For '90s Kids, the Boom Box's Blast Has Drowned Out the Written Word

I've spent my entire adult life on college campuses - 10 years as a student and 33 as a professor. I've seen several generations of students come and go, and I'm often asked what changes I've noted among them. One change looms over all - a fault line in culture that occurred sometime in the late 1970s: Music displaced the printed word as the young person's chief source of intellectual stimulation.

Thirty years ago, students read books that were uniquely their own: Hermann Hesse, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Pirsig, J.R.R. Tolkien, and a host of other cult favorites. Today's students barely read at all, and if they do, it's the same authors the rest of us read - John Grisham and Frank McCourt, for example. (The top two best-sellers in college bookstores recently were McCourt's "Angela's Ashes" and something called "Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul.")

But students do have their own music - Rage Against the Machine, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins - that they listen to obsessively.

If a student today quotes a "poem" in a term paper, it's likely to be an inane pop lyric, such as "Why did you decide/ that your life is a prize./ Renew and revive./ It's alright, honey./ It's alright, yeah." No one retires in silence anymore to read the contemporary equivalent of e.e. cummings or Sylvia Plath. The boom box is ubiquitous. Silence is anathema.

Which isn't to say college kids today aren't lovable, articulate, talented. They are. They have an endearing innocence and hopes for a humane future. But let them put Wu-Tang Clan on the stereo and I'm ready to flee to a desert island.

One of the down sides to being a teacher of young people is that one must actually become aware of the existence of groups such as Wu-Tang. The Wu are rappers. Hip-hop masters. A rap dream team that belts out obscenities for big bucks.

"Cash rules everything around me" is Wu's motto - a curious ethic to be applauded by college kids who have sometimes been noted for their idealism. It is hard to tell where Wu music leaves off and Wu marketing begins. The group sponsors a line of clothing called Wu-Wear, sold in Wu-Wear shops, with Wu nail polish. They've figured out how to work the system, even as they rail against it.

Wu-Tang albums are tagged with a parental warning label, and the one I listened to spit out obscenities like machine-gun bullets. Rude and crude, down and very, very dirty: My ears burned, and I thought wistfully of another dream-team of top artists - George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and Tom Petty - who came together in the late '80s as the Traveling Wilburys, apparently just for the fun of it. Somewhere between the Wilburys and the Wu we crossed a musical divide.

A generation ago, we listened to Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, or Ray Charles and heard music that articulated what we felt. Gladys Knight and Wilson Pickett looked into our hearts and made tunes of what they saw. Even the Beatles' sometimes inscrutable lyrics resonated with the inscrutable feelings of the time.

But what are we to make of Rage Against the Machine and Wu-Tang, who toured together this summer? Their words are just words, part of a deafening beat, shock schlock. We've moved from in-your-heart to in-your-face, and nothing matters except what the music-industry megamasters decide will matter.

Most of the kids at Rage concerts are conspicuously devoid of reasons for rage. Students playing Frisbee in the college quad while Wu booms from their boxes seem utterly removed from the rude, mean-streets lyrics. What we have here is a detachment of form and meaning. The medium is completely and exhaustively the message, packaged by experts, sold for greed.

A book is what a book means; form and content are the same. Wu rap is meaningless, at least to the affluent college kids who buy the CDs. And because the music has no meaningful content for them, there's nothing to be learned. No poetry. No philosophy. No history. No politics. The newest generation of college kids has a voice but nothing to say, hope for the future but no knowledge of the past.

I'm generalizing, of course. There are some contemporary college students who look beyond music for intellectual stimulation. Often they reclaim cult books of yesteryear in the absence of any literature of their own. Kerouac and Ginsberg have been hauled out for airing. I recently saw a student clutching a copy of James Baldwin's "Another Country."

But for too many kids, decibels have replaced thought, and the mosh pit has replaced the sweet pleasures of solitude. It's a new young person's world out there, where music rules everything, and ideas on the printed page have become virtually extinct.

* Chet Raymo teaches physics at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass.

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