I pass a sign outside of a business every now and then, and staring out at me beneath a bad logo is a caricature of Albert Einstein complete with mustache and wild hair. And I wondered if anyone who knew him, either as a lowly patent clerk or as the head of the Institute for Advanced Studies, could have imagined that someday this man’s face would be enough to suggest the most banal problem-solving?
In the same way, Bruce Springsteen has recently written about his introduction to rock n roll via Elvis Presley, whom he called, “a jukebox Dionysus.” And he writes that rock music promised the “life-blessing, wall-destroying, heart-changing, mind-opening bliss of a freer, more liberated existence.” Yet it’s hard to imagine rock music meaning anything like this nowadays, especially when you can now buy Nirvana onesies for newborns. It’s also hard for me to believe that any of the bands I listened to back in the nineties were creating their music so that twenty years later their songs—once so new and dour—could now be heard in elevators, bathrooms, commercials, or while waiting in line for coffee.
The way we all become the vampires of the things we love and respect, eventually draining the life and meaning out of them until they’re either background noise or just nostalgia, is pretty staggering—but also inevitable. Like the head of Einstein, or the immediately recognizable reproductions of Michelangelo’s David, once rock music became some kind of cheapened archetype that could be called on to replace thinking, it was just something else to experience in between experiencing two other things. There was nothing special about it.
And if the way we live now has done anything to culture, it has removed that specialness. We can essentially listen to a song, watch a movie or TV or read a book, pretty much anywhere and at any time. Previously all of these activities and more were bound by the restrictions of technology inherent to them—even a book couldn’t be read at four in the morning while sitting on the toilet without turning the bathroom light on. Now there are no restrictions in the time or place or means of experiencing anything, and all of it is constantly interrupted by some competing form of media, or just chatter and opinions.
Quite eerily, Kurt Cobain predicted all of this back in early 1993, and what he said about rock music might as well stand for culture as a whole: “It’s already turned into nothing but a fashion statement and an identity for kids to use as a tool for them to fuck and have a social life… [In the future] I think they’ll use sounds and tones, and use it in their virtual reality machines, and just listen to it that way and get the same emotions from it, and then go to a party of virtual reality machines there with a whole bunch of headphones … but I actually I think there’ll be virtual reality machines that will get you high, technology will be that good. And then there’ll be like virtual reality junkies, finding them dead on their couch from OD’ing.”
This is a stunning prophecy, but of course it isn’t everything. As much as people want to deny that religions or countries or ideologies change and grow, this the reason that they do, and must. Anything that’s meaningful, and for that very reason, eventually becomes so depended upon it exhausts itself. But some other version of it is only a moment away. After seeing Einstein on a silly sign, he can yet be reinvigorated by reading about his life, his actual words. And any tired meme or joke reproduction of Michelangelo’s David can easily be surmounted by finding a photo of the real thing and realizing its huge scale, or staring into his inscrutable eyes. Happiness too, and a revived meaning, are also inevitable.