It almost took my breath away: Professor Heather Gerken, who is in her early forties, felt free to tell a reporter that Britney Spears and Justin Bieber, not to mention tongue rings, are horrible. Gerken broke one of the unwritten rules of being middle-aged: don’t go after the young and what they love. Not in print, anyway. Don’t open yourself up to the charge of curmudgeonliness, because the inevitable retort—“You just don’t get it, Professor! You sound like your parents!”—is probably accurate, certainly unanswerable, and absolutely devastating. Few things in America are less forgivable than getting older.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. American culture belongs to the young, and, for that reason, it isn’t really mine any more. My favorite album of 2012 was Neil Young’s “Psychedelic Pill,” featuring a twenty-seven-minute meditation, “Driftin’ Back,” about the deterioration of musical sound due to digital technology. Yet, I still live in the culture, experience it, react to it. For example, during the Super Bowl halftime show a friend and I exchanged e-mails (not texts, though they’ve been making serious inroads on my phone) about Beyoncé’s performance. We agreed that it left us a bit cold—a highly polished combination of corporate marketing and pole dancing. But I instinctively sensed the danger in going public with this view, on, say, my Twitter feed (if I had one). And sure enough, as the Twitterverse started weighing in, the response to Bey was overwhelmingly positive (as it was on this Web site). And now that I’ve said it here, I await my comeuppance.
When I was sixteen, a poet friend of my parents’ mockingly quoted a few lines from “Rainy Day Women” to establish the absurdity of my claim that Dylan was one of the greatest poets of our time. Temporarily stuck on the merits, I came back with the harshest answer I could think of—some version of “You’re too old to understand.” But what I remember now is my anger, and, even more, my hurt: here was someone I respected, someone who knew so much more than I did (he was also a former Jesuit priest, at least doubling his air of authority and erudition), and he was flicking away something that I loved to the point of fevered obsession. Beneath the contempt of the young for the contempt of the not-young is a deeper outrage at being chronically misunderstood and dismissed, as well as an even deeper worry that the not-young might be right.
Back then, that poet-priest seemed to hold all the cards. Now it’s the other way around: not liking certain new things sometimes feels like a testament to nothing but not being new. And, after all, the too-old retort can be richly justified. Years ago, a cover article in the Times Magazine, “The Triumph of the Prime-Time Novel,” hailed shows like “E.R.” and “Homicide: Life on the Street” as the most interesting literature of the age. The article struck me as a middle-aged book reviewer’s surrender to the cult of the young, the journalistic equivalent of a fifty-year-old man growing a ponytail. A widespread side effect of the dominant youth culture is older people insisting on loving it and then turning their scorn on their skeptical peers.
In 1995, I wasn’t prepared to let network TV displace the novel without a fight. But that article turned out to be prescient. Within a few years, “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” and other series had definitively staked television’s claim to narrative greatness. I sometimes think of that when I catch myself disliking the music at the gym. But then I have another thought: This music is really bad.
There are reasons why older is not necessarily wiser. You’re never more open to new experience than when you’re twenty. After that, the need to make money, the fear of having no work, the demands of children, the sense that the world is moving in strange new directions, the appearance of unfamiliar forms of expression that inevitably seem less wonderful than the ones that changed your life when you were twenty cause the aperture to slowly narrow.
I can feel it happening in the way I absorb the news. In my twenties, I devoured the newspaper with the fearless zest of moral outrage. No atrocity story was too horrible for me to revel in every last detail—in some way, none of it was quite real. But, over time, indignation gave way to fear. Nothing makes the news more real than having children—it’s as if you lose a layer of skin, and even minor abrasions with the world get infected. On some days, reading the paper is almost unbearable. The Newtown killings hit me in a deeper place than all the wars and genocides of the past few decades. There were certain articles I couldn’t finish, even though I was unable to think of anything else.
This is selfishness—parents are at once the least and most selfish people on earth—and it feels like another way of pulling back from the world. I have less time and attention than I used to for faraway stories that don’t touch me and my family. (I once despised people who admitted that.) I am a less curious, less capable consumer of news than I was ten or twenty years ago, when the stakes were lower.
One of the biggest problems with getting older, other than the place where it’s headed, is a massive projection about the state of the world: by fifty, the obvious fact of your own decline is easily mistaken for an intimation of the world’s. And, since there’s never a shortage of evidence that things are, indeed, worse than they used to be, it’s incredibly satisfying to indulge the idea, and easy to confuse it with a veteran’s seasoned judgment. That’s the impulse you have to resist if you want to retain your credibility while you lose other features.
Some things are worse than they used to be—a lot of them, in fact, but I’ll spare my readers the list, for now. Pointing this out shouldn’t make you a crank. Some judgments need time and a basis for comparison. Age can make things clearer. On the other hand, I’m well aware that Beyoncé might not have been any worse, and may even have been better, than Ella Fitzgerald, Carol Channing, and Al Hirt, in 1972; or Chubby Checker, the Rockettes, and eighty-eight grand pianos, in 1988; or Diana Ross, in 1996. I’d have to see the footage.