At 30 years old, I allow myself to think that I’ve got a long and happy life ahead of me. And as a child of first-world privilege, I’m probably right in that assessment. But anything could happen. I could get married. I could start a family. I could leave my hometown of Seattle and decide that Mexico is a safer bet as far has holding on to a semblance of mental health is concerned. Or I could watch in stunned disbelief for the second time in my short life as an event as cataclysmic as 9/11 shakes my faith in the American social contract to its core. This event could very well be the election of Donald Trump to the office of President. We don’t know.
It’s still pretty early. Nonetheless, I have a prediction to make: Jay Z’s “Renegade” will be remembered as the single most significant cultural moment in the making of the Millennial generation. Maybe you have your own nominations. The internet release of Radiohead’s In Rainbows is right up there, and so is Barack Obama’s candidacy in 2008. You might even point out that it’s irrational to draw a character portrait of anything as impossibly broad as a “generation” in the first place. These are all valid points. But I stand my ground in saying that, when the cultural history of the Millennial generation is finally written, it will be hard to find a work of art that better represents the Millennial condition than “Renegade.”
To understand exactly where I’m coming from, we need a bit of context:
If you’re a member of the generation that theorists Neil Howe and William Strauss named the “Millennials,” you were born in the early-to-mid 1980s. Your arrival on the world stage coincided with a new era in American life defined by levels of wealth stratification that haven’t been seen since the days of the robber barons in the 1890s. Some thinkers, like cultural critic Frederic Jameson, have called this new era “late capitalism.” Others say the defining socioeconomic philosophy of this period is “neoliberalism,” an ideology known for reduced government expenditure on public welfare (“austerity”), and reduced legal encroachment on the affairs of American business (“deregulation”). Whichever label you choose, the historical record is pretty clear on a few facts: increasingly de-unionized American workers found themselves working longer and longer hours for lower and lower wages in the 1980s. The term “latchkey children” came into vogue to describe the kids—the young Millennials and members of Generation X—that they left behind while they were struggling to make ends meet. Because politicians told everyday citizens that it was shameful to be on government assistance of any kind, families were expected to tough it out despite being given fewer resources to do so.
This new status quo was born on the back of residual Republican resentment of The Welfare State of the mid-20th century. Angry White Males who lost their jobs when American corporations relocated abroad in the 1970s projected their frustration onto blacks who enjoyed recent political gains, women who were dissatisfied with restrictive gender norms, and immigrants who “stole jobs.” Frequently, these groups were framed as socially deviant starting the 1980s—“criminal” in the case of minorities, “illegal” in the case of immigrants, or “non-traditional,” in the case of women and sexual minorities. So in the last few decades of the 20th century, American society became the arena of contentious “Culture Wars” that simulated underlying political tensions between purveyors of public “morality,” and those who the aggressive rhetoric of American neoliberalism deemed immoral.
Internet porn. Drugs. Violence in video games and movies. And obscene rap lyrics. All become the subjects of a series of “moral panics” in the 1980s and 1990s. And the key to these panics were public concerns over the “corruption” of American youths who, in these years, were none other than Millennials and Generation X.
On the one hand, cultural representations in the 1980s and 1990s showed a preoccupation with gifted children who required minimal adult supervision, and therefore reflected the “latchkey” condition of young Millennials whose parents were away at work. Think Lisa Simpson, Dexter, and Macaulay Culkin’s character in Home Alone. Those representations and others displayed kids with incredible resourcefulness and ingenuity that would serve them well in the precarious socioeconomic climate of late capitalism. The well-behaved, subservient models of childhood they exemplified was a form of propaganda that showed Millennials 1) how to succeed under neoliberalism, and 2) how to validate the decisions of their Baby Boomer parents who instituted it.
On the other hand, the conservative social norms that American neoliberalism rode to power on were repeatedly tested by cultural cranks and radicals who refused the straightjacketed mores of the previous generation. In this context, rap was Public Enemy No. 1: the single cultural mode that most clearly embodied the cultural and socioeconomic contradictions of late capitalism. It’s no mistake that American corporations were so busy finding ways to commodify and appropriate Hip-Hop in the 1990s. Because beneath the profanity and rage and the ribald materialism was a searing critique of the American way. For 30 years, the generations before us attempted to appropriate cultural revolt before it could ever become revolution. Moral panics tended to be enflamed around precisely those cultural forms that had the potential to challenge the norms and politics on which American neoliberalism constructed itself in the 1980s.
So have you listened to “Renegade” recently? It may be a good idea to queue it up now. Don’t worry; I’ll wait.
When you put it on, what strikes you first? The rumbling, low-end downer funk of the instrumental? Jay-Z’s authoritative tone? Eminem’s facility with the English language? Upon listening to it for the first time in years recently, what actually hit me was how teenage and angsty it seemed. I mean, this record was released on September 11th, 2001: at this point, Jay Z was 31, and Eminem was right behind him at 29. What were they still so mad about? They were both millionaires. Yet they still felt the need to use their lyrics on this particular record to address the facts of childhood abandonment.
Let’s start with the chorus. Sound familiar? It’s a play on the tune “Anything,” from the theatric adaptation of Oliver Twist—an enduring Charles Dickens novel about the sordid conditions of orphans who were abandoned by society and forced to raise themselves in 19th century England. Since this is the hook, it’s meant to be the icon of an iconic performance: and Jay and Em spend those bars on a subtle but loaded historical parallel between Victorian England and late capitalism. It’s impossible to separate the song from the facts of socioeconomic abandonment and the creation of a generation of latchkey kids.
Now, about the actual verses. For starters, this is an unimpeachable performance. That’s one of the reasons the record is so important: if it sucked, it would be forgotten. What impresses me is how Jay Z and Eminem managed to convey broad generational themes in only two 16-bar verses apiece. Stanzas stacked thickly with wordplay, internal rhymes, and double-entendres also contain hints about the emotional situation the authors channeled—the situation of the abandoned child. Jay laments an American status quo that left his generation few options, but then turns around and tries to police their way of negotiating them. Eminem, meanwhile, continues to delight in his role as cultural provocateur, a schtick that ought to remind any grade school teacher of the gifted but unreachable class clown. Shock culture is more or less a permanent part of the American cultural landscape today, so it’s a little difficult to remember just how iconoclastic the rapper really was at the turn of the millennium. But there’s a reason he spends his verses on “Renegade” doing battle with Mormons and Catholics, channeling NWA, and criticizing Baby Boomer do-gooders: the Detroit-native was well aware of how public morality was used to deflect attention from underlying insecurities in American life.
“Renegade” was a track from Jay Z’s album The Blueprint. Released the morning of the single bloodiest day in American history since the Civil War, the album is widely recognized as one of the best in any genre of the new millennium. But 9/11 has always cast a shadow over its release—which it should. It’s hard to explain the full meaning of the record’s coincidental release on 9/11. But I’ve always thought that the secret lied in the track “Renegade.” The United States at the turn of the millennium was home to an incredibly hypocritical state of affairs that we’re just now finding our way out from under.
As it turned out, the sources of panic in late capitalism should have had nothing to do with the alleged corruption of Gen-X and Millennial youths through rap records and video games. Beneath the surface, what our parents were really afraid of were the internal dynamics of late capitalism itself—namely: 1) the creation of geopolitical instability through the Reagan-era military projects of the 1980s, which eventually played a major part in the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, and 2) the giving-over of the American social contract to private interests that eventually shipwrecked the American economy in the dot-com bubble busts of the early 2000s.
In the last analysis of the 20th century, it wasn’t Millennials or Generation X or the video games or movies or rap records they liked that threatened to end civilization—if that distinction belonged to anybody, it belonged to the belligerent, privatized, profit-hungry ethos of neoliberalism that Baby Boomers allowed to be born when the golden age of capitalism (1945-1973) collapsed on their watch. The attendant moral panics and fear of Millennials and Gen-X culture therefore served a diversionary purpose, allowing adult Americans to misapply their anxiousness about the increasing precarity of socioeconomic life, and instead fixate on the supposed degradation of youth and the alleged decadence of the cultural products they consumed.
This was a ruse that Jay Z and Eminem attempted to expose on “Renegade.” Looking back on it, the points they made on 9/11/2001 were punctuated by the sound of the falling twin towers. Fourteen years later, their verses were some of the best commentary we could hope for on a day we should’ve seen coming.