Thursday, March 08, 2007

Is “Waiting on the World to Change” Centrist?

John Mayer is a very intelligent songwriter. I was disappointed when I first heard “Waiting on the World to Change.” The title seems to counsel fatalism, or at least passivity. The song argues

“It's not that we don't care,
We just know that the fight ain't fair
So we keep on waiting
Waiting on the world to change”

I was very interested, therefore, in this morning’s interview with Mayer on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.” Mayer contended that telling young people, his generation, what to do is ineffective. “Kids don't even like being talked to like kids anymore.” Therefore his task is to present an idea.

I can go with him halfway, but only halfway. The hectoring tone favored by baby boomer protest songs does seem annoying, if not presumptuous. Still, I think Mayer’s argument, and his song, would be stronger if he presented his idea of what ought to be done about the problem he names. Even couched in layers of “this is just my opinion, I am not telling you what to do,” it seems lame to me to declare that something “ain’t fair” but just leave it at that.

Still, Mayer is good. As he sees it, his job is to “get the ball to the ten yard line.” So I will say that I think, in my opinion (of course), that listeners who agree with him should pick up the ball.


Mark Smith said...

I think you're dismissing a fundamental shift in thought with younger generations.

The baby boomers (and the depression generation before them) were brought up in an atmosphere of hierarchy and control. You did what you did because your parents said so, or you paid for it.

Today's kids (and here I include Generation Y) have grown up in an era of overwhelming choices. They have gotten good at making their own choices from a very young age.

Today, it's not "do what Mom or Dad says or you'll pay for it" but rather "what will happen if I disobey Mom and Dad? Is it worth it?"

The way to exercise any control over this is to convince today's under-30 crowd of your reasons for wanting them to do X. If they agree after weighing the alternatives, they will. We have to give them good choices and the reasoning behind them rather than providing a black and white list of rules and good vs. bad.

And these folks (and Generation X) really are waiting for the world to change. Mainly that's waiting for the Baby Boomers to give up control or die out.

Gruntled said...

I still don't think this adds up to a justification to simply wait for the world to change. Gen X and, to a lesser extent, the Millennials, are "the world" of people with the power to act, especially in this country.

Mark Smith said...

Justification? No.

Understanding of the reality? Yes.

The Boomers just aren't letting go voluntarily. This is not a complaint - just a comment.

Unless you want a 60's style revolution, the X's and Y's are happy to wait. (Actually, the X's and Y's have looked at the 60's as run by boomers, and probably decided NOT to handle it that way.)

Gruntled said...

Hey, I am the guy who turned to his wife in church one Sunday during a boomer sermon that was long on rhetoric and asked "Can't we just pay Gen X to take over now?"

Anonymous said...

I heard the same piece on NPR and I keep asking "So what IS worth fighting for?"

Yes, I'm a boomer AND some things are worth fighting for.

HappyBrownGirl said...

I'm a lurker here and a Mayer fan and I think the perspective Mayer shares in Waiting is privileged and lazy.

I know because I can finally admit that I once kicked my adolescent and collegiate activist fervor to the curb after grad school. I thought: to hell with it, it's all too much. I'll just get married, live in a gated community, enjoy my BMW, teach my future kids some basic social justice issues and let others fight for the impossible by cutting checks for charities at Christmas as a way to make up for actively choosing not to involve myself in social justice issues.

Every now and then (I hate to admit it) I can still identify with the overall perspective in the song that speaks of feeling overwhelmed and useless to the point of being paralyzed into inaction and cynicism because it just seems hopeless that one can really make a difference in a world so jam-packed with entrenched brutality.

However, though I can sometimes sympathize with this viewpoint and can figure that Mayer's a smart guy just trying to figure it all out, I still tend to think the lyrics to this song are flawed because they unintentionally fly in the face of all the people our age (I'm Mayer's age, 29/30) and younger who ARE activists. It also flies in the face of all the historical actions and movements lead by young people and "common folk" under the most wretched of circumstances.

Nothing looked more absolutely impossible than abolishing slavery! Nothing seemed more tiring and overwhelming than abolishing Jim Crow as a way of life! Yet people of all ages and races strove anyway, using the minimum they had in order to engender maximum effect.

I thank God those before me didn't decide to wait for the world to change because it looked "hard to beat the system" or because they knew "the fight wasn't fair." If they had I'd be in serious trouble right now as a black woman! LOL

If I could I would share with Mayer my experience last summer at an intergenerational retreat for black female social justice workers where I had the chance to meet women who fought on the front lines of the civil rights movement.

Yes, we did have some major communication problems between the generations, LOL, but what my generation came to understand was that there is PLENTY of work still left to do all over the place and there's room to get in where you fit in -- even if you have to shimmy in or otherwise get loud. You just have to care enough and as black women we were required to care.

These "more seasoned" sisters told us that while we shouldn't expect to finish the struggle, we were definitely EXPECTED to contribute to it.

That summer experience makes it difficult for me to enjoy listening to Waiting because I am clear that there's really nothing to wait for! There will never be a better time at any time than RIGHT NOW! We are truly the ones we are waiting for, as that ubiquitous saying goes.

I sincerely hope that the confusion expressed on behalf of A SECTION of my generation in this relatively "old" song will one day work itself out in newer songs he writes-- newer songs where he steps up to the plate offering a stronger but equally honest vision about how to be a part of the human community.

PS- The rest of the album, Continuum, is fantastic.

Note: Sorry so long

Gruntled said...

A long note, but a good one. I agree. I don't even think this song's perspective fits with Mayer's position in his other songs. "Daughters" for example, is a superb song about why it is important to act rightly.