The Jazz Age Is Bullshit (A Response to "Punk Rock Is Bullshit")
By MANJULA MARTIN
Last week, musician John Roderick wrote in Seattle Weekly about how upset he was with his chosen youth subculture, punk. Like John, I have been around the block a bit in a particular youth subculture. For those of us who grew up in the shadows of World War I, being force-fed neo-nationalist propaganda and antiquated Victorian values before our parents led us off the marbled cliffs of excess into the greatest economic depression in history, during the rush of the Great Migration and the crush of Prohibition -- in what we hardcore kids used to call the Jazz Age -- jazz culture was a place we rebel kids could find truth. The new jazz was weird and dirty, and it was ours.
We took this music, which was different and new and hated by our parents, and developed it into a vibrant youth subculture based on one core principle: to rebel against the prevailing social and political standards, and to do it by partying hard on the dance floor and wearing clothing with a new aesthetic. But man, it turned out that once I got a little bit older, the Jazz Age totally disappointed me. And now jazz means something different than it did almost a century ago when I discovered it. Now, young kids get into jazz who don't even know what jazz really stood for. Jazz has failed us. So can we finally admit to ourselves that the Jazz Age was bullshit? Because it was. Here's why:
The music I liked when I was young has become just another genre.
When I say jazz is bullshit, I'm not talking about jazz music, because I don't believe there is such a thing. I'm talking about jazz culture, which doesn't have anything to do with jazz music, not at all, not even one bit. Playing jazz music after about 1927 is like acting in a period drama. There's nothing free or new about this music that can ever be done again. The shadow of jazz has eclipsed countless new dawns of music under its fundamental knee-jerk dissonance and its lazy equation of dancing with rebellion.
My youth subculture failed me because some people are jerks.
When I was a teenager, I thought jazz was the bee's knees. I loved getting zozzled on noodle juice and dancing all night while not subscribing to the dominant cultural narrative within a supportive community of peers. Most of all, I enjoyed arguing about what jazz was and wasn't. Still do. I mean, one time a cat who worked at the Savoy told me I shouldn't be hopping with my flapper there because the Savoy wasn't legit le jazz hot anymore. And we all know that one random wet blanket makes an entire subculture into bullshit.
My youth subculture left me wholly unprepared to be a mainstream grownup.
This idea of improvisation that jazz is supposedly all about is such a crock. I mean, why didn't they teach anyone the proper notes to play? Why were we so into jazz culture when it turns out that jazz didn't teach us how to earn clams, or really any marketable skills? Because jazz is bullshit.
My youth subculture didn't replace the need for real political organizing and action.
It's the fault of the jazz age that I feel disappointed in our nation and its policies. Because it's the job of culture to make me live honestly in a world of lies and then take meaningful action. I mean, it's definitely not my job, that's for sure.
The jazz age's hedonistic attitudes directly spawned the populist/socialist backlash of the 1930s, the subsequent jingoist backlash of the 1940s, and the 1950s' suburban conformity backlash to that. In fact, the fiscal irresponsibility worshiped by jazz culture may even have caused everybody to have a hard time making a living during the Great Depression. And all those wars we had. Someone look into it.
My experience of my youth subculture is indicative of everyone else's experience.
I, a heterosexual white male in my 40s, really got what the Jazz Age meant. And jazz definitely meant exactly the same thing to other people as it did to me, especially people of color and women and queer folk and younger generations who came after me. I mean, come on. It's not like jazz provided a viable subculture for youth to turn to at a time when many kids were caught between eras, struggling to figure out what to keep and reject of their parents' worlds while battling the larger economic and geopolitical changes at work in the world, not to mention the common brutality of adolescence.
And it's not like flapperism did anything for women, either. I mean, an entire subset of young women doing the things boys did and wearing short hair and showing their gams without fear certainly didn't provide other young women with a vision of life beyond the oppressive gender and sexual norms of the past. I mean, people don't even wear corsets anymore, so what's even the point of the so-called flapper rebellion?
My youth subculture sold out its values by allowing itself to influence mainstream culture.
Furthermore, I am so pissed off that Clara Bow took the flapper style and made it really popular, and that all these advertising people and big companies caught on and started packaging and consumerizing our culture and making tons of loot off it. And have you read Scotty Fitzgerald's book about those rich Jazz Age goofs who were kinda jerks? Ugh, what a dewdropper.
So I'm with you, John Roderick. I'm ready to blouse this jazz scene. It's applesauce, kid. We used to think it was the cat's pajamas, but it's not like it actually changed anything. So fuck le jazz hot. The "new woman"? Whatever! Just fuck the entire Jazz Age. Fuck it for failing to prevent world wars. Fuck it for helping end prohibition by pointing out the ridiculousness of the dominant narrative around morality. Fuck it for expanding the cultural heart and soul of a nation. But mostly, fuck the Jazz Age for being a vessel for all my youthful expectations and a strawman for my current bitterness at their lack of fruition. That's why the Jazz Age is bullshit.