by Pastor Doug Kings
It started with a piece by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, titled “Anxiety in the Age of Barbie.” Then I began noticing other articles with titles like these: “Why Is Music Getting Sadder?” “A Big Report Is Out on American Children. It’s Horrific.” “Our Collective Trauma Is the Road to Tyranny.” And a couple videos, “On Rising Depression, SSRI Medication, and Spiritual Disease” and “Illness Is A Normal Response To A Toxic Society.” I could list more, just from recent months. A growing chorus of voices saying, in effect, life for many Americans, especially the young, is not going well.
Dowd begins by noting that the phenomenal commercial success of the movie Barbie, and Taylor Swift’s and Beyonce’s concert tours, should make this “the summer of girl power.” But talking with friends who were mothers of girls heading to college gave a very different picture.
So I felt sad … to hear of rampant anxiety, campuses awash in S.S.R.I.s — serotonin boosters found in drugs like Prozac and Lexapro — and long waits for therapy. It is a major topic among moms: daughters struggling with anxiety or the effects of anti-anxiety medications, which can include weight gain and loss of libido. Many young college women are ping-ponging between anxiety, without pills, and numbness and body insecurity, with them.
These young women seem to have everything, yet they are unable to fully enjoy a stretch in their life that should be sizzling with adventure and promise. “Back-to-school was always a time of excitement about where the future was headed — new notebooks, fresh supplies,” mused a friend, the mother of a teenage daughter. “But it feels like people are disappearing into sadness. Everybody’s looking for a shrink instead of a sharpened pencil.”
The problems of male teens and young adults are similar, perhaps worse, and have been noticed longer. They are noted as the stereotypical mass shooter, for living with parents at a higher rate than ever before, and for substituting in-person contact for video gaming and online chat.
As Dowd says, a hit song of the summer from Barbie is Billie Ellish’s “What Was I Made For?” Ellish has said that while the lyrics are about Barbie’s wanting to become human, they are inspired by her own teenage struggles.
I used to float, now I just fall down
I used to know but I’m not sure now
What I was made for. …
I don’t know how to feel
But someday, I might. …
When did it end? All the enjoyment
I’m sad again, don’t tell my boyfriend
It’s not what he’s made for.
Popular music, almost by definition, is a measure of trends in our culture. For writer Ted Gioia, today that should give us concern.
I’m told that the top search term at Spotify among teens is “sad.” … Even the candidates for song of the summer are filled with quiet despair—so much so that Spotify declared it the “bummer summer.” Feeding the trend, the platform serves up countless sad playlists.
While lyrics are one measure of “sadness”, so to are tempo and key. Gioia was told that tempos have been getting slower since the new century began. In the past, slow tempos characterized love songs for slow dancing. But slow dancing has almost disappeared.
So we have an odd situation. The slow tune is no longer dreamy music for couples, but sad, lonely music for the isolated and depressed. It doesn’t help that handheld devices, earbuds, and other pervasive technologies have turned music into something consumed alone, not communally as it was in past.
A similar trend is the increase in music in a minor key. Gioia says 85% of music in the 60s was in a major key. But then in the mid-90s that changed, peaking in the late 2000s—the time of the Great Recession—when 70% of popular music was in a minor key. It then dropped back but the split now is about 50/50.
As Gioia says, sad songs go back as far as we know. And there have been times when they have seemed to characterize a culture. But this time seems different.
I think the sad songs of our own culture are less fatalistic than those of earlier eras, and much angrier. I’m not sure if that’s an improvement. Maybe if the prevailing anger got channeled into a positive direction, I’d be more receptive to the trend. But I fear that this angry sadness simply feeds on itself.
The causes of this distress are no secret. Dowd cites Laurence Steinberg, the author of You and Your Adult Child, for one assessment.
He said young women and men are distraught about the cost of housing, climate change, racism and prejudice, and young women are also affected by threats to their reproductive health…. “A lot of my friends with adult children have themselves had to get into therapy because they are so stressed out because of their kids’ problems,” Steinberg noted.
Adolescence and young adulthood have always been tumultuous periods of life. But I agree with Gioia that something is different this time. One factor is that it seems little is being done about the most serious of these problems, especially the growing economic disparity and the climate crisis.
Hopelessness, depression, and rage are the consequences of problems seemingly without solution. So, as individuals, just waiting for things to change is not an option.
[Steinberg] said that coping mechanisms must be taught. “I don’t think that we should just be handing out pills and thinking that that’s going to take care of it,” he said.
Learning how to live in a dysfunctional world is one way of explaining the popularity of books by Eckhart Tolle and others. Being filled with self-doubt, sadness or rage has no positive consequences. But coming believe in own inherent goodness and to recognize the insanity of much of the world’s thinking, as Tolle teaches, provides a stable center from which to live.
Of course, this is at the heart of Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings as well. But as I quoted Richard Rohr last week, what Tolle provides is a method for practicing these truths in our daily lives. Our problems need solutions, but depressed and angry people are unlikely to find them. Spiritually awakened people have not only overcome their own sadness but have also found the energy and compassion to that enables them to bring about the changes our world desperately needs.
Blessings in your life and ministry.