2pac, Kurt, and the American Dream

Whether the final post-mortem on the American Dream will reach a verdict of suicide or murder, it will definitely conclude that the victim’s lifestyle made a violent end inevitable.

by Anatole d’Ecotopia

In the interrogation scene toward the end of the The Matrix, the rogue AI known as ‘Agent Smith’ refers to the real world circa 1999 as the peak of human civilization. It’s beginning to look like Smith may’ve known what he was talking about… in more ways than one.

Released eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1991 [CQ] and a mere two years before September 11, 2001 changed everything, the simulacra 1999 of “The Matrix” serves as a pretty fair reminder of everything that was good about that era – at least if you were lucky enough to have been born American.

Those years were the apex of the post-World War II Pax Americana. There was no shortage of injustice, violence, or inequity in the world at large yet Americans had it pretty good. Cell phones may not have been the uncanny marvels they’ve evolved into since, but for the first time since their invention they were an affordability utility and not merely an executive status symbol or luxury. Tablets and other handheld devices had yet to be fully realized, and the differences between desktop computers then and now are largely cosmetic.

There was definitely money to be had to acquire what toys there were to be purchased. Between 1991 and 2001, the U.S. economy grew by an average of 3.22%.  This is not to say that there was any less inequality than any other period of modern U.S. history. It was however a period of prosperity.

Geopolitically, it was an era of peace and stability. Leaders like U.S. President Bill Clinton and U.K. PM Tony Blair might’ve been neoliberal corporatist tools – but they were competent tools that knew what they were doing. The endless state of war and leadership by blisteringly ignorant xenophobes were also things yet to be invented (Blair would later be seduced to the Dark Side by Darth Cheney — but that’s another story). The optimism of Clinton’s preferred campaign theme song (“Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow”) now seems quaint and maudlin; but it was genuine.

For all the optimism, peace, and prosperity on display there was already a darkness in the center.

Two of the most prominent musicians and pop culture figures of the era were Tupac Shakur and Kurt Cobain. Each was seen as a seminal figure in genres they helped to define. Each was relatively young. A product of their era. Both rose to success from beginnings that were not prosperous. Both died millionaires and under violent and uncertain circumstances that are debated to this day.

Yet their lives and their music reveals the Pax Americana’s heart of darkness at its peak. Long before Cobain’s death by suicide and Shakur’s death by gang violence, images of death pervaded both their works. In “Heart-Shaped Box,” Cobain writes longingly of an umbilical noose. In “Death Around the Corner,” Shakur writes as well of suicidal thoughts (“… Ran out of endo and my mind can’t take the stress / I’m out of breath / Make me wanna kill my damn self”). [CQ]

Again, these are works from the height of their careers, by men who had achieved success through their own creativity at the material apex of American peace, cultural ubiquity, and material prosperity. It’s as though no amount of the material prosperity that lies at the heart of the American Dream can compensate for the spiritual void at the heart of that dream.

It is as though the American enterprise is foredoomed to failure, self-destruction and the very violence that claimed 2Pac, Kurt, and America’s ability to think optimistically about anything remotely resembling a tomorrow that compares favorably to an early entry into oblivion.

We’ve no one to blame but ourselves. Whether the final post-mortem on the American Dream will reach a verdict of suicide or murder, it will definitely conclude that the victim’s lifestyle made a violent end inevitable. It will conclude that the victim was a charmingly shallow sociopath with no strong convictions, no close ties, and an endless obsession with material goods.

If humanity at large survives long enough to analyze the collapse of Pax Americana and the historians conducting that analysis include the pop culture that pretty much defines us, 2Pac and Kurt may well wind up being seen as canaries in the coal mine. They sang, sweetly or not, until invisible toxins overwhelmed them.

Coal miners had the good sense to pay attention when the canaries stopped singing. We haven’t and we won’t.


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