Down in Jungle Land

Two girls and boy with guitar from 1960sDan McInerny’s insightful post on Bruce Springsteen inspired the following reflections on my part.

One of the underlying phenomena of the 60s was the presumption, on the part of the WWII generation, that the rites of passage they had experienced were still intact.  And this may have been true in parts of the country, but it was wildly untrue in California where I grew up.  Even as the children of good marriages we grew up with so little supervision that we might as well have been orphans, except for the cars and the spending money.

As a result, I do see parents–especially conservative Catholics and Protestants–keeping in much closer touch with their teens–sometimes to an excessive degree, with “helicopter parents.”   The homecoming dance in the fall at our school, for example, sees parents–including the Ficketts–running hither and yon in order to insure that our teenagers have a memorable teenage social life.  We like that there’s an available structure where we can coach our kids through their first significant dates–and that we know the parents of their dates and what time they’ll be home.

My parents knew absolutely nothing about the people I hung around with or what we did together.  They counted on the settings of the school and the church to insure that my associations were good ones.  They counted on the larger society, in a sense, to reinforce the values they held.

“Something is happening here, and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”   All the Mr. & Mrs. Jones’s truly didn’t.  I remember the summer all the teenage girls around me decided to go without bras.  All at once and church girls and school girls alike.  Youth culture had arrived and there truly was a “generation gap,” with out parents largely unaware that society was no longer reinforcing their values but actively undermining them.

Now Catholic and other Christians are aware–or have no excuse not to be–that we are in a battle to form our kids in an aggressively secular society from the very beginning.  Still, there are a lots of Catholic families–even at Catholic schools–who believe that social status, money, and the life-launch platform these supply will take care of the most important things for their kids and are prepared to wink at lots of bad behavior.  Sometimes they are right and nature trumps all, in the sense of their kids making materially successful lives.  Sometimes not.

Springsteen’s music draws on the grandiosity of youth–anything is possible at any time–and its stalking fear of turning out to be a human zero.  It captures youth’s dreams, its nostalgia for childhood, its blind self-assertion.  And, as Dan remarks, it is permanently stuck there.  To turn this into a philosophy to guide an entire life is both ridiculous and the standard fare of American culture.

Musical invention–like most innovation–is by and large the preserve of young people.  There are artists who keep innovating throughout their lives, but most find their idiom early and cannot escape it thereafter.  That’s just part of our nature as creatures.  You pair this with electronics (and now the digital age) and powerful marketing and distribution and and disposable income and you get a musical culture that is perpetually a youth culture.  The vein that Springsteen mines (almost always in the context of young love and sexual experience) becomes a perennial part of the American experience as generation after generation passes through it and the musicians of those generations express the feelings of youth in their music.  Pop music culture by virtue of the talent and money that drives it ends up casting the spell of Peter Pan over our society.  This is not so much an accusation or lamentation as it is an observation.  That’s just the way it is.

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