A lot of people think the world is going down the drain. They might not have chosen the date of the reckoning and painted it on a sign, and they haven’t stopped having children, but the relentless ‘what is the world coming to’ seems to bleat out of most channels I tune into these days. We are terrified of automation replacing our jobs, we don’t know what to do about kids not wanting to play outside anymore, and the music on the radio isn’t even played by ‘real musicians’ on ‘real instruments’.
Well respected cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has just published his latest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress in which he asks why the majority of people across 14 countries (a mixture of Australia, Asian nations, Scandinavia, the USA and elsewhere) think the world is getting worse instead of better, when “This bleak assessment of the state of the world is wrong”. The average person has never lived this long, been more safe, or more rich.
To be fair, we’ve seen some huge institutions fall in the last decade. The erosion of the stronghold of the Catholic Church was underscored by the results of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse essentially demolishing its claim to the moral high ground. The YES campaign’s successful result was the nail in the coffin, demonstrating Australians were fed up. Similarly, we’re not exactly buoyed with confidence after having just received our seventh Prime Minister in 10 years. In Laura Tingle’s latest Quarterly Essay, Follow the Leader: Democracy and the Rise of the Strongman, she outlines how our panic leads us on a desperate, reactionary search for a saviour. The lessons we’ve been taught for centuries about leadership are flawed though, and we refuse to acknowledge that no single person – no strongman – can save us. “Political leadership should be about building a consensus for change, giving people a map to follow, and bringing together different parties to achieve an outcome,” Tingle writes. “Instead, discussion of leadership becomes about the machismo of individuals taking on the mob.” Our doomsday panic gets dangerous people elected.
We seem to long for an earlier time when we did have faith, or at least optimism instead of fear. Making any country ‘great again’ is activated nostalgia. A New York Times analysis of Spotify data found that our favourite music is whatever we listened to when we were between 13 and 16.
The Sex Pistols were not ‘punk’ because of tartan and safety clips, they were punk because they were revolutionary. The same way The Beatles were revolutionary when they were first rolling through America, terrifying the parents of teenage girls. Once we pass through youth and become burdened with reality and responsibility it becomes harder for us to celebrate the inevitability of change. When we go see a tribute band now, what we love about suspending our disbelief that The Beatles are still really touring, is that sweet moment of nostalgia. We are transported to a time when we could do and be anything, and make the world in our image.
Photo: The Beatles, Festival Hall, Brisbane 1964 - QPAC Museum Collection
I’ve never met anyone above the age of 30 who actually understands what the Kardashians are all about and why so many people genuinely care about their lives.
If you were a 14 year old boy when Kanye West’s Graduation album came out, though, you might love Kanye’s music for the rest of your life and genuinely appreciate the contribution he has made to critiquing the whiteness of popular music.
You will understand why the West-Kardashian wedding was such a big deal, and why their entrepreneurialism perfectly coincided with the reality television boom. This type of celebrity culture (at times an ideation) has seen traditional media empires lose their readership to individually made, free digital content. This an opportunity for reflection and growth. If the Murdoch empire, amongst other major news corporations, no longer has our undivided attention, perhaps we can reach a more democratic understanding of the dissemination of information. Beyoncé doesn’t do press interviews anymore because she doesn’t need to, she’s so powerful. When she did agree to be on the cover of Vogue’s September issue last year, it was with minimal makeup and captured by the first ever African-American photographer. When the people who have always had the power keep that power we stop moving forward and that calcification is much more terrifying.
We need both: scepticism and optimism, fear and excitement, the old and the new. We can love going to The Nutcracker every year because it reminds us of ballet recitals as young girls, and we can also support emerging hip hop and contemporary dancers that bring multicultural experiences to old institutions. We can adore that Van Morrison tribute band and also be grateful for being able to record a snippet at the concert and send it to our friends on our smartphones. How incredible that we can now have every single Beatles track in the palm of our hand (and several extra years’ life expectancy with which to listen to them) thanks to leaps in modern technology and medicine. The missing link between these two poles is faith. Faith that a Prime Minister can do good if we give them a full term, faith that technology can bring humans closer instead of more alone, and faith that teenagers know what they like and will always be a little bit revolutionary.
Having faith in the relentless forward motion of humanity is the key to good change. You keep coming back to the music of your younger self – why not return to that healthy dash of punk optimism too.
Artwork: Kanye for President 2020 – Katy Garrison
Bri Lee is the author of Eggshell Skull, a memoir of sexism in the justice system recently shortlisted for the Nib Award for research in writing. Her journalism has appeared in The Saturday Paper, Crikey, The Guardian, and elsewhere, and she is the Founding Editor of print periodical Hot Chicks with Big Brains. She is qualified to practice law, but does not, and has received a number of fellowships, scholarships, and residencies.