alleged maternal abdication and abuse.
Another refrain in these songs runs like this: Today’s teenagers are a mess, and the parents who made them that way refuse to get it. In one of Eminem’s early hits, for example, a song called “Who Knew,” the rapper pointedly takes on his many middle- and upper-middle-class critics to observe the contradiction between their reviling him and the parental inattention that feeds his commercial success. “What about the make-up you allow your 12 year-old daughter to wear?” he taunts.
This same theme of awol parenting is rapped at greater length in another award-nominated 2003 song called “Sing for the Moment,” whose lyrics and video would be recognized in an instant by most teenagers in America. That song spells out Eminem’s own idea of what connects him to his millions of fans — a connection that parents, in his view, just don’t (or is that won’t?) understand. It details the case of one more “problem child” created by “His f— dad walkin’ out.” “Sing for the Moment,” like many other songs of Eminem’s, is also a popular video. The “visuals” show clearly what the lyrics depict — hordes of disaffected kids, with flashbacks to bad home lives, screaming for the singer who feels their pain. It concludes by rhetorically turning away from the music itself and toward the emotionally desperate teenagers who turn out for this music by the millions. If the demand of all those empty kids wasn’t out there, the narrator says pointedly, then rappers wouldn’t be supplying it the way they do.
If some parents still don’t get it — even as their teenagers elbow up for every new Eminem cd and memorize his lyrics with psalmist devotion — at least some critics observing the music scene have thought to comment on the ironies of all this. In discussing The Marshall Mathers lp in 2001 for Music Box, a daily online newsletter about music, reviewer John Metzger argued, “Instead of spewing the hate that he is so often criticized of doing, Eminem offers a cautionary tale that speaks to our civilization’s growing depravity. Ironically, it’s his teenage fans who understand this, and their all-knowing parents that miss the point.” Metzger further specified “the utter lack of parenting due to the spendthrift necessity of the two-income family.”7
That insight raises the overlooked fact that in one important sense Eminem and most of the other entertainers quoted here would agree with many of today’s adults about one thing: The kids aren’t all right out there after all. Recall, for just one example, Eddie Vedder’s rueful observation about what kind of generation would make him or Kurt Cobain its leader. Where parents and entertainers disagree is over who exactly bears responsibility for this moral chaos. Many adults want to blame the people who create and market today’s music and videos. Entertainers, Eminem most prominently, blame the absent, absentee, and generally inattentive adults whose deprived and furious children (as they see it) have catapulted today’s singers to fame. (As he puts the point in one more in-your-face response to parents: “Don’t blame me when lil’ Eric jumps off of the terrace / You shoulda been watchin him — apparently you ain’t parents.”)
The spectacle of a foul-mouthed bad-example rock icon instructing the hardworking parents of America in the art of child-rearing is indeed a peculiar one, not to say ridiculous. The single mother who is working frantically because she must and worrying all the while about what her 14-year-old is listening to in the headphones is entitled to a certain fury over lyrics like those. In fact, to read through most rap lyrics is to wonder which adults or political constituencies wouldn’t take offense. Even so, the music idols who point the finger away from themselves and toward the emptied-out homes of America are telling a truth that some adults would rather not hear. In this limited sense at least, Eminem is right.
Sex, drugs, rock and roll, broken homes
To say that today’s popular music is uniquely concerned with broken homes, abandoned children, and distracted or incapable parents is not to say that this is what all of it is about. Other themes remain a constant, too, although somewhat more brutally than in the alleged golden era recalled by some baby boomers.
Much of today’s metal and hip-hop, like certain music of yesterday, romanticizes illicit drug use and alcohol abuse, and much of current hip-hop sounds certain radical political themes, such as racial separationism and violence against the police. And, of course, the most elementally appealing feature of all, the sexually suggestive beat itself, continues to lure teenagers and young adults in its own right — including those from happy homes. Today as yesterday, plenty of teenagers who don’t know or care what the stars are raving about find enough satisfaction in swaying to the sexy music. As professor and intellectual Allan Bloom observed about rock in his bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind (Simon & Schuster, 1987), the music “gives children, on a silver platter, with all the public authority of the entertaining industry, everything their parents always used to tell them they had to wait for until they grew up and would understand later.”
Even so, and putting aside such obvious continuities with previous generations, there is no escaping the fact that today’s songs are musically and lyrically unlike any before. What distinguishes them most clearly is a the fixation on having been abandoned personally by the adults supposedly in charge, with consequences ranging from bitterness to rage to bad, sick, and violent behavior.
And therein lies a painful truth about an advantage that many teenagers of yesterday enjoyed but their own children often do not. Baby boomers and their music rebelled against parents because they were parents — nurturing, attentive, and overly present (as those teenagers often saw it) authority figures. Today’s teenagers and their music rebel against parents because they are not parents — not nurturing, not attentive, and often not even there. This difference in generational experience may not lend itself to statistical measure, but it is as real as the platinum and gold records that continue to capture it. What those records show compared to yesteryear’s rock is emotional downward mobility. Surely if some of the current generation of teenagers and young adults had been better taken care of, then the likes of Kurt Cobain, Eminem, Tupac Shakur, and certain other parental nightmares would have been mere footnotes to recent music history rather than rulers of it.
To step back from the emotional immediacy of those lyrics and to juxtapose the ascendance of such music alongside the long-standing sophisticated assaults on what is sardonically called “family values” is to meditate on a larger irony. As today’s music stars and their raving fans likely do not know, many commentators and analysts have been rationalizing every aspect of the adult exodus from home — sometimes celebrating it full throttle, as in the example of working motherhood — longer than most of today’s singers and bands have been alive.
Nor do they show much sign of second thoughts. Representative sociologist Stephanie Coontz greeted the year 2004 with one more op-ed piece aimed at burying poor metaphorical Ozzie and Harriet for good. She reminded America again that “changes in marriage and family life” are here to stay and aren’t “necessarily a problem”; that what is euphemistically called “family diversity” is or ought to be cause for celebration. Many other scholars and observers — to say nothing of much of polite adult society — agree with Coontz. Throughout the contemporary nonfiction literature written of, by, and for educated adults, a thousand similar rationalizations about family “changes” bloom on.
Meanwhile, a small number of emotionally damaged former children, embraced and adored by millions of teenagers like them, rage on in every commercial medium available about the multiple damages of the disappearance of loving, protective, attentive adults — and they reap a fortune for it. If this spectacle alone doesn’t tell us something about the ongoing emotional costs of parent-child separation on today’s outsize scale, it’s hard to see what could.