Saturday, September 4, 2010


The New York Times Magazine recently published an article about this so-called extended childhood/early adulthood that folks my age are apparently "suffering" from: a pathological unwillingness to move through some of the Big Life Steps that, I guess, serve to separate the men from the boys: graduation, leaving home, financial independence, marriage, and babies. I guess my demographic is clutching onto various holdovers from our angsty teenage days, in that we (okay, I) take a long time between enrollment and convocation, or we're unwilling to relinquish our parent's money, or pop the question, or pop out a kid. The question the NYTM raises: is this lengthy space between high school and "adulthood" a healthy new era full of self-discovery, or is it merely a chasm filled with self-indulgence?

I was chatting with a girlfriend tonight, and she mentioned that one of her colleagues is about to father a child. She felt that, at the age of twenty-eight, he was too young to making new lives happen. I pointed out that he had been married, and settled, and employed, for a while: he was right on track, life-cycle-wise, to becoming a dad. It felt like there's a long stretch of highway between his place in life and my own.

Progress has been made, however. I just moved back to Toronto, after a self-imposed exile/brain vacation in my hometown, and it feels like this is where I'm supposed to be. My parents' home is so comforting, but it's not where I live anymore. My life is in Toronto. My time in Stratford was sort of a sleepaway camp for the newly graduated: save money, reconnect with the family, work a forgettable job. But it wasn't like coming home, to the place where I feel most like myself.

It's not that I'm not grateful to my family for putting up with a summer's worth of messes and computer cords across the living room floor. I happen to like the people I'm related to: we're a smart, funny bunch of folks, and spending time with them was decided not a chore for me. But there was an odd disconnect with the town around me. The last time I had a Stratford summer was five years ago. I loved to binge drink and work crazily long hours at a busy eatery. This time, I was much more interested in sitting on my back porch and talking on the phone to people about kissing protocol, board meetings, and business ventures. Realizing that your family and your parents helped shape you into the person you are today, but that you also need to leave that household to find your own path, is step number one to Big Adult.

Most mid-twenties Toronto citizens have hit most of these markets in some way or another. The general trend among my pals is long-term relationships, often with the kind of cohabitation that makes the Catholic church fan itself like a distressed Southern belle. Not many of my friends are married, and only one of those young-person unions has worked for more than a couple years. Tripping into a full time job doesn't make someone an adult, especially not the type of entry-level jobs that are often a recent graduate's most likely option. Transferring your financial dependence from your parents to your bank is, at best, a lateral move. Having a child is often not the same as "deciding to have a child" in your late teens and early twenties. And so on.

The article uses the word "settle" freely: people settle down, essentially affixing themselves to a lifestyle. Settling down is a sign that one is stable: reliably at the same address for more than a few months, able to pay off a bill, feed a child, procure a job. Maybe the author also meant the calming-down after the headiness of adolescence. But settling also has negative connotations: settling means "accepting despite a complete lack of satisfaction." Maybe my cohort's unwillingness to march into adulthood, to hit all our markers, is the result of not wanting to settle while we settle down. Instead, we're looking for alternatives, creating new and different milestones for ourselves. Instead of "getting married," maybe we're having happier shorter-term relationships. As we move out of our parent's houses, we're moving in with self-selected families made of up friends and relatives. We're taking control of our reproductive destinies by using birth control and destigmatizing terminations, thus acknowledging that children aren't, for everyone, the ideal project to take on once we graduate at the ripe old age of twenty-two.

And we're less likely to take shit from those who poo-poo our recalcitrance about the whole process. Is this new pause after teenagerhood and before parenthood a generation balking at a culture that's raised smart, hard-working kids and then shunted them into a world that seems like a lot of drudgery for not a lot of joy? Or is this a genuinely new step in the process of becoming an adult? That remains to be seen. But the hand-wringing, the insistence that my generation is screwing it up, needs to stop. We may not be adults, but we're not idiots.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Gaga Order

I realize that even talking about Lady Gaga is, at this point, sort of an exercise in futility. Whatever your thoughts on the Princess of Weird, she's proven herself to be a dominant part of the current pop landscape. She's a spectacle, in every sense of the word. The costumes! The hairstyles! The stage shows! The music videos! The magazine interviews! And, oh, right: the music.

The Lady is clearly filling some sort of void in our pop culture. She's undeniably talented, but I can't be alone in thinking her personality can be grating. Her recent interview with Vanity Fair left me with a bad taste in my mouth: obsessed with her fans, she comes across as someone who has left the real world firmly behind in her quest for what analysts in the 1970s might have called "self-actualization." In her case, it comes by producing an OTT public face that has the kind of empathy that empresses have: loving her subjects en masse, but unable to identify with anyone individually.

I knew about Lady Gaga well before I had heard any of her songs, and when I finally did catch a snippet, the lyrics were about "disco sticks." It was the sort of build-up/let-down cycle that alienates people right away. I was like, this is the girl with no pants? Months later, the video for "Bad Romance" was released, and it felt like Gaga finally hit the next level of exposure. She was suddenly everywhere - she met the Queen, for god's sake; my parents know who she is - and that kind of 360-24/7 exposure is a heady thing. She often snarls at the camera; her videos all seem to have some sort of violence, imprisonment, forced performance, violation. For a pop performer, she wrestles with some pretty intense imagery. Her fans, of course, love her for it. Comparisons to Madonna abound for Gaga, but she skipped the charming and DIY phase of "Lucky Star" and went straight to the over-produced and over-exposed "Sex" iteration. The version of Madonna, in other words, that the public grew tired of and disowned for a while.

Even though he's not in her league, I tend to equate her with the other reigning princess of pop, Adam Lambert. In some ways, I think Lambert's story is timelier: inspired to audition after going to Burning Man and indulging in mushrooms, Lambert shot to fame as the glitziest contestant on the 2009 cycle of American Idol. Where others (like me!) would have been overwhelmed by that media machine, Lambert rose to the occasion, donning shoulder cages and performing the everliving daylights out of showy rock songs. He was coy about his sexuality, instead focusing on the spectacle of Idol. While he was the runner-up that season, Lambert went on to have a couple hit songs and a Rolling Stone cover, officially come out of the closet, and take his rightful place as the sort of B-list dance-music-maker that commercial radio loves.

He's much safer than Lady Gaga: his focus has always been on entertainment, whereas she seems bent on deconstructing something deeper. Her stage shows and music videos have a deadly streak to them: she's constantly showing up in outfits that evoke mutilation and pain. Lambert, as a product of the Idol universe, needs to keep things light, consumable, marketable. But they're both cut from the same cloth. Both Gaga and Lambert need desperately to be looked at, to be seen: otherwise, neither of them exist. Both have their surfaces buffed to the highest gloss. The production values on these two performers are outrageous. Lady Gaga needs the machinery of the media so much: she needs to be photographed, to be written about, to be noticed. Otherwise, she's just Stephani Germanotta, and that ain't no monster's name.

There's been a lot of dithering about where Lady Gaga can "go" from here: public nudity? Faked death onstage? Something so outlandish it'll take some sort of intergalactic genius to conceive and execute it? Who knows. My mind doesn't work like Gagarino's. Part of me sort of hopes she's boxed herself into a corner with all the pyrotechnics and glitter. Maybe the most revolutionary thing Lady Gaga could do would be release some stripped-down pop album. No makeup, no costumes, and no inane comments about her "fans." Just the music, baby.