(Also published as a segment of my newsletter on June 13 at billschmitt.substack.com)
“What kind of contagion is influencing our young people, and our old people, that they seek to engage in these dramatic mass killings?” That was a rhetorical question posed by Rep. Dan Crenshaw from Texas in a recent interview.
Americans need to ask such questions more frequently and to consider a wide range of factors, some of which might be direct influences and some of which might embody symbolic meta-messages. The latter are not causal, but they point to a weakened immune system within society.
In that category of indicators, one cultural bellwether is Bohemian Rhapsody, a prescient classic which the band Queen introduced in a 1975 album. Freddie Mercury’s grim but brilliant lyrics, whose full meaning is still debated today, provide an outline of pained imagination present in many people today. The messages may be all too common risk factors for male teens and young adults. They are trying to make sense of their own lives, craving whatever meaning they can find in a bohemian, rhapsodic, ungrounded culture.
“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality …”
“Mama, just killed a man … life had just begun, but now I’ve gone and thrown it all away …”
“Too late, my time has come, sends shivers down my spine, body’s aching all the time …”
“I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all …”
“Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me, for me, for me …”
“Nothing really matters, anyone can see … Nothing really matters to me … any way the wind blows.”
In a world where structures of principle and personal dignity get passed along poorly, thought patterns can become random and the modus vivendi can drift into mere theater. Truths are conjured by the individual, according to the script or the score being written at the moment.
Freddie Mercury nevertheless shaped his message into a creative product that contained a haunting beauty; such was the requirement of his own soul and of the 1970s musical marketplace for which he was writing. His vision included a heroism informed by love, a desire to reach out and cry out to others, and a lingering respect for knowledge and wisdom, order and substance, a search for context befitting a well-educated person.
I hear the message of “nothing really matters” in too many current songs, scripts, and actions of young adults—and older adults, including our leaders. We have allowed the contagion to spread, over decades, by further darkening the theater in which coherent visions could find a way forward. We are implicated in the hyperbole and hypocrisy spreading through our media and politics. We cannot meet today’s challenges, infused into troubled lives, with quick cures administered performatively, without true compassion for young imaginations craving guidance.
Freddie and his band have sent us a message that is deeper than the call to nihilism which too many young people now draw from an “anything goes” sense of reality. Many practitioners of pointless drama, and perhaps our entertainment culture as a whole, have become the modern theatrical “scaramouch,” who loves to get into skirmishes—fandangos that mimic heroism but display unformed, uninformed narcissism.
(Image from ClipSafari.com, a collection of Creative Commons designs)