...from and about Synod 2015
The general assembly of the Synod of Bishops heard the draft of a final report on Synod-2015 on the afternoon of October 22. The general assembly will hear interventions on the draft final report this morning, and the Synod members will submit modi—proposes for alterations—in writing. The drafting commission will revise the draft final report on Friday afternoon, presumably taking account of the modi and the oral interventions in response to the draft. A revised draft will be read to the Synod general assembly on Saturday morning; it will then be voted on, paragraph by paragraph according to Synod general secretary Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, on Saturday afternoon. —XR2
...being thoughts on Synod 2015 from various observers
The Obergefell Decision and Synod-2015
O. Carter Snead is Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame. On the evening of October 20, he addressed a reception/seminar on the relationship between the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Obergefell vs. Hodges, and the work of Synod-2015. The reception was hosted by the Center for Ethics and Culture and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, and was attended by Synod fathers, clergy, and members of the media. Professor Snead’s remarks follow.
In June 2015, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court concluded that the U.S. Constitution requires that the legal definition of marriage be expanded to include couples of the same sex. Any state or federal law that limits marriage to its traditional understanding is accordingly null and void.
It remains to be seen what the concrete consequences of this decision will be for institutions such as Catholic universities, hospitals, and social service agencies that hold the traditional view of marriage. Justice Kennedy’s opinion concludes by affirming the right of religious institutions “to teach” and “advocate” for the traditional understanding of marriage. But the opinion is ominously silent regarding whether and to what extent such religious institutions will be permitted to organize themselves and conduct their work in a manner that bears witness to their deeply held beliefs about marriage.
So, what does this legal development—significant though it may be for the United States—mean for the Synod fathers gathered together to discuss the family? Despite what we may think about ourselves, the United States is not the center of the universe. Our 69.4 million Catholics make up less than 6 percent of the world’s Catholic population. So, why is this decision of interest to you?
It is relevant because the law generally, and U.S. Supreme Court decisions in particular, profoundly shapes the attitudes and judgments of the American people about fundamental human goods. And, for better or worse, once Americans develop a strongly held view on such matters, it is rapidly exported around the world. So, what are the lessons of Obergefell for the Synod on the Family?
Even apart from its revolutionary and far-reaching effects on the law and policy of marriage as such, it is the deeper normative structure of Justice Kennedy’s argument about the nature of persons, family, and human flourishing that is most relevant to the work of the Synod—as a warning and reminder of the Church’s role throughout human history in proclaiming the truth about who we are, what we are made for, and what we owe to one another. Let me explain briefly.
Justice Kennedy’s core animating premise is that the right to marriage is fundamental because it is essential to defining and expressing one’s identity. In other words, marriage is primarily a mechanism of self-expression. It is an agreement by which two individual wills manifest their deeply felt attachment to one another, and for which they receive recognition by the state in the form of a specified constellation of privileges. Thus understood, it is difficult to see how marriage could be coherently and fairly restricted to one man and one woman.
But where does this vision of marriage (and fundamental rights) come from? It comes from a conception of the person and human flourishing that is deeply at odds with the truths about human dignity and the common good that the Church has proclaimed and affirmed throughout human history. That is, this vision of marriage (and the origins of fundamental rights more generally) is rooted in the ideology of radical expressive individualism.
Very briefly, expressive individualism conceives of the person as merely a lonely and isolated will whose highest flourishing consists in inventing his or her own future without constraint. In this worldview, no obligations are binding except those that we choose. Relationships are instrumental and contractual. Even our bodies are instruments to be wielded or modified in pursuit of the projects of our will. When nature itself an obstacle to our will, it must be subdued and overcome. The radical individual will achieves greatness through the free expression and assertion of the unencumbered self. One will meets other wills as either instrumental collaborators—or, more commonly, as adversaries.
In the domain of law and policy, expressive individualism holds that human desires are the source of fundamental rights. Expressive individualism underwrites the jurisprudence of abortion rights in the U.S. It anchors the arguments for unlimited access to dehumanizing and dangerous technologies of assisted reproduction. It undergirds the U.S. regulation compelling the Little Sisters of the Poor to facilitate access to contraception and abortifacients to their employees. And it justifies no-fault divorce. When operationalized in law and policy, expressive individualism often becomes a grave threat to the weakest and most vulnerable, who are seen as burdensome obstacles to the projects of the strong.
By contrast, the Church's vision of persons and our shared life together is one in which we are understood to be embodied souls (not mere wills), whose embodiment has meaning. We live not in isolation, but situated in relationships of solidarity and reciprocal indebtedness. Others have claims on us and we on them, whether we choose them or not. What is fundamental about persons is not that they can construct and pursue future-directed plans, but that they are made in the image and likeness of God, deserving of unconditional love and protection.
The family is the fundamental unit and guarantor of human civilization. It is where we learn to love one another. It is where we learn that children are gifts, not projects. It is where we learn that marriage is a covenant, not just a contract memorializing the romantic love and affection of two people that can be dissolved when it ceases to be mutually beneficial to the parties. It is where we learn that we stand in relation of indebtedness and duty to those who came before and who will come after us. It is where we learn that vulnerability cries out for unconditional love and sacrifice. It is where we learn gratitude. It is where we learn that we are not alone, our projects are not inviolable, and there are goods higher than our own desires.
This vision is truer, better, and more beautiful than any version of radical expressive individualism ever advanced. Throughout human history, the Catholic Church has lovingly offered its vision of human dignity and our shared life in response to the radical individualism at the heart of the French Revolution, the industrial revolution, and the sexual revolution. It is time to proclaim these truths about who we are and what we are made for once again.
You are our shepherds. Please lead us joyfully, lovingly, and courageously to the truth. Protect us. Proclaim and explain the truth in charity. We love you and we will pray for you. And know that the University of Notre Dame and its Center for Ethics and Culture are always at your service.
Die Deutschefrage – Zwei
I’ve never done a careful inventory, but it seems likely that my theological library contains more volumes by authors who originally wrote in German than by those who originally wrote in any other language: Balthasar, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Cullmann, Guardini, Kasper, Küng, Rahner (both Karl and Hugo), Ratzinger, Schönborn, and on and on. And I doubt that my library is that different from others’, given the enormous influence of German scholarship on world Christian thought in the past century or more.
As a student of modern Catholic history, I am also deeply aware of the role that German biblical studies, German historical studies, German philosophical theology, German moral theology, and German Catholic social ethics played, and plays, in contemporary Catholic life. My contacts with the German Catholic development agencies, while limited, have nonetheless taught me that no small part of the tremendous growth of the Catholic Church in the Third World, and especially in Africa, has been supported by the extraordinary generosity of German Catholicism to the less-well-financed parts of the world Church.
So I, like many others, owe a large debt of gratitude to the Catholic Church in the lands of my ancestors.
Thus, when I say that the role played by the German-speaking world at Synod-2015 has been a grave disappointment, that judgment comes with a heavy heart. It was, however, confirmed by the third and final report from the Synod’s Circulus Germanicus, the German-language discussion group, released a few days ago. Read against the background of the past two and a half weeks of debate, it reads, unfortunately, like a complaint from those who know they have not made their arguments well, who haven’t been persuasive, but who are inclined to blame others’ dullness for the lack of enthusiasm for their views.
The report begins with what can only be called an untoward sideswipe at the thirteen cardinals who signed a letter to Pope Francis that was given to the Holy Father on the first day of the Synod—and that changed the dynamics of Synod-2015 such that it has become the open, candid debate for which the Pope has long called. The Circulus Germanicus did not see it that way, however. Rather, they deemed the exercise of their canonical function as counselors to the pope by the thirteen cardinals as “in contradiction to the spirit of journeying together.” How, was not specified. The charge of “uncollegiality,” if you’ll pardon the term, was left hanging in the air, unsubstantiated—and, it should be said, unwarranted.
The report then states flatly that efforts to uphold the Church’s teaching on chastity, marriage, and the family often result in “harsh and merciless attitudes…in pastoral care, in particular toward single mothers, children born out of wedlock, people in pre-marital or non-marital life partnerships, toward people with homosexual orientation, and toward divorced and remarried people.” Which prompts an immediate question: Where does the Circulus Germanicus find such harsh and merciless attitudes prevalent? They are certainly not part of many other Catholics’ experience of pastoral care. And if such exercises in both bad manners and bad pastoral care exist in Germany, why haven’t the bishops in the German-speaking circulus done something about the reform of seminary education and ongoing priestly formation? One has to wonder, though, whether these charges of pastoral misbehavior and malfeasance don’t reflect more the stereotypes of the Church in the secular world than the reality of life in German-speaking Catholic parishes. Indeed, one has to hope so.
The third German circulus report properly lifts up the biblical view of the complementarity of God’s creation of humanity as male and female, and flatly rejects theories that reduce gender to a “social construct” as “ideologies.” And it is certainly true, as the report argues, that the Church in the developed world must think through the meaning of a proliferation of what I have called elsewhere “baptized pagans”—Catholics by baptism who have never practiced the faith and have never been catechized—for its theology of vocation, including the vocation to marriage. The report’s proposal of a “Catechumenate of Marriage” should also be explored, as a means of deepening the experience of marriage-preparation for young couples who have not be properly catechized before—a practice that, without the label “catechumenate,” is already widespread in the livelier parts of North Atlantic Catholicism.
But then the report lurches back into a not-so-tacit criticism of Humanae Vitae (which should be “re-assessed”), even while noting obliquely that the self-induced demographic winter which Europe is experiencing may have something to do with “a mentality often inimical to life and to some extent to children” (which was precisely one of the concerns Paul VI underscored in Humanae Vitae).
Then the report turns to the issue that seems to have been the driver of all other German concerns at Synod-2014 and Synod-2015: the Kasper Proposal to admit the divorced and civilly remarried to Holy Communion after their undertaking a “penitential path.” The debates on this, according to the report, have “shown that there are no simple and generic solution,” which is something of a stretch; the report then proposes an “internal forum” solution to these situations, whereby a divorced and civilly remarried person or couple, in consultation with a confessor, engages in a “formation of conscience” that results in a “clarification to what extent access to the sacraments is possible.” This will have struck many as a reduction of “Local-Option Catholicism” to the parish level, from the regional or national or even diocesan levels previously bruited.
What is so disappointing here is that the German circulus seems not to have taken with any appropriate degree of seriousness the wide-ranging critiques of the Kasper Proposal that have been formulated throughout the world Church over the past eighteen months. As one Synod father, by no means notorious as a conservative or traditionalist, put it to me, “They just don’t engage or respond to criticism. Nothing happens.”
Perhaps the strangest comment in all of this German Sturm und Drang came from Cardinal Reinhard Marx, a Synod father and president of the German bishops conference, at the daily Synod press conference on October 21. Asked why the German bishops continued to press the Kasper Proposal, Marx replied that it was because of a question he and others often get from young people before marriage: “Will you stay with us when we fail?” Two priests with whom I am in regular contact during the Synod said that, in their joint twenty-five years of pastoral experience in marriage preparation, they had never once heard that question, and suggested that, if they had, they’d have advised the couple to reconsider their plans to marry.
It’s been obvious for some time that the Catholic Church in the German-speaking lands is in serious trouble, and if anything, that perception has intensified these past two and a half weeks. Still, the third report from the Circulus Germanicus suggests that Die Deustchefrage – Zwie, Round Two of the German Question, is making it ever more difficult to understand why the Kasper Proposal continues to play such an inordinately large role at Synod-2015, much against the expressed wishes of Pope Francis.
—George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies,Ethics and Public Policy Center
...for the Synod and the Church to hear
Mary Eberstadt is one of America’s most original social critics, and the author of Adam and Eve After the Pill, The Loser Letters, and How the West Really Lost God. Here, in an essay reprinted with her permission from the December 2004-January 2005 issue of Policy Review, she looks into the heart of darkness in contemporary pop music and finds evidence of what happens to children and teenagers when adults stop being adults, parents stop being parents, and “marriage” is understood as a transient and fungible contract that can be abrogated whenever personal convenience (its primary purpose) requires: themes that should resonate with Synod-2015, if approached here from a very different cultural angle. The full article is available here. Extensive excerpts follow.
Eminem Is Right
If there is one subject on which the parents of America passionately agree, it is that contemporary adolescent popular music, especially the subgenres of heavy metal and hip-hop/rap, is uniquely degraded—and degrading—by the standards of previous generations. At first blush this seems slightly ironic. After all, most of today’s baby-boom parents were themselves molded by rock and roll, bumping and grinding their way through adolescence and adulthood with legendary abandon. Even so, the parents are correct: Much of today’s music is darker and coarser than yesterday’s rock. Misogyny, violence, suicide, sexual exploitation, child abuse —these and other themes, formerly rare and illicit, are now as common as the surfboards, drive-ins, and sock hops of yesteryear.
In a nutshell, the ongoing adult preoccupation with current music goes something like this: What is the overall influence of this deafening, foul, and often vicious-sounding stuff on children and teenagers? This is a genuinely important question, and serious studies and articles, some concerned particularly with current music’s possible link to violence, have lately been devoted to it. In 2000, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry all weighed in against contemporary lyrics and other forms of violent entertainment before Congress with a first-ever “Joint Statement on the Impact of Entertainment Violence on Children.”
Nonetheless, this is not my focus here. Instead, I would like to turn that logic about influence upside down and ask this question: What is it about today’s music, violent and disgusting though it may be, that resonates with so many American kids?
As the reader can see, this is a very different way of inquiring about the relationship between today’s teenagers and their music. The first question asks what the music does to adolescents; the second asks what it tells us about them. To answer that second question is necessarily to enter the roiling emotional waters in which that music is created and consumed—in other words, actually to listen to some of it and read the lyrics.
As it turns out, such an exercise yields a fascinating and little understood fact about today’s adolescent scene. If yesterday’s rock was the music of abandon, today’s is that of abandonment. The odd truth about contemporary teenage music—the characteristic that most separates it from what has gone before— is its compulsive insistence on the damage wrought by broken homes, family dysfunction, checked-out parents, and (especially) absent fathers. Papa Roach, Everclear, Blink-182, Good Charlotte, Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam, Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, Tupac Shakur, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Eminem—these and other singers and bands, all of them award-winning Top-40 performers who either are or were among the most popular icons in America, have their own generational answer to what ails the modern teenager. Surprising though it may be to some, that answer is: dysfunctional childhood. Moreover, and just as interesting, many bands and singers explicitly link the most deplored themes in music today—suicide, misogyny, and drugs—with that lack of a quasi-normal, intact-home personal past.
To put this perhaps unexpected point more broadly, during the same years in which progressive-minded and politically correct adults have been excoriating Ozzie and Harriet as an artifact of 1950s-style oppression, many millions of American teenagers have enshrined a new generation of music idols whose shared generational signature in song after song is to rage about what not having had a nuclear family has done to them. This is quite a fascinating puzzle of the times. The self-perceived emotional damage scrawled large across contemporary music may not be statistically quantifiable, but it is nonetheless among the most striking of all the unanticipated consequences of our home-alone world.
Demigods of dysfunction
To begin with music particularly popular among white teenage boys, one best-selling example of broken-home angst is that of the “nu-metal” band known as Papa Roach and led by singer/songwriter “Coby Dick” Shaddix (dubbed by one reviewer the “prince of dysfunction”). Three members of that group, Coby Dick included, are self-identified children of divorce. In 2000, as critics noted at the time, their album Infest explored the themes of broken homes and child and teenage rage. The result was stunning commercial success: Infest sold more than 3 million copies. mtv.com explained why: “The pained, confessional songs struck a nerve with disenfranchised listeners who were tired of the waves of directionless aggression spewing from the mouths of other rap-rockers. They found kinship in Papa Roach songs like ‘Broken Home’ and ‘Last Resort.’”
In fact, even their songs about other subjects hark back to that same primal disruption. One particularly violent offering called “Revenge,” about a girl hurting herself and being abused by her boyfriend, reflects on “destruction of the family design.” Of all the songs on the album, however, it is the singularly direct “Broken Home” that hit its fans the hardest, which summarizes the sad domestic story it elaborates in a pair of lines: “I know my mother loves me / But does my father even care.”
Another band that climbed to the top of the charts recently is Everclear, led by singer Art Alexakis (also a child of divorce, as he has explained to interviewers). Like Papa Roach, Everclear/Alexakis explores the fallout of parental breakup not from the perspective of newly liberated adults, but from that of the child left behind who feels abandoned and betrayed. Several of Everclear’s songs map this emotional ground in detail—from not wanting to meet mother’s “new friends,” to wondering how the father who walked out can sleep at night, to dreaming of that father coming back. In the song “Father of Mine,” the narrator implores, “take me back to the day / when I was still your golden boy.” Another song, “Sick and Tired,” explicitly links the anger-depression-suicide teen matrix to broken homes (as indeed do numerous other contemporary groups): “I blame my family / their damage is living in me.”
Everclear’s single best-known song, a Top-40 hit in 2000 that ruled the airwaves for months, is a family breakup ballad ironically titled “Wonderful”—to some fans, the best rock song about divorce ever written. Though the catchy melody cannot be captured here, the childlike simplicity of the words brings the message home loudly enough. Among them: “I want the things that I had before / Like a Star Wars poster on my bedroom door.”
Another group successfully working this tough emotional turf is chart-topping and multiple award-winning Blink-182, which grew out of the skateboard and snowboard scene to become one of the most popular bands in the country. As with Papa Roach and Everclear, the group’s interest in the family breakdown theme is partly autobiographical: At least two members of the band say that their personal experiences as children of divorce have informed their lyrics. Blink-182’s top-40 hit in 2001, “Stay Together for the Kids,” is perhaps their best-known song (though not the only one) about broken homes. “What stupid poem could fix this home,” the narrator wonders, adding, “I’d read it every day.”
Reflecting on the particular passion with which that song was embraced by fans, Blink-182’s Tom DeLonge told an interviewer, “We get e-mails about ‘Stay Together,’ kid after kid after kid saying, ‘I know exactly what you’re talking about! That song is about my life!’ And you know what? That sucks. You look at statistics that 50 percent of parents get divorced, and you’re going to get a pretty large group of kids who are pissed off and who don’t agree with what their parents have done.”
Similarly, singer/bassist Mark Hoppus remarked to another interviewer curious about the band’s emotional resonance, “Divorce is such a normal thing today and hardly anybody ever thinks how the kids feel about it or how they are taking it, but in the U.S. about half of all the kids go through it. They witness how their parents drift apart and all that . . .”
Papa Roach, Everclear, Blink-182, Pink, Good Charlotte: These bands are only some of the Top-40 groups now supplying the teenage demand for songs about dysfunctional and adult abandoned homes. In a remarkable 2002 article published in the pop music magazine Blender (remarkable because it lays out in detail what is really happening in today’s metal/grunge/punk/rock music), an award-winning music journalist named William Shaw listed several other bands, observing, “If there’s a theme running through rock at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it’s a pervasive sense of hurt. For the past few years, bands like Korn, Linkin Park, Slip-knot, Papa Roach, and Disturbed have been thrusting forward their dark accounts of dysfunctional upbringings. . . . As the clichéd elder might mutter, what’s wrong with kids today?” Shaw answers his own question this way: “[T]hese songs reflect the zeitgeist of an age group coping with the highest marital-breakdown rate ever recorded in America. If this era’s music says anything, it’s that this generation sees itself as uniquely fractured.”
As he further observes, so powerful are the emotions roused in fans by these songs that stars and groups themselves are often surprised by it. Shaw relates the following about “Coby Dick” Shaddix of Papa Roach, who wrote the aforementioned song “Broken Home”: “He’s become used to [fans] coming up and telling him, over and over: ‘You know that song “Broken Home?” That’s my f— life, right there.’ ‘It’s a bit sad that that’s true, you know?’ [Shaddix] says.” Similarly, singer Chad Kroeger of Nickelback reports of a hit song he wrote on his own abandonment by his father at age two: “You should see some people who I meet after shows . . . . They break down weeping, and they’re like, `I went through the exact same thing!’ Sometimes it’s terrifying how much they relate to it.” That Nickelback hit song, titled “Too Bad,” laments that calling “from time to time / To make sure we’re alive” just isn’t enough.
Shaw’s ultimate conclusion is an interesting one: that this emphasis in current music on abandoned children represents an unusually loaded form of teenage rebellion. “This is the sound of one generation reproaching another—only this time, it’s the scorned, world-weary children telling off their narcissistic, irresponsible parents,” he writes. “[Divorce] could be rock’s ideal subject matter. These are songs about the chasm in understanding between parents—who routinely don’t comprehend the grief their children are feeling—and children who don’t know why their parents have torn up their world.”
That is a sharp observation. Also worth noting is this historical point: The same themes of adult absence and child abandonment have been infiltrating hard rock even longer than these current bands have been around—probably for as long as family breakup rates began accelerating.
Even less recognized . . . is that the popular black-dominated genres, particularly hip-hop/rap, also reflect themes of abandonment, anger, and longing for parents. Interestingly enough, this is true of particular figures whose work is among the most adult deplored.
Once again, when it comes to the deploring part, critics have a point. It is hard to imagine a more unwanted role model (from the parental point of view) than the late Tupac Shakur. A best-selling gangsta rapper who died in a shoot-out in 1996 at age twenty-five (and the object of a 2003 a documentary called “Tupac: Resurrection”), Shakur was a kind of polymath of criminality. In the words of a Denver Post review of the movie, “In a perfect circle of life imitating art originally meant to imitate life, Shakur in 1991 began a string of crimes that he alternately denied and reveled in. He claimed Oakland police beat him up in a jaywalking arrest, later shot two off-duty cops, assaulted a limo driver and video directors, and was shot five times in a robbery.” Further, “At the time of his drive-by murder in Law Vegas, he was out on bail pending appeal of his conviction for sexual abuse of a woman who charged him with sodomy in New York.”
Perhaps not surprising, Shakur’s songs are riddled with just about every unwholesome trend that a nervous parent can name; above all they contain incitements to crime and violence (particularly against the police) and a misogyny so pronounced that his own mother, executive producer of the movie, let stand in the film a statement of protesting C. DeLores Tucker that “African-American women are tired of being called ho’s, bitches and sluts by our children.”
Yet Shakur—who never knew his father and whose mother, a long time drug addict, was arrested for possession of crack when he was a child—is provocative in another, quite overlooked way: He is the author of some of the saddest lyrics in the hip-hop/gangsta-rap pantheon, which is saying quite a lot. To sophisticated readers familiar with the observations about the breakup of black families recorded several decades ago in the Moynihan Report and elsewhere, the fact that so many young black men grow up without fathers may seem so well established as to defy further comment. But evidently some young black men—Shakur being one—see things differently. In fact, it is hard to find a rapper who does not sooner or later invoke a dead or otherwise long-absent father, typically followed by the hope that he will not become such a man himself. Or there is the flip side of that unintended bow to the nuclear family, which is the hagiography in some rappers’ lyrics of their mothers..
Another black rapper who returned repeatedly to the theme of father abandonment is Jay-Z, also known as Shawn Carter, whose third and breakthrough album, Hard Knock Life, sold more than 500,000 copies. He also has a criminal history (he says he had been a cocaine dealer) and a troubled family history, which is reflected in his music. In an interview with mtv.com about his latest album, the reporter explained: “Jay and his father had been estranged until earlier this year. [His father] left the household and his family’s life (Jay has an older brother and two sisters) when Shawn was just 12 years old. The separation had served as a major ‘block’ for Jay over the years . . . . His most vocal tongue lashing toward his dad was on the Dynasty: Roc la Familia cut ‘Where Have You Been,’ where he rapped ‘F— you very much / You showed me the worst kind of pain.’”
The fact that child abandonment is also a theme in hip-hop might help explain what otherwise appears as a commercial puzzle—namely, how this particular music moved from the fringes of black entertainment to the very center of the Everyteenager mainstream. There can be no doubt about the current social preeminence of these black- and ghetto-dominated genres in the lives of many better-off adolescents, black and white. As Donna Britt wrote in a Washington Post column noting hip-hop’s ascendancy, “In modern America, where urban based hip hop culture dominates music, fashion, dance and, increasingly, movies and TV, these kids are trendsetters. What they feel, think and do could soon play out in a middle school—or a Pottery Barn-decorated bedroom—near you.”
Eminem: Reasons for rage
A final example of the rage in contemporary music against irresponsible adults—perhaps the most interesting—is that of genre-crossing bad-boy rap superstar Marshall Mathers or Eminem (sometime stage persona “Slim Shady”). Of all the names guaranteed to send a shudder down the parental spine, his is probably the most effective. In fact, Eminem has single-handedly, if inadvertently, achieved the otherwise ideologically impossible: He is the object of a vehemently disapproving public consensus shared by the National Organization for Women the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, William J. Bennett, Lynne Cheney, Bill O’Reilly, and a large number of other social conservatives as well as feminists and gay activists. In sum, this rapper . . . unites adult polar opposites as perhaps no other single popular entertainer has done.
There is small need to wonder why. Like other rappers, Eminem mines the shock value and gutter language of rage, casual sex, and violence. Unlike the rest, however, he appears to be a particularly attractive target of opprobrium for two distinct reasons. One, he is white and therefore politically easier to attack…Perhaps even more important, Eminem is one of the largest commercially visible targets for parental wrath. Wildly popular among teenagers these last several years, he is also enormously successful in commercial terms. Winner of numerous Grammys and other music awards and a perpetual nominee for many more, he has also been critically (albeit reluctantly) acclaimed for his acting performance in the autobiographical 2003 movie 8 Mile. For all these reasons, he is probably the preeminent rock/rap star of the last several years, one whose singles, albums, and videos routinely top every chart. His 2002 album, The Eminem Show, for example, was easily the most successful of the year, selling more than 7.6 million copies.
This remarkable market success, combined with the intense public criticism that his songs have generated, makes the phenomenon of Eminem particularly intriguing. Perhaps more than any other current musical icon, he returns repeatedly to the same themes that fuel other success stories in contemporary music: parental loss, abandonment, abuse, and subsequent child and adolescent anger, dysfunction, and violence (including self-violence). Both in his raunchy lyrics as well as in 8 Mile, Mathers’s own personal story has been parlayed many times over: the absent father, the troubled mother living in a trailer park, the series of unwanted maternal boyfriends, the protective if impotent feelings toward a younger sibling (in the movie, a baby sister; in real life, a younger brother), and the fine line that a poor, ambitious, and unguided young man might walk between catastrophe and success. Mathers plumbs these and related themes with a verbal savagery that leaves most adults aghast.
Yet Eminem also repeatedly centers his songs on the crypto-traditional notion that children need parents and that not having them has made all hell break loose. . .
As with other rappers, the vicious narrative treatment of women in some of Eminem’s songs is part of this self-conception as a child victim. Contrary to what critics have intimated, the misogyny in current music does not spring from nowhere; it is often linked to the larger theme of having been abandoned several times— left behind by father, not nurtured by mother, and betrayed again by faithless womankind . . .
Another refrain in these songs runs like this: Today’s teenagers are a mess, and the parents who made them that way refuse to get it. In one of Eminem’s early hits, for example, a song called “Who Knew,” the rapper pointedly takes on his many middle- and upper-middle-class critics to observe the contradiction between their reviling him and the parental inattention that feeds his commercial success. “What about the make-up you allow your 12 year-old daughter to wear?” he taunts . . .
If some parents still don’t get it—even as their teenagers elbow up for every new Eminem CD and memorize his lyrics with psalmist devotion—at least some critics observing the music scene have thought to comment on the ironies of all this. In discussing the Marshall Mathers LP in 2001 for Music Box, a daily online newsletter about music, reviewer John Metzger argued, “Instead of spewing the hate that he is so often criticized of doing, Eminem offers a cautionary tale that speaks to our civilization’s growing depravity. Ironically, it’s his teenage fans who understand this, and their all-knowing parents that miss the point.” Metzger further specified “the utter lack of parenting due to the spendthrift necessity of the two-income family.”
That insight raises the overlooked fact that in one important sense Eminem and most of the other entertainers quoted here would agree with many of today’s adults about one thing: The kids aren’t all right out there after all. . . .Where parents and entertainers disagree is over who exactly bears responsibility for this moral chaos. Many adults want to blame the people who create and market today’s music and videos. Entertainers, Eminem most prominently, blame the absent, absentee, and generally inattentive adults whose deprived and furious children (as they see it) have catapulted today’s singers to fame . . .
The spectacle of a foul-mouthed bad-example rock icon instructing the hardworking parents of America in the art of child-rearing is indeed a peculiar one, not to say ridiculous. The single mother who is working frantically because she must and worrying all the while about what her 14-year-old is listening to in the headphones is entitled to a certain fury over lyrics like those. In fact, to read through most rap lyrics is to wonder which adults or political constituencies wouldn’t take offense. Even so, the music idols who point the finger away from themselves and toward the emptied-out homes of America are telling a truth that some adults would rather not hear. In this limited sense at least, Eminem is right.
Sex, drugs, rock and roll, broken homes
To say that today’s popular music is uniquely concerned with broken homes, abandoned children, and distracted or incapable parents is not to say that this is what all of it is about. Other themes remain a constant, too, although somewhat more brutally than in the alleged golden era recalled by some baby boomers.
Much of today’s metal and hip-hop, like certain music of yesterday, romanticizes illicit drug use and alcohol abuse, and much of current hip-hop sounds certain radical political themes, such as racial separationism and violence against the police. And, of course, the most elementally appealing feature of all, the sexually suggestive beat itself, continues to lure teenagers and young adults in its own right—including those from happy homes. Today as yesterday, plenty of teenagers who don’t know or care what the stars are raving about find enough satisfaction in swaying to the sexy music. As professor and intellectual Allan Bloom observed about rock in his bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, the music “gives children, on a silver platter, with all the public authority of the entertaining industry, everything their parents always used to tell them they had to wait for until they grew up and would understand later.”
Even so, and putting aside such obvious continuities with previous generations, there is no escaping the fact that today’s songs are musically and lyrically unlike any before. What distinguishes them most clearly is a the fixation on having been abandoned personally by the adults supposedly in charge, with consequences ranging from bitterness to rage to bad, sick, and violent behavior.
And therein lies a painful truth about an advantage that many teenagers of yesterday enjoyed but their own children often do not. Baby boomers and their music rebelled against parents because they were parents—nurturing, attentive, and overly present (as those teenagers often saw it) authority figures. Today’s teenagers and their music rebel against parents because they are not parents—not nurturing, not attentive, and often not even there. This difference in generational experience may not lend itself to statistical measure, but it is as real as the platinum and gold records that continue to capture it. What those records show compared to yesteryear’s rock is emotional downward mobility. Surely if some of the current generation of teenagers and young adults had been better taken care of, then the likes of Kurt Cobain, Eminem, Tupac Shakur, and certain other parental nightmares would have been mere footnotes to recent music history rather than rulers of it.
To step back from the emotional immediacy of those lyrics and to juxtapose the ascendance of such music alongside the long-standing sophisticated assaults on what is sardonically called “family values” is to meditate on a larger irony. As today’s music stars and their raving fans likely do not know, many commentators and analysts have been rationalizing every aspect of the adult exodus from home—sometimes celebrating it full throttle, as in the example of working motherhood—longer than most of today’s singers and bands have been alive.
Nor do they show much sign of second thoughts. Representative sociologist Stephanie Coontz greeted the year 2004 with one more op-ed piece aimed at burying poor metaphorical Ozzie and Harriet for good. She reminded America again that “changes in marriage and family life” are here to stay and aren’t “necessarily a problem”; that what is euphemistically called “family diversity” is or ought to be cause for celebration. Many other scholars and observers—to say nothing of much of polite adult society—agree with Coontz. Throughout the contemporary nonfiction literature written of, by, and for educated adults, a thousand similar rationalizations about family “changes” bloom on.
Meanwhile, a small number of emotionally damaged former children, embraced and adored by millions of teenagers like them, rage on in every commercial medium available about the multiple damages of the disappearance of loving, protective, attentive adults—and they reap a fortune for it. If this spectacle alone doesn’t tell us something about the ongoing emotional costs of parent-child separation on today’s outsize scale, it’s hard to see what could.
This letter is part of an ongoing series, the entirety of which can be found here.