Fun.’s “We Are Young” won a Grammy for “Song of the Year” last Sunday, and appropriately so. It’s been played seemingly non-stop since its release, and the chorus—“Tonight, we are young / so let’s set the world on fire / we can burn brighter than the sun”—is undeniably catchy.
But catchiness aside, the lyrics of the song bother me, because like so many other products of the media, and especially of the music industry, they unoriginally romanticize being young.
MIA put it more succinctly in her song “Bad Girls” with the lyrics, “Live fast / Die young / Bad girls do it well,” and Keisha reiterated a similar sentiment in “Die Young” when she sang, “Let’s make the most of the night like we’re gonna die young.”
It’s exactly this “live fast, die young” cliché that frankly, I’m bored of. It’s the notion of youth as reckless, uninhibited bliss, power and invincibility. It’s a little painful too, in the way that “growing up” is stereotypically angst-y and drama-fraught. It’s a Jack Kerouac kind of carelessness. It’s a Freaks and Geeks sort of rebellion. It has none of the pretty showiness of Clueless or Mean Girls, but all of the alluring imperfection of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and it can be summed up in one, neat phrase: You Only Live Once (YOLO).
Although this romantic idea of adolescence is compelling, I’d argue that it is, like most notions fed to us by the media, unrealistic and absurd.
In her book “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” Mindy Kaling denounces John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” for being the “worst offender” in the unrealistic high-school experience category. About the song’s narrative, she writes, “Why are these kids not home doing their homework? Why aren’t they setting the table for dinner…Who allows their kids to hang out in parking lots? Isn’t that loitering?”
Kaling raises a valid point. When did the kids on the OC or One Tree Hill ever do their homework? Or, for that matter, look like normal high-school kids (versus twenty-five years old actors and actresses)? Watch Mellencamp’s 1982 music video of “Jack and Diane,” replete with two leather-jacket clad white kids, and you’ll start to realize too how silly and nostalgic it is.
Consider the chorus: “Oh yeah, life goes on, even after the thrill of living is gone.” What does that mean, Mellencamp—that once I get older, I’m just going to be a worthless bag of prunes or something? Kaling suggests someone write a “little ditty” about a “hardworking Vietnamese girl” and a “hardworking Jewish boy” who “help each other study for the SATs and different AP courses.” I agree.
Like most people, my youthful years have had their fair share of angst. Trying to forge some kind of identity amid the variables of school, friends and family is inevitably challenging. But also, my friends haven’t always been in the bathroom getting higher than the Empire State building and my lover hasn’t always been waiting for me in the bar across the street. I once tried living by YOLO, in that limbo summer between high-school and college. I only ended up pathetically sleep-deprived.
I do wonder occasionally if I’m “missing out.” I feel a strange nostalgia for a youth I don’t have and never did. But when I contemplate what I think I’m “missing out” on, I realize it’s this notion I’ve heard about on the radio and seen in movies, a conception that doesn’t actually exist.
Or does it exist? I could be wrong. Maybe I’m just an outsider, and you’re reading this thinking, what a loser. She probably spent her Saturday nights in high-school watching WE TV with her dogs, while I was streaking in the park, skinny-dipping in the dark, and having a ménage-a-trois.
Yet, somehow I doubt that. I suspect everyone feels like an outsider on this one, because none of us are truly insiders. We all tend to think someone is having more fun than us—that somewhere, somebody is drifting a car in a Saudi Arabian desert (MIA’s music video for “Bad Girls), and somewhere else, somebody is driving through a tunnel screaming (the character Sam in The Perks of Being a Wallflower)—but the impression is merely that. An impression.
We can set the world on fire, provided we have the appropriate amount of matches and lighter-fluid, and I do believe we are capable of achieving great things. Where the media and I differ, however, is that I believe we are capable of them not solely because we are young. Youth isn’t a laudable trait on its own. Rather, it is our quality of self that defines our capabilities, and youth, when compared to such attributes as character, creativity and determination, is a mere background fixture.