Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Unrecognizable: Ageing in the Age of the Ageist Rule

Dearest Gentle Reader(s),

If you're in your early twenties and you're reading this, you may not quite be able to relate to what I'm about to present as my brief discourse [rant] of the day. However, if you're a bit more seasoned by the years, say 35 or older, or you're just seasoned by being empathic, then you might be able to relate.

I want you to imagine the following: you're at a yard sale, walking around, browsing the goods, and generally going about your business. A few days later, you get an email from the son of an old acquaintance. The email reads, "I was driving through Fern Street the other day and thought I saw you at that yard sale. Wow, you're unrecognizable." The email contains two attachments. One is a photo of you at the yard sale and the other is a photo of you when you were 20; youthful, thin, fine line-free, and cool looking in a baby-faced sort of way. In other words, you, when you were 20. Obviously the person who wrote you the email did recognize you, somehow, because otherwise they wouldn't have known to email you. Why did they do this? Why would they essentially say that you didn't look like yourself simply because you'd grown up? How would this make you feel? Pretty shitty I'd imagine.

Well that's what happened to Axl Rose, front man for iconic eighties Metal band, Guns N' Roses courtesy of a Huffington Post feature and video clip. At first glance, this may appear to be a non-story; an unimportant blip on the radar. But I welcome any opportunity to become one voice of dissent against an increasingly poisonous attitude concerning ageing peddled by narcissistic media climbers and sycophants.

On one level, as a general Rock fan, I have respect for Guns N' Roses, and then on another level, I don't have any particularly deep love for Axl Rose. But it was painful and awkward to watch a couple of people, who had to have been toddlers at the height of Guns N' Roses, break out with hmming and umming their way through an aesthetic criticism of a man who is 51 years old now and has clearly paid his dues for the price of admission into Rock and Roll bad-ass-dom. Guns N' Roses' heyday was in 1985 thanks to their gritty and groundbreakingly catchy album, Appetite for Destruction. Axl was 23 at the time. So now he gets to be physically compared to the 23 year old version of himself? And the commentators on the Huffington Post clip actually mention the fact that he's using a cane, as if needing a cane is some sort of affront to their ultra cool, Abercrombie and Fitch-esque sensibilities. Oh the horror of needing to use... a cane! Are these people on crack?

Take a good look, because this is what happens when you let the Romper Room kids run the media center. These people are products of a post nip-tuck era where you'd be hard pressed to find one clear example of natural ageing, or the honest face of Rock n Roll 'hard living' in the celebrity pool. Just as parents of young adults are complaining that they fear their children won't be able to appreciate a pair of natural breasts once they grow up, thanks to a contemporary internet porn which is rife with breast implants and genital surgery, those of us who are mature enough to remember how people age naturally have a right to be concerned that young humans who have yet to make any sort mark on the world for their intellectual or creative talents are critiquing others through a skewed lens and devaluing them for failing to appear to be in their twenties anymore.

A few years ago I regularly watched the British version of the television show, The Apprentice. My friends and I started discussing a disturbing trend which was emerging: many contestants, when under threat of being fired in Sir Alan Sugar's "Boardroom" and asked what special attributes they thought they offered, began to repeatedly resort to claiming their youth. "Sir Alan, Sir, I'm only 24" some guy would inevitably snivel at some point. This seemed to happen again and again, eventually to the point where you knew it was coming at least once for every episode. This launched an ongoing discussion amongst my contemporaries, who couldn't understand how youth culture had finally reached this low point of young people speaking about their own youth as if they were privy to a big secret that youth has become some sort of prized currency over savvy, intelligence, and experience in the world of business.

My anecdotal scope only extends back to the mid-twentieth century, but here is my take on the monstrous metamorphosis of youth culture: once a youth culture existed where its members looked forward to being viewed as mature enough to make important decisions and contributions. Then that was replaced by a youth culture whose members sought to be left alone to experiment because they were young and needed to find themselves - they'd eventually grow up, they said, but don't rush us. Then that was replaced with a youth culture whose members viewed their age as totally irrelevant - they felt they had something important to say, and nevermind that they were younger; they had a voice too. Then that seemed to finally be replaced  with a youth culture whose members recognize that youth is the desirable commodity against the backdrop of an increasingly younger power grid, so they exploit the value of youth and use it as bargaining currency. And that would be fine, if that sort of manipulative self-awareness didn't read as slightly sinister like an overly-precocious child actor that you grow to hate, and translate into slamming anything or anybody who isn't young looking, usually thin (and usually white, unless you're a black rapper, because ya know, rappers are sooo cool). The 1990s advent of a decentralized media via the internet created an environment ripe to be taken over by people under 30... which would have been great, if they hadn't been the greedy internet self-starters (my generation), who then groomed the 5.0 version of our youth culture to become youth-aggrandizing, cell-texting, porn-addicted, emotionally void, socially alienated, gentrifying, body fascists who now RUN the media, and broadcast these values to the masses.

I remember how we used to say Rolling Stones guitarist, Keith Richards looked like The Crypt Keeper because he'd done so many hard drugs over the years, but I don't ever remember anyone I knew pulling out an old picture of Keith and exclaiming, "Oh, he's SO unrecognizable!" or anyone handing me an article of a similar sentiment. He was recognizable. He was recognizable as a man who had been rode hard and put out wet, thanks to his Rock n Roll lifestyle. That was all. Now we get to listen to a bunch of baby monkeys in the control room call Axl Rose unrecognizable because he had the nerve to age over a period of nearly thirty years.

In the everyday, pedestrian world it has been generally accepted as natural that young people have always looked at people ten, twenty, and thirty years their seniors and called them old, but it is a sign that our society lacks balance and perspective when the people now at the helm of the media machine are products not of the youthful-but-seasoned crowd, but of the generation which frequently likes to remind itself how young it is and creates daily news slamming people for looking like they're not in their twenties anymore... or looking like they've lived a rockstar's life when they have... or looking drug addicted when they are, and the list goes on.

This wouldn't even have so much effect if what every cultural studies theorist has been saying for the past forty years weren't realistic: that in the post-modern era our work lives, social lives, private lives, and consumer lives have completely merged to the degree that these cultural messages are unavoidable, and translate into how we treat each other. There are plenty of us for whom a bit of hair dye and facial treatments aren't the enemy, but we wish not to have to go under the knife and join the ranks of the plastic people, lest our our attractiveness, our value as humans, and our very identities be weighed against images of ourselves from thirty years earlier. I don't like the idea that our culture is becoming a virtual version of Logan's Run, an ageist, dystopian era where people are eliminated once they're deemed too old. The only thing truly unrecongnizable to these people is what the range of the natural ageing process looks like.

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