I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?
– Beck, “Loser,” 1994
Bite my lip and close my eyes
Take me away to paradise
I’m so damn bored, I’m going blind
And loneliness has to suffice
– Green Day, “Longview,” 1992
Observers of the current effort to have Joe Rogan’s Spotify podcast deplatformed have called out the apparent irony of several recording artists who initially found fame in the 1960s — Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Mr. Young’s former bandmates Messrs. Crosby, Stills and Nash, among others — standing against freedom of expression while firmly aligned with what they in their youth might have called “The Man,” or institutional authority.
These attempts to stifle discourse and dissent are not so much ironic as they are revealing. While I hold no brief for Mr. Rogan — while he is my generational confrere (we’re the same age), I suspect based on what I know of him that we have markedly different interests and perspectives. I’ve never listened to any of his podcasts and only know of their subject matter and his invited guests through secondary sources.
I do, however, feel a kinship with him beyond that of a shared birth year, in that I understand him to be a seeker of truth, and one unafraid to range across the ideological and cultural spectrum in order to locate it. As such, and in the interest of crafting a suitably diffident generational manifesto for our oft-maligned Generation X, I claim him as a brother-in-arms.
The most seminal revelation in these artists’ decision to pull content from Spotify unless it consents to removing Rogan’s podcasts is to confirm, yet again, they are not so much idealistic as they are solipsistic. While each enjoyed commercial and critical success in their respective professional primes, for them to believe that such a gesture might constitute a real loss to Spotify listeners can most generously be described as narcissistic. Inflated self-importance notwithstanding, they no doubt (and more credibly) also believe their example might encourage others with greater cultural import to do the same, and to greater effect.
The Spotify–Rogan controversy highlights an essential fault line between the individual and the collective and between liberty and illegitimate authority.
The performative onanism of these gestures is a microcosm and apt encapsulation of the pathos of the baby boom generation. At their worst, the cultural spasms of the boomers during their formative years were intensely narcissistic, as consequentially witnessed by the violence done to the social and civic order during the 1960s and 1970s, a period from which we are arguably still recovering. “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” they said; free love, experimentation with psychedelic drugs, and a wholesale rejection of religious observance and traditional values ensued.
These were not cultural currents buttressed by classical notions of the primacy of the individual, but rather expressions of generational exceptionalism in a fruitless quest for self-actualization. Their countercultural totems were an exercise in self-indulgence, and initially the boomer generation’s rejection of traditional values was more an assertion that “your rules don’t apply to us” than any form of positive program of cultural progress or transformation.
As time would pass, however, given its demographic heft, the boomers’ rejection of traditional values took on paternalistic overtones, perhaps best observed in the nanny-state tendencies which emerged among the institutions they would come to inhabit, and within which the sentiment “we want to live this way” transmogrified into “you should live the way we want you to.”
And thus petit nihilism evolved into petit tyranny. Through its sheer size, the boomers shifted the Overton window of acceptable (or at least non-transgressive) behavior, as they gradually took command of the institutions bequeathed them.
Some will cite the conservative revolution of the 1970s and subsequent election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, along with the following decade’s “Yuppie” phenomenon, as boomer projects, but this willfully misreads history and conflates coincidence (in its secondary definition) with causation. While more than happy to cash in on that decade’s vibrant economy and rising stock market, it was in fact Gen X’s parents, the silent generation, who carried Reagan to victory.
Gen X, of course, by virtue of succeeding the boomers, came of age in the backwash of the boomers’ cultural ascendancy. The 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s were a time during which young people were buffeted by drugs, divorce, and disease in a manner unfelt by previous generations. We didn’t have a military draft and participate in foreign conflicts in the same manner many earlier cohorts did; our war was fought largely at and in the home.
While boomers “tuned in” to experimental drugs, the lack of restraint and normalization of recreational narcotics usage that overtook the culture exposed Gen X to dangerous drugs at an earlier age than the hippies who discovered them during their college years or in their 20s. They may have “turned on” to enjoy free love and indulge more enlightened views of human sexuality, but that spirit of “dropping out” gave rise to the “Me Decade” and rising divorce rates while taking no consideration of the collateral consequences of broken families. The flip side of free love was an unabated and continuing increase in STIs, including the life-shattering impact of the AIDS pandemic of the early 1980s.
Before leaving the stage, the boomers’ last contribution to the cultural terrain — amplified by technology and social media — relates to the most urgent phenomenon of our time, and one which shows their mask has fully slipped: the COVID-19 pandemic, about which the aforementioned artists have such grave concern about the malign impact of “misinformation.”
On display is a clear exposition of a mindset that can be summarized as follows: “My inability to assess risk and desire to remain safe trumps your desire for a normal life, or even an outlet to question authority or received narratives.” An archetypal (and truly despicable) boomer, Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado Boulder, once described workers immolated in the World Trade Center’s destruction at the hands of terrorists in 2001 as “little Eichmanns.” That term perhaps better applies to the apparatchiks of the boomer Left, who have infused their narcissism with a considerable authoritarian streak. Mr. Young and Ms. Mitchell (among others) deign to designate their music so essential that they’ll withhold it in order to prevent fellow citizens from engaging in civil discourse.
Moreover, to term Rogan’s podcast content “misinformation” is to signal that these artists — none of whom are epidemiologists or virologists, at least as far as is known — are certain they know better what is best for others than they do for themselves. This calls to mind other recent examples of alleged “misinformation,” such as with Hunter Biden’s laptop (apparently part of a “Russian disinformation campaign,” but now largely accepted as genuine); memory-holed assertions that only the unvaccinated can spread COVID-19; and the media mantra that the Wuhan lab leak hypothesis was the stuff of “conspiracy theory” and “debunked” (and now acknowledged as nothing of the sort).
The millennial generation, following the boomers, have weaponized their parents’ sensibilities through technology and shifted the Overton window yet further, having absorbed their boomers forebears’ proto-authoritarian lessons. That several millennial recording artists have followed Young’s and Mitchell’s lead in the wake of concerns about their generation’s white whale, Rogan’s alleged “racism,” highlights the dutiful pupils they are.
Pop culture kerfuffles can be meaningless, or they can convey larger truths. The Spotify–Rogan controversy is about far more than “cancel culture” and the suppression of freedom of inquiry. It highlights an essential fault line between the individual and the collective and between liberty and illegitimate authority — and is now a conflict at least partially drawn upon generational lines, with a pincer movement ranged against the last generation steeped in the old virtues, courtesy of their parents (the aforementioned silent generation): Generation X.
And by the way, boomers – your music is about the only positive cultural impact you’ve had, and ours is still better.
Richard J. Shinder is the managing partner of Theatine Partners, a financial consultancy.