What Hardship Kitsch Does for Comfortable Millennials
If I had a nickel for every time Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” has come on while I’m working in a coffee shop, I’d be able to buy the single on vinyl. I’m from New Jersey, too, and I always hum along, partly because until recently I’d never made out the lyrics. I had assumed it was about a fling, as most pop songs are. “We’re halfway there,” shorn of context, suggests something other than making rent or paying the car loan.
How wrong I was: When I finally googled the lyrics, I realized that, like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” the signature Bon Jovi hit is a 1980s Jersey Shore working-class struggle song—a genre that testifies to the desperation of life in that time and place as the last remnants of the midcentury postwar economy went to pieces. (Not to be outdone, Long Island’s Billy Joel wrote “Allentown” in the same era, but that song doesn’t pack quite the same punch: Allentown never did have many factories to tear down.)
A very strange feeling came over me when I finally learned the lyrics. In spite of the struggle depicted in the song—and possibly even because of it—I found myself reading the ballad of Tommy and Gina with something almost like jealousy. How could that be? Finances are a primary cause of marital strife; our family’s finances, thankfully, are basically fine. But in some cases, financial struggles can have an enviable purifying effect, distilling love down to its essence. This is the central trope of the song. If you can love each other through broken dishwashers and secondhand coats and creaky bed frames and instant noodles and leftover chicken, maybe you can be sure it’s really love, not merely a passing romance insulated from reality by comfort and affluence.
But I dislike the idea that metaphysical goods like love or virtue can be mere byproducts of material conditions. (Like the narrator’s romance in Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” the relationship at the center of “Livin’ On a Prayer” is unimaginable apart from its context of material struggle.) Underneath all our circumstances, there must be something. If there weren’t, what could keep Tommy and Gina together? What makes the song’s story so evocative and relatable, even for those of us who haven’t experienced similar hardships?
Sometimes, like a satirical inverse of Tommy, I lie awake feeling a little anxious about how easy it seems. God knows I’m not rich, but like most millennial homeowners (a condo, not a house), my wife and I enjoyed assistance with the purchase from our parents. Apart from that mortgage, we are not carrying other debt: no car loans, no appliances or beds bought on credit. To save money—or so we reasoned—we bought restored vintage furniture instead of Ikea; to improve our productivity through better sleep, we purchased a Sleep Number instead of whatever was on sale at the MattressFirm. Every month we put away something in the bank or the investment account, but we also take long weekends and eat out. At this point, our earning potential remains at the lower end of what people with our backgrounds might expect.
Something must have gone wrong, I sometimes think—but I don’t mean that I rue our prospects. Rather, I am apprehensive about our good fortune: It makes me worry that either some awful reality is being obscured by our simple and pleasant experience of life, or that I’ll be forced to account for our spiritual profit margins—and the karmic imbalances they have created—down the road. To switch religious idioms, perhaps it’s my Catholic guilt that causes this feeling of foreboding, this sense that material blessing foreshadows ruin.
And perhaps I desire to be brought low. After all, the Tommy in me longs to struggle for Gina. That part of me wishes—wistfully, indulgently, in a daydreaming sort of way—that I would have to comfort my wife, distraught late at night over unpaid bills or rent, and to tell her, to heroically promise her, that we’ll make it no matter what. This hypothetical me would have to work weekends or evenings or graveyard shifts, to count every penny, to sacrifice many pleasures—and I imagine doing it willingly for us, for the family and home we want to have some day, and for the sake of the great story in which we find ourselves. What a beautiful, dramatic struggle we would have.
Like virtually any fantasy, this one has plenty of discomfiting aspects, not least the cliché it invokes of the male rescuer. Perhaps the appeal I find in the imagined scene is rooted in a certain gentlemanly sexism I’ve internalized; perhaps it’s just a case of the grass being greener, even when it belongs to the lawn in a working-class home in a rougher neighborhood; perhaps it is, again, derived from my Catholicism, which ascribes dignity to physical labor, and even to suffering itself. Maybe I’ve internalized the fashionable leftist notion that there’s something shameful or illegitimate about being well off. Or perhaps I just sound like a clueless privileged kid, oblivious to the hard realities of real working-class life that have been turned into American kitsch by, well, Springsteen and Bon Jovi.
These feelings of ambivalence about my response to the song are intensified by the fact that, because of my fortunate circumstances, so few of my friends are able to enjoy similarly easygoing lives. Who am I to wish I were struggling when struggling people want what I have?
One downside of being an educated urban millennial, apart from the obvious ones, is that we have an outsized sense of the importance of our identity, both as individuals and as a demographic. Raised on a media diet of self-focused Boomer- and Gen X-produced television and music, often within the safe enclosures of the tightly managed households of our Boomer parents, our generation emerged with the tendency to view ourselves as characters, to observe our arcs, to write our own stories. For a person who naturally thinks in these ways, there’s something anticlimactic about coming into a home, two cars, a great job, and a happy marriage in your twenties: Instead of undertaking a journey to the summit, you’re on a comfortable ride up the elevator. There’s no drama here; it doesn’t make much of a story. If there isn’t some kind of struggle, there might not be a story at all.
But are our lives stories? Should we approach them that way? Even if we can’t get away from the “story” framework for life, there are many kinds of narrative, and not all of them emphasize conflict and achievement. Instead of embellishing the story’s details and dramatic tension, another genre might call for an embrace of the everyday, the workaday, the boring—a way of seeing the routines of life not as drudgery but as liturgy, as Grace Olmstead, following philosopher-theologian James K.A. Smith, movingly puts it. Without a framework for interpreting your life that accommodates needful repetition more capaciously, the routine can become caustically boring, and this can fuel resentment—until eventually, instead of writing about daydreams of manual labor or tight finances, you might discover yourself writing essays about how you blew up your real life.
Perhaps four or six or nine breezy years in higher education contribute to that hunger for drama and novelty. My generational cohort, the most educated in history, found every day in our undergrad and grad programs a little different: a chef’s choice of different classes, events, random and planned encounters (platonic and not)—all given forward direction, tension, and cohesion by the need to find a job at the end of it all. And then, when we graduated, the story stopped.
But the story didn’t stop. It just changed, as it always does. I’ve been struck by remarks from thirty- or fortysomethings with kids and harried everyday lives who say that they’re happier than they’ve ever been. Maybe those college days that take up so much space in my imagination are junk food next to the vegetables of marriage and family. And maybe four or six or nine years of being asked what you think about X or Y gives your mind a subtly narcissistic bent. College is often sold as being all about education, epistemic humility, learning a little more about a tiny fraction of the human endeavor. It’s supposed to make you feel small (but also like a leader, somehow). In my experience, anyway, it teaches you all the opposite lessons. A good deal of adulthood consists of unlearning habits formed in those breezy years in order to find a pattern of life resilient enough to endure the spiritual erosion of prolonged boredom.
I know that my longing for the struggle of material deprivation is a daydream; I know that I’m exceptionally blessed—unspeakably fortunate, really—to even be able to have these daydreams. And perhaps, were I crushingly busy or overworked and making half as much, I’d sorely miss the mental bandwidth that makes these idle thoughts possible. But I can’t say that for sure: The life track I ended up on—and the life narrative I learned along the way—made sure I would never know the answer.
At the end of the day, I’ll take financial security over romanticized destitution. But choosing between options like these is one problem Tommy never had to worry about. He had far more important things on his mind.