Last Year In “Some Bullshit”: Something I Will Never Comprehend

{This post was originally written on April 22nd, 2016, for the Broad-cast blog. Now that the Broad-cast is defunct, I thought I’d bring it over here to repost it on the anniversary. Not the anniversary of his death, though; the anniversary of the day so many of us spent remembering him via songs and videos and think pieces and GIFs, my god, the GIFs! So instead of the more staid approach I took with the photo illustrations to this piece on the Broad-cast, here I will be inserting GIFs. They may or may not be appropriate to the topic addressed in any given paragraph. I don’t care. Prince gave good GIF.}

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When Prince Rogers Nelson died yesterday at the age of 57, the world lost a musician of unparalleled talent. He played 27 instruments. His vocal range spanned an effortless four-and-a-half octaves. He released 39 studio albums and apparently had thousands of unreleased songs locked in a vault at his Paisley Park mansion. There are literally no other musicians alive today who can even approach Prince’s musicianship across so many metrics.

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But beyond Prince’s contributions to modern music, Prince also spend much of his career existing outside the strict boundaries of gender enforced by our culture. In his song “Controversy,” he addresses the curiosity of the public about his identity, posing questions that I know I was also asking as a young child when I saw him on my television: “Am I black or white/am I straight or gay?” As Alyssa Rosenberg said in the Washington Post yesterday, the deaths, in rapid succession, of both Prince and David Bowie have robbed us of two artists who “showed there’s no right way to be a man”:

“But if conventional notions of gender were only one of the things that didn’t constrain Bowie and Prince, their transcendence of this particular category is still a particularly significant part of their legacies. In the clothes they wore, the lean bodies they lived in, the way they positioned themselves in their music and art, their relationships to LGBT communities and in so many other ways, Prince and Bowie were living arguments that there is no one way, and no correct way for a man to dress, to move, to decide what he values, to choose who he loves or where he stands in relation to that person.”

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Prince’s former bandmate, Wendy Melvoin, said once that her first impression of Prince was that “He looked at me like a gay woman would look at another woman…We looked at each other for the first time and I thought, ‘Oh, I could so fall in love with that girl easy.’” Melvoin was among the many female musicians that Prince promoted relentlessly throughout his career, whether they were instrumentalists like Melvoin, Lisa Coleman, and Sheila E., to whom he gave prominent roles in his bands; or vocalists like Vanity, Apollonia, Carmen Electra, and even Sinead O’Connor, whose career-making breakthrough record, “Nothing Compares 2 U”, was written by Prince.

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In addition, Prince’s lyrics always promoted female sexual agency. In one of his earliest hit songs, “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, Prince’s desire for the woman in the song is built entirely around wanting to give her pleasure, and says, “I don’t want to pressure you,” as simple and clear a refutation of rape culture as we’re ever likely to get in a Top 40 song. Throughout the first two decades of his career, he gave voice to the idea that women could make their own choices about sex. For third-generation sex-positive feminists, listening to Prince approvingly sing about things like female masturbation was often a revelation. Writing for ESPN yesterday, Allison Glock pointed out that:

“He made slut-shaming irrelevant. By inviting women to be sexual on their own terms, to play with camp, to wear lingerie and throw down insane guitar licks, the women in Prince’s crew presented power in myriad forms, and showed they were in on the joke, beating sexist reductions to the punch and turning them on their ear musically and otherwise.”

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Prince also expressed a deep feeling of comradeship with women in songs like “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” where he laments that he will never be able to feel a certain level of closeness with his lover simply due to the expected male/female dynamics of a romantic relationship. His ability to flow between signifiers of masculinity (impeccably manicured facial hair and an often bare hairy chest) and femininity (heels, ruffled blouses, eyeliner, purple everything) was finally encapsulated by the glyph he created to replace his name during his contract battle with Warner Brothers — half male, half female, all Prince. This gender play made him not just an icon for the gay community, but very specifically the black gay community. In a piece for the Los Angeles Times, Tre’Velle Anderson writes:

“For black men, gender is a straight jacket, and day by day we find ways to live with our hands bound. Prince, however, found a way to break free. He shrugged off the confines of gender giving way to a persona that was masculine and feminine, and the world had to deal. Looking at how he moved through the world, seemingly without a care, I saw a way that I too could somehow balance these seemingly opposite identities.”

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But Prince’s comfort with androgyny during the first half of his career derailed after he became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2002, following the death of his only child and end of his first marriage. Although he was apparently furious about the way he was portrayed in a 2008 New Yorker profile, he did not deny saying the quote that deeply confused a gay community that had seen him as an icon for decades:

“You’ve got the Republicans, and basically they want to live according to [the bible]. But there’s the problem of interpretation, and you’ve got some churches, some people, basically doing things and saying it comes from here, but it doesn’t. And then…you’ve got the Democrats, and they’re, like, ‘You can do whatever you want.’ Gay marriage, whatever. But neither of them is right…God came to earth and saw people sticking it wherever and doing it with whatever, and he just cleared it all out. He was, like, ‘Enough.’”

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Prince had always been a believer. He had always woven religious language and imagery into his songs; indeed, “Let’s Go Crazy” is straightforwardly about enjoying the short time we are given on this earth to the fullest, while anticipating “the afterworld: a world of never-ending happiness; you can always see the sun, day or night.” Ann Powers mused on NPR that:

“Prince fans…first had to work through his dirty-minded outrageousness…only to find themselves confronted with the deeper provocation he posed. That was to move through the sensual into a spiritual, even religious space…which he brought to the level of profound spectacle. A promised land, on earth, made of intertwining grooves and limbs. Prince devotees committed themselves to starting there, in a kind of naked state. Beyond the explicitly political thread that delicately runs throughout his work, this was the way Prince fought for civil rights — he created musical environments in which propriety, the viral carrier of prejudice, fell under the curlicued sword of wise good humor and elegant lust.”

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The transition from a Christianity that reveled in the joyous embrace of “living in the now before the grim reaper comes knocking at your door” to one that made him forswear buttless jumpsuits and cease all live performances of songs like “Head” and “Darling Nikki” was jarring. Even for the fans who didn’t feel a kinship with Prince for his gender fluidity and overt carnality, fans who simply idolized his willingness to be deeply weird on every level without apology, a Prince who no longer wanted to gyrate into twenty-three positions in a one night stand seemed…wrong.

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But the people who raised their voices yesterday in an outpouring of grief were the ones who grew up on the Prince of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, who will always remember how his example pushed the boundaries of American ideas of gender. His recent music had become less relevant to pop culture, although he remained a singular figure who was revered throughout his industry. He also turned much of his energy to philanthropy, as his friend Van Jones revealed yesterday on CNN. Slowly but surely, stories have been trickling out over the last 24 hours of donations made in secret so as to conform to his new strict religious beliefs. Helping inner city kids learn to program computers. Donations to small local organizations like libraries. Fundraisers to help prop up local community organizations in Chicago, Baltimore, Los Angeles. While many of us may have seen an idol slip away from us on issues of gender and sexuality, Prince continued to support progressive ideas through undercover largesse.

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Prince was a figure of unfathomable impact in American pop culture. His loss seems unreal. Maybe tomorrow it will make more sense. For today, we can reflect on the things he did, the words he sang, and how they changed us.

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“I like getting older, I feel like I’m aging into my personality.”

Last week I made a series of mix CDs, which is a periodic necessity since I own what is apparently the last car ever manufactured without any sort of iPod input functionality. The theme of these particular CDs is basically ’90s/early ’00s R&B and rap, and I’ve put them together in an effort to avoid having to listen to the DJ I despise who does the Throwback Lunch on the local hip hop radio station. Seriously, if I had to hear this guy mispronounce Tony Toni Toné one more time I was going to drive off the highway in a blind rage. THEY SAY THE NAME OF THE BAND IN THE LYRICS OF THE SONG YOU JUST PLAYED, TONY TONI TONE HAS DONE IT AGAIN, LITERALLY LIKE 45 SECONDS AGO, THIS IS NOT AS HARD AS YOU’RE MAKING IT.

In the process of making these mixes, I’ve noticed a few things. Firstly, it turns out that much of the joy inherent in listening to the Throwback Lunch is unexpectedly hearing a song you had almost forgotten. It’s way more fun to hear “Da Dip” randomly on the radio than to hear it for the fifth time this week, always nestled between “Rump Shaker” and “Tootsie Roll’, because you just haven’t bothered to switch the disc out. Also a lot of these songs are legitimately terrible, which I knew at the time. I went on record in high school as saying “My Love Is The Shhhh” was the worst song of the nineties, and I stand by that assessment. But something about nostalgia will momentarily trick you into ignoring their flaws until you find yourself driving around, a grown woman in a sensible midsized sedan, crooning “LEMME WORK THAT BODY, BABY!” at the top of your lungs.

The last thing I’ve noticed is that, whereas 10 years ago I would have happily driven down the main drag of a college campus blaring embarrassing pop cheese with the windows down, more and more I keep the windows up. Why? Because it has started to sink in that the kids who are currently in college have almost none of the same cultural reference points as I do. The first moment this became clear to me was when a former co-worker, who was 21 at the time (and this was a couple years back now) heard Sisqo’s “Thong Song” playing in the store and yelled, “Aw yeah, this was my JAM…in second grade!” *record scratch* (Oh god, kids today must have no idea what a record scratch sounds like…this only just dawned on me…) Anyway, I actually really love this girl, but I was absolutely struck dumb by that. Second grade! And of course, she’s now graduated. The freshmen this fall will have been born in the same year that I… I don’t even know how to finish that sentence. They were born in 1995. The first year I did, like, EVERYTHING. Probably the single most formative year of my life. So as much as I enjoy blasting “Here Comes the Hotstepper” from my stereo, the kids looking at me sideways in front of the dorms were FETUSES when that song came out. So the windows stay closed.

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I’ve always been almost comically interested in the idea of “generations”, possibly because I started paying attention to cultural commentary at a time when the gestalt was overinvested in “generation” dialogue. In the wake of last week’s ludicrously unoriginal “Me Me Me Generation” cover of Time, it’s important to remember that we have been through this bullshit before.

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When I was an adolescent, Generation X was the focal point of pop culture. Reality Bites and Singles and Slacker and Clerks. Kurt Cobain. Marc Jacobs doing a grunge collection during New York Fashion Week. Those first few actually good seasons of The Real World. Friends sitting around coffee shops drinking from mugs that, in the words of one of Phoebe’s boyfriends, “I’m sorry, might as well have NIPPLES on them.” And the book itself, Generation X, by Douglas Coupland, which illustrated young adults of the ’90s as nothing more than essentially anonymous retro Fisher Price Little People wandering through the desert of modern society. (Honestly, having read almost the entire Coupland oeuvre, I think Generation X is one of his weakest books. Microserfs gets the same point across, with a fun Web 1.0 flavor, and is just more fun to read.) Douglas Coupland himself skirts the top edge of what’s generally considered the Gen-X timespan; he was born in 1961. Richard Linklater, director of Slacker, was born in 1960. David Foster Wallace was born in 1962. Cameron Crowe, who wrote Singles, was born in 1957 and was married to the chick from Heart, if you can think of anything less grunge than that. All the longitudinal studies I’ve seen about Gen-X tend to define it as being people born between 1961 and 1981, but anyone born at the top and bottom edge of that range would tell you that is absurdly broad. The idea that Barack Obama and I are of the same generation is ridiculous. But at the same time, Obama is clearly not a Boomer, and anyone my age would flinch at being referred to as a Millenial.

Doree Shafrir, who has written for Jezebel and Slate, coined the phrase “Generation Catalano” for the folks I’ve always seen as my cohort, people born between 1976 and 1981…basically people who were teenagers while My So-Called Life was on the air. We are the generation that aped grunge but could never truly be grunge; the generation that was raised on MTV but could still vaguely remember a time when it didn’t exist. Those of us who dragged enormous desktop PCs with us to college fall between the true Gen-Xers who used electric typewriters or went to a computer lab, and the Millenials who take the fact of having a laptop with them in seminars as a given. (I was always amused by the number of kids I saw at the Apple Store who would drop their computers off at the Genius Bar for repair like we were asking them to saw off their own arm, telling us, aghast, “But I have class tomorrow; what am I supposed to do without my computer?” I always wanted to just hand them a #2 pencil and a composition notebook and see if they would just stare, uncomprehending, like a neanderthal seeing fire for the first time.)

Clearly Generation Catalano is a stupid term, one that also reflects how much of this talk about generations is a white upper middle class thing…seriously, every article I’ve ever seen bitching about Millenials has been written by deeply myopic east coast media types about deeply myopic east coast media types, ignoring large swaths of the country that don’t have the luxury of complaining about how hard it is to find internships or arguing about how entitled Hannah Horvath is. But there is definitely a group of American thirtysomethings, of which I am a part, who were deeply influenced by the Gen-X media flurry of the early ’90s but can’t truly lay claim to the label.

I think one of the reasons I responded so strongly to the show New Girl upon discovering it this past season is that it’s the first show I can remember that’s about my peers, starring my peers, specifically addressing what it’s like being one of my peers. Like, Dawson’s Creek was people my age and older playing people three years my junior. How I Met Your Mother and Big Bang Theory are both about people generally my age, but half the casts are pushing 40. (Will Ted meet the mother before Josh Radnor qualifies for social security? Stay tuned to the inexplicable season 9 to find out!) New Girl is often described as being another sitcom about twentysomethings sitting around an unrealistically large apartment, essentially Friends redux. But Friends was a bunch of thirtysomethings (and later fortysomethings; seriously, how ridiculous was that episode about how they all turned 30 when Lisa Kudrow was clearly almost menopausal?) playing twentysomethings, whereas New Girl is a bunch of thirtysomethings playing thirtysomethings. And that’s kind of the whole point of the show — they’re living like they’re still twentysomethings, coming to terms with the fact that their twenties are rapidly receding into distant memory. I can relate to that. They’ve basically established that the characters were born in 1981-82, but the actors were all born in ’78 and ’80, and I get the sense the writers are too. The music cues are for the most part spot on. The fact that Nick’s favorite songs are “Groove Is In The Heart” and “Call Me Al” really couldn’t be possible if he was a Millenial. I don’t think Deee-Lite translates for people who weren’t alive in ’91. Although I am still boggled by an anachronistic use of Titanic in a late season 2 episode. That episode as a whole had some weird pop cultural choices (“Stay” by Lisa Loeb at the senior prom in 2000? Probably not a thing that would happen), but that was the exception rather than the rule, and I am clearly way pickier about this stuff than the vastvastvast majority of the American viewing public. I’m worse than Comic Book Guy sometimes, seriously.

The other thing I sincerely enjoy about New Girl (or at least I did until the later part of the season got bogged down in a romcom plot that I enjoyed from a SQUEEEEEE!! perspective but not so much a humor perspective) is that the sensibility is just off-kilter enough that it doesn’t seem to be written from the standard sitcom playbook. Extended slo-mo chicken dances to Phil Collins, physical comedy set in a Chinese water massage parlor, Rusted Root-soundtracked threesomes with the warlock drug dealer from Buffy, Zooey Deschanel fending off a coyote in the desert by impersonating the Road Runner…it’s just operating from a quirkier, more improv-influenced base than Modern Family or Two and a Half Men. It’s not the surreal insanity of the first three seasons of Community, but it’s the closest thing we’ve got at this point.

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New Girl is a favorite over on the media review section of The Onion‘s website, the AV Club. AV Club comment sections have become my favorite place on the internet. It’s the sort of website where basically every thread descends into an extended “Dental Plan….Lisa Needs Braces” reference at some point. In other words, it’s populated with comedy nerds who are exactly my age with exactly my taste in humor. This is in contrast to a website that I keep wanting to like, Splitsider, which is the comedy-specific arm of the Awl/Hairpin blog empire. The Awl was created by Choire Sicha and Alex Balk, who are both around 40 years old; no one would contest them as solidly Gen-X, and Balk at the very least would probably laugh witheringly at the fact that someone born in 1980 bothered to expound at this length about something so pointless as “microgenerations”. And then he would drink more whisky and be glad that he’s one day closer to death, and that’s why I love Alex Balk. Anyway…Balk and Choire unfortunately hired a bunch of singularly unfunny Millenials to write Splitsider, which leads to me hate-reading a lot of that site the way I hate-listen to that clueless DJ on the Throwback Lunch. Any writer for a website that would describe Elf and Wedding Crashers as “classic movies” or, as triggered a tirade on my Facebook wall recently, willingly admit to being introduced to Michael Ian Black, David Wain, and Michael Showalter through Stella web shorts rather than from The State, is simply not someone I can take seriously as a comedy aficionado. There are people who watched Stella web shorts in their freshman dorm room, and there are people who watched The State Skits & Stickers VHS tape in their freshman dorm room, and never the twain shall meet.

I think there is a social context to how you encounter certain things that are considered comedy milestones that help define generational dividing lines. Someone who watched the first episode of Saturday Night Live as it happened, saw Belushi and O’Donoghue having a bizarre, contextless conversation about feeding someone’s fingertips to the wolverines, must have said, “Holy shit, we’re allowing 20-something nihilists to write and perform TV shows now??” They will always have a different understanding of that show within both the context of the time and the context of their own personal history than someone like me who randomly stumbled across it on Nick at Nite nearly 15 years later and got maybe a third of the jokes. For me, watching things like The State and Kids in the Hall and Mr. Show in their first run as an adolescent was incredibly formative to my appreciation of comedy and my sense of what is funny. Whereas someone who knows David Cross from watching Arrested Development on Netflix and goes to seek out Mr. Show years after the fact is going to be like, “Oh hey, this is funny!” But there won’t be the same sense of wonder as when your friend slips you a VHS they programmed to tape HBO Sundays at midnight, and your resulting astonishment that something so simultaneously ambitious and lo-fi and altogether bizarre is actually being shown on TV.

I will never be able to appreciate the Lenny Bruce obscenity trial as anything but a historical anecdote, but to my parents and other people their age, the fact that someone was talking about “cocksuckers” and “jacking off” in a comedy routine was shocking. Now it doesn’t make us blink. Carlin — not shocking to me. Bill Hicks — not shocking to me. Andrew Dice Clay — not shocking to me. Because I saw them all at such a young age that I just considered them the standard, didn’t understand the fuss. People who don’t remember a time before a 24-hour comedy channel are as foreign to me as people who secretly listened to Carlin LPs in the attic so their parents wouldn’t hear the words shit piss fuck cunt cocksucker motherfucker and tits.

Me, I listened to a Divinyls cassette single on a purple plastic boom box in the attic, because even though I didn’t really know what “I Touch Myself” was about, I knew enough to know I didn’t want my parents to think I did. And my jam in second grade wasn’t “Thong Song”, it was “Push It”, which I learned all the lyrics to phonetically, clearly not knowing what a “baby pop” was. And I have plenty of friends who would cringe to hear that I was in second grade when Salt N Pepa first came out, because my god, they were in HIGH SCHOOL in 1987! And so it goes. What’s more disorienting than anything is that, after spending so much time being the youngest member of various web forums, I’ve suddenly reached the age where the “Things That Will Make You Feel Old” lists on Buzzfeed are being written by and for people at least five years my junior. Don’t even get me started on Thought Catalog; that shit is incomprehensible to me, across the board. The people I thought were the epitome of cool when I was an adolescent are now impossibly old. Jon Stewart used to host a show on MTV where he would wear a leather jacket as the Afghan Whigs performed. Now he’s 50, the epitome of the comedy establishment, and everyone in the Afghan Whigs really needs to start watching their cholesterol intake. Thurston and Kim broke up because Thurston wouldn’t stop running around with a 34-year-old he worked with while writing a book about “mix-tape culture”. Adam Yauch died of salivary gland cancer last year. Hell, Jasmine Guy plays the GRANDMOTHER of a TEENAGER on Vampire Diaries. I mean, clearly Whitley Gilbert was secretly closer to Byron’s age than Dwayne’s, but that was still a swift kick to my diaphragm when I saw it. Gen-X is turning 50, Millenials are having their quarter life crisis, and I…I still know all the words to “Shoop” and follow Thomas Lennon’s twitter full of Smiths-related hashtag wordplay and Instagrammed pictures of Prince-symbol-shaped pancakes he makes for his toddler. I’m cool in my own mind. And now, when I watch My So Called Life, I sympathize with the parents and want Angela to get over herself. Generation Catalano is getting old, man. And our namesake is a mess. Have you seen that guy lately? Talk about not aging gracefully.