Changing The Zeitgeist


Hello, internet user.

Here are a few random words: millennials, depression, anxiety, apathy, nihilism, suicide, exhaustion, over consumption, social media, news cycle, housing prices, tuition fees, health care, late stage capitalism, fuck off.

Great pack of words, ey? Don’t they just get you all revved up and ready to dive into a new day?

I’m not going to patronise you by going any further into it. You already know the score. You know the spirit of the times. It’s kids on Twitter joking-not-joking about wanting to die. It’s the endless skidmark politics. It’s the ever-growing empathy void. It’s the endless rinse-and-repeat news and information cycle that, while at its conception seemed wonderful, has ultimately only served to hammer home the idea that, really, nothing matters. A kid does a funny impression, a parent films their baby doing something adorable, the US president says ethnic minorities are shit, we begin bombing a Middle Eastern country for no discernable reason. And the next week – fuck, the next day -we start all over again, only each time a little more worn down by it all. Over and over. Stuck in a downward spiral.

There’s yer stinking zeitgeist. Are you satisfied?

Now: shut up and bear with me a second while I talk about music. In 1993 Nirvana released a song called ‘I Hate Myself and Want to Die’. Grunge, sadness, rage – the essence of early nineties young-adulthood. Also in 1993, a twenty-something, skint Noel Gallagher heard the song and had this to say:

“I remember Nirvana had a tune called ‘I Hate Myself and Want to Die’, and I was like . . . ‘Well, I’m not fucking having that.’ As much as I fucking like him [Kurt Cobain] and all that shit, I’m not having that. I can’t have people like that coming over here, on smack, fucking saying that they hate themselves and they wanna die. That’s fucking rubbish. Kids don’t need to be hearing that nonsense.”

And on the 8th of August, 1994, Oasis released ‘Live Forever’, and changed everything. The band’s debut album, Definitely Maybe, was drenched with a newfound, defiant optimism, unabashed romance, boozy excitement, pleasure despite adversity, and an overarching anticipation for a brighter tomorrow. And from that album spilled the new Cool Britannia, along with the hubbub and energy that defined the 90’s. Noel Gallagher changed the zeitgeist. He saw a problem in the national identity of the youth, and he changed it. And it can be done again.

Stories and songs shape the narratives of our existence. We can languish in pessimism or flourish in optimism. I want to see a new wave of kids that really feel something – not cool apathy, not humourous cynicism, not this bizarre new strain of suicide banter. I want my generation to be the best there ever was – and to be that, we have to start believing we can be. We’re not a lost generation, and we’re not doomed. We’ve just been born into a world that needs fixing, that’s all. There’s a lot right with it, but there’s a lot wrong with it too, and with the right amount of self-belief and conviction, we can mend it.

Fixing the mental health epidemic – and there is one – won’t be a smooth ride. But it is doable. And here’s how: we alter the narratives we are producing. Music and cinema and TV, literature, video games, advertising and branding – they all build narratives and fictional worlds, the content of which has gradually been led astray, ever so gradually, without anyone doing anything about it.

When a particular genre or niche of entertainment proves profitable, it is rinsed at a rate of knots, because of course it is, because capitalism + human nature = the removal of all joy and meaning from everything. Once an idea has been wrung dry, then we are post that idea. Post modernism, post everything – we can no longer create new ideas with any integrity, and so we opt to look cynically at what has gone before. We mock, we parody, we pastiche, and in doing so, eventually, inevitably, we remove all joy.

Look at The Simpons. The early series were a joy, full of youth and life and innovation, all with a warm beating heart and a palpable sense of love emanating through everything. And then came the copycats – your Family Guys and American Dads, shows that took the formula and pushed everything up a notch. The humour grew meta and dark and self-referential, constantly winking at the viewer as if to imply the cartoons know how absurd they are, and that really, we’re all in on the same silly joke.

Then came Rick and Morty and its parodying of parodies, its meta meta humour, its see-through attempts at feeling. Look at the main character of the show for an emblem of our times: an alcoholic, emotionless, narcissistic genius who hates everyone. Homer Simpson was a drunken idiot, but he loved his family deeply and there was a tender fool at core of his personality – not a void. In 2018, are our protagonists reflections of ourselves, or do they shape how we identify? Well, both. Duh.

Is that all we are? This is how we choose to unwind, now – watching an emotionally stunted nihilistic drunk cartoon character stagger around making witticisms about how inevitable death is? Is this all we are worth? Absolutely fuck that.

Do you know why Jack Kerouac was so charming, and why (despite the glaring misogyny in his work, I know, I know) he maintains an adoring fan base some 50 years after his death? Do you know why The Beatles are still the greatest ever pop band? Do you know why Van Gogh’s paintings still make people weep with emotion every single day? It definitely wasn’t because they winked at the camera and made fun of themselves.

Truly great artists, the ones that really shape the zeitgeist, the ones that really matter, are the ones that are brave enough to take themselves seriously. It’s honesty that is missing from our cultural narratives. It’s willingness to look a fool – because truly to be earnest is to be vulnerable, while adopting cynicism and post modernism is a defence mechanism to hide the sorry admission that you’re all out of ideas. Look at The Simpsons today and tell me I’m wrong. They ran out of ideas fifteen years ago, but either money of a fear of failure keep them churning out hollow, soulless new episodes.

The greatest writers, artists and musicians of all time are the ones who have eschewed trends and fads and have taken it upon themselves to create something new and brave, and that requires honesty. It requires baring your soul – and risking destruction. But if, as a whole, our culture can realign our sights on a new set of values – hope, optimism, belief in each other –  just like it did in 1994 with Live Forever, I reckon we can take the fight to depression, anxiety, loneliness and the great loss of meaning that plagues the youth of the world. We can be honest with each other, we can be vulnerable, we can start afresh, and we can create new, beautiful, tender, hopeful narratives. We don’t need to be afraid, even though we were born into a world as fearsome as this. Fear is a choice and, with newfound hope behind us, there’s nothing that all the jagged politicians and cobwebbed institutions of the world can do. I truly believe that.

We need to go beyond post modernism. It doesn’t have a name yet. Wikipedia suggests post post modernism, but that sounds pretty fucking post modern in itself. So let’s start afresh. I can’t think of a decent name. You give it a whirl, I trust you’ll think of something cool.

So then: how can we alter the narrative, you and I, as consumers of media rather than producers? Start at the bottom. Alter the way we interact – face to face, sure, but especially on social media – real life interactions are personal, intimate and fleeting; online they are available to a limitless audience and never expire. So be kinder, be warmer, be patient, and understand that social media is no fit means for political discourse. These are the narratives we ourselves conduct. Elsewhere, we can influence the world by spending our money on narratives that engage and inspire us – not corporate franchises, not endless sequels, not copy and paste artists – but on genuine, bold new art forms that are created with the intent of spreading joy, not raking cash.

And above all, as always, tell your friends you love them. If we are to change the wholly negative spirit of the times into a positive one, then kindness must flow through all forms of social interaction. Online, offline – in 2018 they bleed into one another, and an attempt to create a better world needs to encompass all means of communication. So tell your friends how you feel. Show them you care. Because, when we get right down to it – and we seem to have forgotten this, in our cynical and darkened times – all that anybody really wants is to be loved.

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