GenEd: A Cocky Teenage Girl and The Weeknd Changed My Life (Part Two: Abel)

If you don’t know who Abel Tesfaye is, then you are culturally illiterate.

If you don’t know who Abel Tesfaye is, then you are culturally illiterate.

That’s ok; I didn’t know who Abel was either. But one day a cocky teenage girl bullied me out of the proverbial Cave of shadows and into the light. Sure, she shattered my ego in the process, but I can’t blame her, for without her ruthless attitude I wouldn’t have been shaken out of my arrogance and ignorance.

But it is true, my Most Indignant Reader: if you don’t know the name of the number-one music artist in the world, whose latest album(s) made international history, whose songs stream over a billion views, who is redefining the musical form as we speak, then you are by default culturally illiterate. No amount of college degrees or Facebook friends can change that.

You may very likely disagree. But ten thousand years of history suggest otherwise.

Whether art shapes life or life shapes art is debatable, but the fact that they’re inseparable is not.

From the myths of Greece and India to the plays of Shakespeare to the songs of West-African griots to the verses of the Quran to the wails of the American slave, culture and identity have been in constant waltz with the spoken word. Whether art shapes life or life shapes art is debatable, but the fact that they’re inseparable is not. Civilizations grow through their stories, poems, and songs. If you truly want to understand a culture, turn to its stories.

Abel tells stories.

 

So who is Abel? And why should you care?

Abel is the kind of historical prophet who defines the course of civilization. He reforms language, develops values, and spawns a new collective conscience. He is the Shakespeare, Chanel, Kafka, Warhol, and Michael Jackson of the modern age.

You think I’m exaggerating. But hear me out.

The third song on Lama’s list was “The Weeknd – Might Not”. Abel says:

“Everybody ‘round me sayin’ I should relax
‘Cuz I’ve been goin’ hard ‘til my eyes roll back
But all I wanna do is forget about my past
And smoke a little weed, really nothin’ too drastic…”

That sounds about right. Sounds a lot like the “new generation”. He continues:

“When the sh*t’s too strong, the night’s too long
I took too much and I’ve gone too far
And I might not make it…
This time I might not make it…”

Wow. Sounds A LOT like the “new generation”—a whole population that “might not make it”!

The next song was called “Starboy”. From the very outset I was confused.

“…P1 cleaner than your church shoes, ah
Milli point two just to hurt you, ah
All red Lamb’ just to tease you, ah…”

What the hell is he talking about? With some research (and I mean RESEARCH. Authentic literary academic study. It’s deep, intelligent stuff) I was able to grasp the general meaning of this song: Abel has it all, from money to cars to women. He is the epitome of social success. Yet he dwells in a “house so empty need a centerpiece.” His address to the world: “Look what you’ve done.”

Previous generations admonish the “new generation” as a population with no values. But what we REALLY mean is that they don’t have OUR values.

And that’s when it hit me: Abel’s music isn’t just entertainment. His work encapsulates perhaps the most significant component of this generation gap: values.

Previous generations admonish the “new generation” as a population with no values. But what we REALLY mean is that they don’t have OUR values.

But they have values. And this world could use a few of them.

Just as the tales of Beowulf, Genji, Jesus, Sita, Muhammad, Jake Barnes, Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Harry Potter shaped the values of their generations, The Weeknd is shaping the values of his. Values like accepting ourselves and others without judgment:

“The hills have eyes
Who are you to judge?” –“The Hills”

Like independence, self-reliance, and hard work:

“Only losers go to school
I taught myself how to move
I’m not the type to count on you…
And now that we’ve gone this far
Who do we owe it all to?
We did it on our own…” –“Losers”

Like facing our vices—though hedonistic—and accepting them:

“I can’t feel my face when I’m with you,
But I love it…” –“Can’t Feel My Face”

Though paradoxically, escaping fear and pain through substance use:

“I switch up my cup, I kill any pain…” –“Starboy”

Like being “real” with who we are, hideous as we may be:

“I only love it when you touch me, not feel me,
When I’m f***ed up, that’s the real me…” –“The Hills”

And seeking materialism over humanity and spirituality:

“We don’t pray for love, we just pray for cars…” –“Starboy”

The point is, The Weeknd and his countless talented contemporaries have spelled out the philosophies of this new generation. And to suggest that these youth “have no values” is absurd. They know very well what their values are, whether profound (acceptance, equality, self-reliance, and non-judgment) or base (YOLO hedonism, material excess, and entitlement). So rather than dismissing our youth as “stupid”, let’s instead LISTEN to how they plan to approach the next thirty years of life.

Given the current state of the world, we could use some fresh ideas.

  1. Wonderful and blunt … let it be heard!

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