IVP - Strangely Dim - Everybody Needs a Theme Song

December 6, 2006

Everybody Needs a Theme Song

I'm not ashamed to admit it: I'm a fan of John Mayer. Sure he's a pretty-boy, sure he dated Jessica Simpson, sure he's on shuffle on my thirteen-year-old cousin's I-Pod and on the wall in her room, sure he's a little smug and self-important. But I'm a fan, for a number of reasons.

For one thing, when he was a kid he liked to dress up as a superhero, and you have to respect that. For another thing, he plays guitar like he invented it. But more than those reasons is the fact that he dares to speak for an entire generation of people. That takes moxie, and I respect moxie.

He's written about the bitter nostalgia of life after high school, the social awkwardness of relationships, the wonders of sexual intimacy, the perils of vocational uncertainty and the quarter-life crisis. He's a living, breathing discography of early-adult ennui. And now he's written what I hereby nominate as the theme song of Generation Me: "Waiting on the World to Change."

Generation Me, characterized by author and psychologist Jean Twenge as adult survivors of the self-esteem movement, is known for confidence that borders on arrogance and self-importance that borders on narcissism, but also for a profoundly fragile self-image and a low threshold for depression. Twenge argues that where twenty-somethings in the late 1960s were characterized by statements such as "I can change the world!" Generation Me is characterized by statements such as "You can't beat the system."

You could spend forever exploring the origins of this pandemic of fatalism among people born after 1970, but thanks to John Mayer, you don't have to look far to see its impact. In "Waiting on the World to Change" he asserts that "me and all my friends, we're all misunderstood." He doesn't try to overcome the misunderstanding, he just embraces the reality. You can't beat the system. You have to play the hand you're dealt. Fill in your own cliche here.

The self-esteem movement shows its influence as Mayer claims a critical omniscience--"We see everything that's going wrong"--but he then confesses an inability to address the problems: "We just feel like we don't have the means to rise above and beat it." You could understand why a person who sees all the bad in the world and yet feels powerless in the face of it would struggle with depression. And why does Generation Me feel powerless to change their world? Because someone else pulls all the strings: "When they own the information, they can bend it all they want." You can't trust what you know because you can't trust the people who put it in your head.

Mayer and his fellow twenty-somethings are often derided as hopelessly apathetic, which is a pretty hopeless and apathetic thing to say about a group of people, if you think about it. In reality, apathy is an understandable response to hopelessness; a defense mechanism, so to speak. Here's the lyric that jumped out at me more than anything in the song, maybe because it's such a clever rhyme, maybe because it betrays just a hint of attitude by using the word ain't: "It's not that we don't care, we just know that the fight ain't fair."

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the world we inhabit: a chronic sense of helplessness in the face of an unrelenting onslaught of big problems, combined with an ingrained suspicion of authority born out of scandal after scandal across the spectrum of life experience. Our government and industry leaders, our local and international authorities, our priests and pastors, our parents and teachers, our friends and neighbors, have all fallen short of the glory of God--and we see the impact on ourselves and everything around us. It's all too much.

Nevertheless, Mayer is able to muster up some meager hope, and that hope may just be enough to tide him and his friends over: "One day our generation is gonna rule the population, so we keep on waiting on the world to change." There's plenty of circumspection that needs to take place between now and then--particularly that what we are thinking about everybody else, they are thinking about us--but in the meantime let me share words of encouragement from another cynical yet insightful songwriter, Tom Petty: "You're all right for now."

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at December 6, 2006 12:39 PM Bookmark and Share

Comments

That's a very interesting perspective, Dave - I like John Mayer as well, but haven't paid as close attention to his lyrics. You're blog makes me more interested about his music.

I've probably fallen into the category that pundits might consider "apathetic," which is probably very different than what I was growing up. I don't feel as though we don't care, but I feel our generation chooses to "pick our battles" more than other generations. Each election cycle and all of the cable news shows seem to hammer us into to thinking that all issues are black and white. You have to be Democrat or Republican; you live in a blue state or red state; you are for "stay the course" in Iraq or an immediate withdrawal; etc. It's not possible to see both points of view, and each side attacks the other.

I'd like to believe that those of us called "apathetic" really do care, but are willing to consider multiple views before making a decision. It would be nice if others would do the same - then we might come together as a community and really try to make peace in our world, rather than continue to isolate people and place labels on each other.

My two cents for the day...

Steve

Comment by: Brother Steve at December 7, 2006 10:54 PM

Great insight of an artist who paints a picture of a tough reality and yet somehow finds enough hope to put it into rhyme and rythym - which is why I am a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen.

Comment by: Roger Feeback at December 14, 2006 2:09 PM

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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