March 22, 2014

Another path from helicopter parenting to egocentrism

I'm visiting my nephew and got dragged into playing Legos with him. "Dragged" not because I'm heartless, but because I want to keep sufficient distance in case I need to assert authority. Remember: being your kid's friend undermines your authority. It's the kind of thing he should be playing with his peers, not a family member who's 27 years older than him.

At any rate, he's so excited to show you this thing he made and that thing he made, and what this design in the booklet looks like, and what that one looks like. I found myself the whole time saying "cool..." or "man..." or staying silent. All you get is agreement from family members, even if they don't really think it's cool. Family members have to treat each other more nicely than if one of them were an outsider.

It's your peers who would pipe up with "BORRRINNG." Like, "Hey Uncle Agnostic, you wanna watch Sponge Bob?" I can't tell him, "Nah man, that shit's boring." But one of his friends hopefully would. "Aw c'mon, change the chanelllll. Sponge Bob sucks." Then they'd engage in a little back-and-forth, give-and-take, until they compromised.

With family members in an era of family friendliness, the grown-ups tell the child that whatever they like is awesome. No need to change, improve, or compromise your interests and tastes.

This ego sheltering can only last so long, though. What happens when the kid starts to interact with his peers at age 25 or whenever it is with you damn Millennials? His whole formative years up to that point have prepared him to expect that other people will find his interests fascinating and his tastes impeccable.

Then, SLAM — your peers shrug off many of your interests and find your tastes average. That's typical, and not the end of the world. But with no preparation for it, the ego faces this challenge in such an atrophied state that it gets utterly demolished.

To pick up the pieces: "Well what do those idiots know about awesome anyway? They're probably just jealous. I don't need their confirmation anyway." Now they're headed down the path of social withdrawal and misanthropy. They'll grow suspicious of their so-called friends who don't share 100% enthusiasm with their interests.

Parents in the '70s and '80s used to view their job as preparing their kids for the tough and unpredictable world out there, not to insulate them from it. It'll slam into them at some point, so might as well make sure they've grown to withstand it. Parents stayed out of our lives even when we were children. By encouraging us to go out and make friends on the playground, or at school, or around the neighborhood, they helped us discover the shocking reality that not everybody is as interested as we are in the stuff we're interested in.

That not only taught us to negotiate and compromise with someone who wasn't on the same page as us, but also to seek out new friends who would be closer to us. That way we have our friends where we don't have to struggle that much just to get something done, and other friends or acquaintances who we have to make more of an effort to do things with — but not shutting them out because of that. Each side goes back to their closer circle of friends afterward and engages in some good-spirited gossip about how weird the other side can be sometimes.

This is a separate effect from over-praising the kids' efforts and output. That shelters their ego about their capabilities. This is about what gets their attention, what motivates them, their interests and tastes. It's much closer to the core of their identity than their capabilities, so that questioning it is far more likely to be perceived as doubting who they are as a person.

That will trigger a much more desperate defense: "What do you mean, you don't like Harry Potter? Here is a PowerPoint of the Top 10 reasons why you must, unless you're a big fat stupid idiot."

Never having your tastes questioned — not well into your late teens anyway — leads to another major problem that you see with Millennials. They can't separate objective and subjective discussions about something they like. It all boils down to the subjective. The objective is only a means toward that end, as though an objective argument would force them to decide one way or another on the subjective side of things.

To end with an example, most of them like music that is not very musical. That is an objective claim, easy to verify. If it's what floats their boat, I guess I'll just have to consider them lame, and they can look at me playing a Duran Duran album as lame. But objectively speaking, "Rio," "Save a Prayer," "Hungry Like the Wolf," etc. are more musical. More riffs, motifs, more varied song structure (intros, bridges, outros), more intricate melodic phrasing, richer instrumentation (actually hearing the bass), instrumental solos, greater pitch range for the singing, more required to write the instrumental parts, and so on.

I know some Boomers who see that spelled out, and compare what Pandora says about their Sixties faves, and respond self-deprecatingly with, "Meh, I guess I get turned on by simplistic music then!" as opposed to fancy-schmancy music. Millennials get bent out of shape, though, as though "logic has proven my tastes inferior — must re-inspect the logic."

But that's what happens when your tastes rarely get questioned during your formative years. You don't appreciate that there could be two separate ways that this could happen, one objective and the other subjective. In fact, being told that your favorite TV show is boring would probably have introduced you to the objective side of things, when you asked them why they felt that way. "I dunno, it's like none of the challenges the characters face actually matters. The motivation feels empty." Ok, they wouldn't phrase it that way, but you know what I mean. Usually their response would not only amount to, "I dunno, it just sucks."


  1. Saying certain music is objectively better is dangerous territory, especially when that music was popular when you were growing up. I don't think appreciating music is an act of recognizing superior talent; rather it's a way to affiliate yourself with various social groups and subgroups. Notice that basically everyone's favorite music is the music they grew up with.

    For example, Adam Carolla (born '64) often rants on his podcast about how John Hiyatt and Graham Parker are objectively better than any music out there. He recently spent 15 minutes talking about what a shitty song Sledgehammer is (I happen to like it).

    I think you're falling into the same trap, what your brain is backwards rationalizing as 'superior musicianship' is just a way for it to justify its attachment to the music. The kids don't think that a duran duran album has crappy song structure, they subconsciouly see that it's affiliated as "dad-rock" and don't want to be a part of that group.

  2. Objectively the best music is classical, jazz, prog? Maybe math-rock?

    I recall now linking to some quantifications of the sophistication of 50s music vs today. I even made a math-rock reference!

    Brave, I dig dad-rock. To me, new wave is the newfangled crap!

  3. I didn't say that a certain genre of music was "objectively better" or "objectively the best" -- those are subjective claims. I said it was objectively more musical, and listed a number of objective, quantifiable traits that distinguish more musical from less musical styles.

  4. And those traits are not just subconscious or deliberate cherry-picking to make my faves turn out the best. They're the kind of things that Pandora categorizes, that any book or article on music theory would discuss.

    All else equal, two melodic lines is more musical than one. Hearing the bass as a melodic line separate from the guitar, for instance -- Chic, the Clash, Duran Duran. Shoot, just hearing a melodic line on a single instrument is a rare thing these days -- usually it's just intermittent blurps from a chord progression (guitar if rock-derived, keyboard if techno-derived).

    Singing is more musical than speaking, shouting, whispering, or mumbling.

    Performing a solo requires more skill than continuing to strum the same chords throughout.


  5. If you measure all these things across the hits of different years, 1983 comes out at the top -- no surprise to me. But right alongside it is 1975, a year that doesn't do too much for me.

    But if that's what the data say, then so be it. They're not going to tell me what I do and do not like.

  6. In literature and the arts, I had understood it to be generally the case that denying that there are objective and technical standards for "good stuff" rather than purely subjective, individualized and culturally contextual standards to be a post 1960s-70s phenomenon.

    Millennials seem pretty tolerant towards variation in taste, much more so than older generations, and older people, who are more less concerned with displaying their uniqueness and tolerating difference.

    But they do seem touchy about having their tastes questioned. "I don't like Harry Potter" seems fine with them (subjective neutral), Harry Potter is shit seems to set them off a bit (subjective negative).

    I think this would be from an environment where having discriminating taste in media is a strong status signal, status competition is high and where an attack on taste is taken as an attempt at status reduction.

    Gen X seems more this way than the Boomers as well - Gen X lives more of its life in media. Lots more lists of "the 20 best obscure films that I know about because I'm unique and why I have a unique take on why they're awesome that you should respect", among the Gen X than the Boomers.

  7. "Being your kid's friend undermines your authority."
    That's not your kid, it's your nephew, so the dynamics are different just as they would be if you were the grandfather for example.

  8. Read the post I linked to. When "parents" are their kids only friends, it undermines their authority.

  9. "Gen X lives more of its life in media."

    Media broadly, yes. And it's mostly guys who are film buffs, music fans, etc. Compare them to Millennial guys, and I'm not sure who is more media-saturated. Millennial guys are obsessive about video games, in a way that Gen X used to be / is about music. "I'm so over the Call of Duty type games. I've only been playing hidden gems from indie developers. I like *early* Squaresoft games, before they sold out and went mainstream." Etc.

    Millennials definitely live more of their lives in the virtual world, though.

  10. Fair enough on complexity vs likability. I like some rather unmusical hardcore punk (yet sit in judgement of death/black metal for being deliberately unlistenable), and fail to appreciate free jazz or Schonberg or Page Hamilton & Caspar Brotzmann collaborating.

    Is the 1983 & 1975 bit from that "Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music" paper?

  11. " Notice that basically everyone's favorite music is the music they grew up with."

    I prefer 80s music to most 90s music. I knew other guys in high school who liked classic rock a lot better than anything than playing on the radio. And of course, some individuals eschew modern music altogether, preferring Beethoven and Mozart.

  12. Johnny Caustic3/25/14, 10:39 PM

    Agnostic, where did you find this information about 1983 being the most musical year and 1975 being second? Thank you.

  13. My analysis of Pandora's codes for the hit songs of various years.

  14. Johnny Caustic3/28/14, 12:26 AM

    Is this available anywhere? I'd love to know how the other years rate.

  15. No, I've been sitting on the data for nearly 2 years now. Not sure whether to just write it all up here, or try to get some kind of research publication / journalism out of it.


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