Here’s Jonathan Franzen on what’s wrong with the modern world. You’ll have to read this twice, or, at least, I will have to (and intend to).
I’m wary of what a playwright friend calls “old poopism,” and Franzen, a novelist I admire tremendously, does come across here as an old poop. Whether or not we have the time to read impenetrable writers like Karl Kraus (of whom I’d never heard, even after reading I think five biographies of Franz Kafka), we have little or no access to his writing or his ideas. Or, at least, we never did — until the Internet, which is one of those pesky new-world developments Franzen seems to be deploring.
(Full disclosure: I make my living almost entirely via these newfangled things associated with the Internet. But whether or not that contributes to my bias, I’ve always been more interested in the future than the past.)
Culturally, here’s where I most often hear old poopism, and no, it isn’t with regard to technology. Most of the people I come across all over the country embrace technology; those who don’t, want to but don’t know how to. I have a friend who is 84 and exceedingly interesting (he went from the CIA into real estate, and then Democratic politics; there is some joke waiting to be made there); another friend and I were trying to teach him how to text when we were all out of town together, and then discovered his shortfall: an ancient cellphone with all the computing power of an Etch-a-Sketch that turned texting into a hard-fought endeavor. He hasn’t gotten a smartphone yet (Ken, are you listening?), but he’s a regular on Facebook and email. My mother, at age 88, wishes she could understand some of these things, because she sees the benefits — long-distance interaction with relatives that includes more than just a phone call. So, again, whether it’s with clients or friends or relatives or colleagues, I don’t see any resistance to technology.
No, it’s music where I see it.
If I hear one more person proclaim the musical superiority of the ’60s or ’70s, I’m going to throw up. Because never before in the history of humankind have we had so much access to so much music, a lot of it really really good.
I could point you to some current musical favorites — and, in fact, I will. TV on the Radio is a terrific rock n’ roll band, one that acknowledges the past of straight-ahead rock n’ roll while bringing into play harmonic inventiveness and studio wizardry and the sort of oddball sounds and buzzes that to my ear always lend an extra dimension. Danger Mouse, whether recording with Gnarls Barkley or Broken Bells or on any of his innumerable other projects, is perhaps the foremost production talent since Brian Eno. Like Eno, Danger Mouse brings a distinctive sound and a sharp intelligence to everything he touches; unlike Eno, he can also play guitar, and drums, and keyboard, and bass — as I witnessed when I saw Broken Bells in concert two years ago. Gnarls Barkley especially shows that he, partnered with Cee-lo Green, can effortlessly summon up the best of Motown and make it fresh and danceable. Finally, I’m smitten with Of Mountains and Men, a merry alt-folk group from Iceland. Their sound is cheery and pours out of the radio like a perfect poolside cocktail.
I could go on — I like AWOL Nation and Polica as well, to name just two more — but I take the time to make this point because I guarantee you most people you run into over 35 are expressing their belief that music was somehow “better” as recently as… their early 20s. And it wasn’t. It just had a different emotional impact for them because they were in their early 20s. It is that way with technology (see Franzen, above, who seems to be extolling the virtues of the 19th century equivalent of a German literary fanzine) and it is that way with politics, and it is that way with culture.
Here’s my feeling: The past is past, and it isn’t coming back. One thing we know for sure about the past is this: No one lives there any more. If you’d like to shape the future, in your daily life or in the world, it’s better to make a clear-eyed assessment of its potential rather than to knee-jerk reject it for a prior era you’re romanticizing.