KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsReading

Breakdowns of this Century in Mitchell, Atwood, Prince, and Enlightened

The first time I heard about a shift in modern civilization was in regard to the period following World War I, when classical art gave way to Picasso’s Cubism and classical music gave way to jazz, with the fragmentation mirroring the shell-shocked world. More recently, thanks to the Information Age, it’s the rapid pace of change that’s altering our civilization. Joni Mitchell, ahead of her time, foresaw an age when people and machines would feel equally fried. Margaret Atwood took note of how the changes were affecting women in the 60s and 70s, while Prince sums up the 1980s in one song. Most recently, the HBO series Enlightened takes the “Ozymandias” view on the staying power of civilizations.

Electricity” by Joni Mitchell is an impressively extended metaphor. The speaker compares herself (and modern humankind) to a broken machine: “she’s got all the wrong fuses and splices.” Tired of the city’s tangled masking tape, flashlights, and fuse boxes, she’s:

… learning
It’s peaceful
With a good dog and some trees
Out of touch with the breakdown
Of this century.
They’re not going to fix it up
Too easy….

In Wilderness Tips, a collection of short stories, Margaret Atwood’s observant female narrators monitor the world’s changes. The story “True Trash” begins in the 1960s. Ronette is a poor waitress working at a posh summer camp. She becomes pregnant out of wedlock, a mistake with a huge stigma at the time. The story flashes forward 11 years, and the story’s sympathetic narrator realizes Ronette’s situation is now antiquated:

And what has become of Ronette, after all, left behind in the past, dappled by its chiaroscuro, stained and haloed by it, stuck with other people’s adjectives? …. It’s an archaic story, a folktale, a mosaic artifact. It’s a story that would never happen now.

Certain societal problems, like drug use, escalated in the 1980s. I can’t remember who pointed out the impressiveness of these Prince lyrics; in two lines, the song “Sign ‘O the Times” tells a little story of how quickly things can accelerate:

In September my cousin tried reefer 4 the very first time
Now he’s doing horse, it’s June
Times, times

The 1987 song describes socio-political plagues of the 1980s, from AIDS (“in France a skinny man/Died of a big disease with a little name”) to gang violence (“a gang called The Disciples/ High on crack, totin’ a machine gun”) to natural disasters (“Hurricane Annie ripped the ceiling of a church/ And killed everyone inside”). Kurt Loder, in a review of the album, praises the song’s musical appeal — and “loopy” optimism:

Sign o’ the Times,” the album’s first single, sets up an immediate tension between a rubbery bass riff and a ponging percussion figure, blossoming rather darkly with the addition of subtly unsettling keyboard chords as Prince decries the contemporary prevalence of drugs and war and suggests, as an antidote, “Let’s fall in love, get married, have a baby/We’ll call him Nate (If it’s a boy).” This is pure Prince — the formidable rhythmic power, the sociosexual transcendentalism, the loopy humor — and it’s perfect, a piece of real aural art.

In a review of HBO’s Enlightened in New Republic, Laura Bennett explains that, in season two, the show’s voiceovers tackle more ambitious subjects, moving “from interior musings about loneliness and love to majestic ruminations on humanity and the decline of civilization.” In “The Key,” the episode ends with the camera panning the L.A. skyline, showing high-rise office buildings darkly sparkling at night. The narrator, Amy, muses:

This kingdom… this amazing kingdom we’ve made… this monstrous kingdom… its castles are magic… they are beautiful… they are built on dreams… and iron… and greed. They are inorganic and cannot sustain. No kingdom lasts forever. Even this will end. And life and earth will reign again.