May 11, 2012 at 8:48 AM ET
“We’ll be forever young,” sings Ke$ha in her hit “We R Who We R.” It’s an oddly philosophical line to put in a dance song, one that forces the listener out of the moment and into confronting the sad reality of thinking, “Well, that’s not quite true.”
But the spirit of the line feels true to most of us when we’re in our 20s. Maybe we won’t stay forever young, we think, but the ideas our generation brings to the world will become the norm and keep us forever relevant at least. And that’s almost as good. It doesn’t quite work out that way, though. What’s cutting edge for one generation becomes standard issue for the next at best, or hopelessly passé at worst.
We’re forced to confront such uncomfortable thoughts when celebrities of our own generation die. When Adam "MCA" Yauch of the Beastie Boys passed away on May 4, Facebook feeds didn’t just light up because he was part of a popular musical act. His death also undid the illusion that so long as the Beastie Boys remained around, the members of their generation -- Generation X -- could still lay claim to a piece of their own youth as being alive and kicking.
We expect to read about deaths of older rock stars, like Levon Helm. We’re also not surprised at hearing about the deaths of younger, self-destructive stars, whether they’re from Gen X (Kurt Cobain, River Phoenix) or the current generation (Amy Winehouse). As tragic as such deaths are, they’re not something most of us really relate to on a personal level, since the majority of us don’t live the lives of rock stars (though many people try).
But hearing that a rocker died in middle age from a disease like cancer is something with which pretty much anyone can identify. That especially goes for 40-somethings who came of age with the Beastie Boys. We can’t pretend we’re forever young anymore. The jig is up.
This is likely the way Baby Boomers felt when Elvis Presley or John Lennon died. But to Gen X-ers, those artists -- great as they were -- seemed like part of a long gone black-and-white past. Most of us met the Beasties via technology that’s still in use today, cable TV, and they seemed to take delight in trashing the conventions of what came before and being “the newest in new,” to quote one of their songs. If you didn’t get what words like “dissed” or “fly” meant or the satirical thrust of their act, you were probably over 25.
The Beastie Boys brought hip-hop styles to the mainstream, added a healthy dose of irony and humor to the popscape, and rapped over samples of classic rock tunes like they were going out of style. They struck fear into the hearts of parents, as a recently-unearthed clip from the old “Oprah Winfrey Show” illustrates.
But looking back now at the group when they appeared on the old Joan Rivers Show, they seem, well, kind of cute -- and even sort of harmless. Kind of like the Moptops, who also once shocked the adult establishment. What was that about one generation’s cutting edge artists becoming standard issue for the next? Check out these clips of the Beasties on cable access in 1984, and on spring break with MTV in 1986:
By the late 1990s, the Beastie Boys and much of the Gen X culture itself had stepped into the space formerly occupied by the Baby Boomers. The Beasties played countless festivals, sold millions of records, and became recognized as innovators and not the novelty act they were once said to be. They even helped popularize the religion of Buddhism, to which MCA had converted. Since the Beastie Boys kept their cache of cool intact, Gen X got to stay forever young, at least for a while.
The death of Adam Yauch undid a bit of that.
The passing of a celebrity you grew up with is a sure signal that you and your generation are now moving faster on the mortal assembly line that inevitably leads to the end. Time marches on and we know for sure that our generation is part of the passing parade, not the reason for the parade.
Someday, middle-aged Ke$ha fans who once danced the night away to “We R Who We R” will grow misty-eyed at hearing the line “we’ll be forever young,” just as the now-grown kids who partied to “Licensed to Ill” are shedding tears knowing the voice of one of pop’s legendary acts is forever silenced and knowing no one really stays forever young.
Did the death of MCA resonate differently for you than the passing of other rock stars or celebrities? Discuss on our Facebook page.