As I hope you’ve already forgotten, Billie Eilish was on some late-night talk show recently and said she’d never heard of Van Halen.
Now, if someone—a gabby coworker you got stuck with on the elevator, or that cousin you only see during the holidays who knows you’re “into music”—mentioned that occurrence to you IRL, you’d probably just make some polite noises of acknowledgement and wait for the moment to pass.
Eilish’s comment was, in fact, so unremarkable that nobody really paid it any mind till last Thursday, nearly a week after her appearance, at which point this hyperbolic but hardly incendiary tweet stumbled innocuously onto the internet.
Billie Eilish didn't know who Van Halen was, I'm sobbing. pic.twitter.com/tX6xrs7cIE— Mack (@_Kenziepuff) November 29, 2019
Even that went largely unnoticed until Monday morning. But then, with the apprehension of a trained sailor who can sense a brewing storm, I could see its after-effects rippling through my feed and thought, “Oh great, I guess this is what we’re going to talk about today.”
Good jokes were made. Bad jokes were made. Van Halen was excessively championed and unfairly pilloried. “News” “stories” were formed from aggregated tweets. Wolfgang Van Halen was asked to comment on the affair. Smart people got desperate and tried to express coherent thoughts about the mess such as “Does this say something about cultural memory in the digital age?” And, of course, it does. But nothing we didn’t already know before we all started acting like idiots. Again.
Out of this noise, a conventional wisdom soon established itself: A whole lot of middle-aged rock fans were apparently outraged about Eilish’s obliviousness to Eddie and the boys and they just wouldn’t shut up about it. I say “apparently” because though there was a smattering of condescending tweets, Eilish’s defenders were so much louder. As Andy Cush of Spin put it, “If there is an angry boomer mob, I’m having trouble finding it.”
And so an incredibly obvious statement—it’s OK for a teen not to know a rock band from several decades past—became a righteous battle cry, and somehow the 234th person to make this unnecessary point sounded even angrier than the first.
In other words, Twitter did what it did best—amplified a fringe belief for the sole purpose of rallying against it.
We’ve done this before. Specifically, we’ve slopped through this exact “young person doesn’t know old person music” controversy. But more generally, we’ve regularly participated in collectively creating and enduring the sort of internet event I call “A Celebrity Said A Thing.” A quote—sometimes genuinely objectionable but often trivial—divides social media into stupidly warring camps, and everyone forcefully expresses an opinion they consider essential to the debate not because its interesting or illuminating or even correct but simply because it’s theirs.
The ideal Twitter debate has few if any barriers to entry. And if it’s about any kind of art, it has to center on something you can have an opinion about without actually engaging with the music or movie or book or show that makes the artist newsworthy in the first place. You don’t have to see The Irishman to say whether it’s bad for a movie to be more than three hours long, or complain that a character has too few lines. Sometimes, the less you know, the better off you are: If you’ve never heard Billie Eilish or Van Halen, maybe that just proves your point that it’s not important to know who they are. Anyone can play.
At best, these dustups are annoying, drowning out all other conversations like a handful of argumentative drunks at last call. At worst, they generate a fatalist despair: Maybe people can’t really talk to each other productively about anything. Language is reduced to an element in a meaningless ritual. We perform the same roles again and again. Even complaining about the routine is a role. And even this blog, which I already regret writing and you regret reading, is part of the routine.
Rather than end on that cynical note, though, let me hit you with one of my favorite quotes from the British historian and critic Raymond Williams, who wrote widely and insightfully about the role of communication in democracy.
It might seem like a reach to connect Williams’ frustrations with British political discourse in the early ’60s to my annoyance with idiots arguing about whether it’s essential for the youth of today to know all the words to “Panama.” But the upshot is the same: Either we practice talking to each other and find a way to communicate or we reinforce bad habits that will doom us all. If we can’t learn to talk about the trivial shit thoughtfully, we’ll never be able to work out the serious stuff together.