Tuesday, October 23, 2007

What's In Your IPod?

I just got an Ipod. I'm a little late to arrive at personal digital nirvana (the Buddist concept not the band) . But that's another story. As I browse the ever expanding universe of downloadable music, I replay scenes from my life that are always set to particular music: show tunes wafting from a huge turntable my parents could hardly afford; The Partridge Family; Boston and REO Speedwagon booming through the water during swim workouts, subwoofer face down on the concrete pool deck; Hendrix, the Dead and the Stones in places where parents weren't; Color My World where they were. And that just covers through high school. My new Ipod is a blank slate as daunting as any I've faced. The music I load isn't just entertainment. It's me-- who I've been and who I am now. It's my very personal soundtrack of rebellion, peace, regret, love, loss and triumph, with a lot of outstanding party action thrown in.

Is the identification I feel with popular music -- it's capacity to describe me -- unique to me, or to my generation, to describe us? Jefferson Cowie, a college writing teacher, gave his students an assignment: Assess the personal meaning of any song of any genre. His students' response surprised him. In an essay appearing today on insidehighered.com, Cowie wrote:

"For my students, rock and roll is not the aural fuel of rebellion but soundtrack of familial love and safety. The [student] essays were not about chillin' with the crew but hangin' with mom and dad; . . . about heading off to Cape Cod in the mini van. Rock is no longer about alienation but connection; not about escape but home; not about rebellion but reconciliation."

Cowie wonders whether Millenennials' parents have so smothered them with attention that they stake no claim to a musical identity of their own. "[I]t seems that there ought to be at least an edge of disdain for the SUV-driving, suburban-dwelling, vanilla affluence of their parents, but instead, students remain hopelessly connected to them, not just by their ubiquitous cell phones but also by their parents' record collections."

This idea, that Millennials are best defined by the absence of rebellion, is a theme of Nicholas Handler's essay: The Posteverything Generation. Handler, Yale 2009, won the recent New York Times Magazine essay contest in which the Times invited college students to respond to Rick Perlstein's assertion that colleges have lost their centrality in society and in students' lives. Handler writes:

"We are a generation that is riding on the tail-end of a century of war and revolution that toppled civilizations, overturned repressive social orders, and left us with more privilege and opportunity than any other society in history." But, with all that, "[l]ike a true post-modern generation we refuse to weave together an overarching narrative to our own political consciousness, to present a cast of inspirational or revolutionary characters on our public stage, or to define a specific philosophy. . . We are a generation for whom even revolution seems trite, and therefore as fair a target for bland imitation as anything else. We are the generation of the Che Guevera tee-shirt."

Handler makes a chilling observation about his generation: "How do we rebel against a generation that is expecting, anticipating, nostalgic for revolution?" His answer: "We don't."

Cowie's classroom experiment and Handler's thoughts are not enough to brand an entire generation of people one thing or another. But their observation about a postmodern comfort-loving boredom that hangs over law students these days rings true to me. I wonder why students seem increasingly detached and unwilling to engage in classroom discussion. Is it a generational thing? Or, is it just more fun to browse for music online than to participate in class?

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