Know your place B o o m e r

“Know your place B o o m e r”. K of Colorado posted this comment to me/us on Facebook regarding our most recent video Broken Promise Land. I immediately wondered, what does this comment mean? What is the boomer’s place these days, in particular for someone like K, who appears to be in his late teens or early twenties?

In June I ran a Facebook promotion of this video to a broad spectrum of folks across the US for three weeks or so, and I was surprised (and a bit disheartened) by the reactions. Maybe a lot of people liked the video, but most of the comments, like K’s, were pretty negative. Here’s a sampling:

“Wow, did that suck. New hit song by the whining libtards”
”Oh boy... another boomer virtue signaling me about politics. How about you mend your broke ass music...”
”Worst song I think I have ever heard.”
”Terrible!”
”No”
”NO!”

Some of the comments were targeted at the music, some at the lyrics (or visuals), and some at all of the above. M offered this: “Our promised land is not broken ,it’s the same or better than ever. The only thing broken is people’s will to go get what you want out of life. People wanna sit on their ass and wait for government to just give it to them , and then bitch when they realize you actually have to work for it . It’s truly sad .”

And J rewrote some of the lyrics:

“Three generations, I have watched us go to hell.
Back in my day.... Democrats were swell.
Trump was elected and, now were getting well.
Liiiiiiiiving, in a promising, promise land.”

Not all of the comments were negative (“Like the lyrics“), but the vast majority were extremely so. And, as near as I can tell, all of the negative comments were from white men. It’s certainly not a statistically significant sample of US Facebook users, but it does seem like I struck a nerve among a certain slice of the populace, although maybe not the nerve I might have been aiming for.

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I wrote the song “Broken Promise Land” about two years ago. As with many of my songs, I’m not clear about how the concept came about, but at some point I knew that the song would, in some simple, maybe simplistic, way, try to articulate what I see as a shared sense of disappointment and frustration with the current state of affairs in the country. It was to be one modest attempt to find some common ground in an increasingly polarized country and public dialog. (Two years later the situation is maybe even worse than it was then.)

The first verse is told from the point of view of someone whose family has been in the USA for multiple generations and is having increasing difficulty paying the bills. In the second verse a (more recent) immigrant says that, although they originally had felt welcomed into this country, they are now being made to feel that they don’t belong. I proceed to say that I don’t think this has to be a “zero sum game”, and I take a couple of potshots at politicians. And, yes, I do make a somewhat snarky reference to “building walls”, although I meant it to be as much about our being pitted against each other as about Trump’s border wall. And I don’t really offer up any concrete solution; I’m more just trying to get folks to remember and rally around our shared values.

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I’ve always loved that the Declaration of Independence lists as our unalienable rights “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The “pursuit of happiness”! I think that’s both very cool and very wise. It doesn’t prescribe what makes any one individual happy. Instead it elegantly stipulates that we should all be free to figure that out for ourselves. How great is that?

At some point in the gestation of the song and its arrangement, I “heard” (in my head) a hint of a melody that would be sung during some instrumental parts of the song, with no words, maybe doubled by guitar. This melody would have the quality of something one might hear in India, or maybe the Middle East. Some years ago I had discovered the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a Pakistani singer who sang a kind of music called Qawwali. Then I found that the great slide guitarist Derek Trucks had covered my favorite of NFAK’s songs, Maki Madni, not once but twice on his solo albums. As a Southerner and huge fan of the early Allman Brothers Band and of Duane Allman’s slide playing, which looms large in Derek’s playing, I felt that this shared attraction to Qawwali and to this particular song wasn’t an accident. Combining singing in this style with Broken Promise Land’s kind of “drone-y” American rock, while of course a clear mix of elements from disparate cultures, made perfect musical sense to me. A musical melting pot, one might say.

Anyway, I reached out to a few friends who might know of a Qawwali singer in the NYC area, or at least someone who might sing in a related style. I was introduced to Fawzia Afzal-Khan, a Pakistani-born tenured professor of English and the director of the Women and Gender Studies Program at Montclair State University, in New Jersey. She has also trained as a vocalist in the North Indian Classical tradition. I proposed to Fawzia that she provide some vocals on the song. Happily Fawzia liked the song and the project, and we got together at her home to discuss how it might work. In the end she improvised the wonderful vocal parts you hear in the song. And she appears prominently in the video. A musical melting pot, one might say.

Not long after we recorded Broken Promise Land for our debut album, I had an idea for a video, one with fast cuts among a widely diverse group of people lip-syncing to the lyrics — a visual rendering of the shared sentiments expressed in the song. I tabled the idea while we focused on possibly more catchy songs, but eventually I decided that the video needed to be made. I collaborated with Dana Schechter, the same animator with whom we worked on the I Thought We Had a Deal video, and I produced and cast and directed the video myself — a huge stretch for me. Ideally we would have had many more lip-syncers — exhibiting much more diversity — but I’m still quite proud of the end result. (Dana also created a very nice “credits reel” with shots of the actors in the green screen studio, which you might enjoy.) So after all this time and work, I decided to promote the video on Facebook.

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My first request to promote the Broken Promise Land video on Facebook was rejected (“disapproved”, that is, leaving me feeling a bit scolded — What did I do wrong?). I have promoted lots of videos and events on Facebook ever since Storytown’s inception in 2017, and this is the first time any promotion was “disapproved”. I guess, in retrospect, you could say that I am a bit willfully naive; I was well aware that the Broken Promise Land song and video express ideas and a point of view that relate to the current political debate and climate, But, still, I hadn’t thought of my promoting the video as qualifying as one of those ads that Facebook was talking about in April of last year when they said this:

Last October, we announced that only authorized advertisers will be able to run electoral ads on Facebook or Instagram. And today, we’re extending that requirement to anyone that wants to show “issue ads” — like political topics that are being debated across the country. We are working with third parties to develop a list of key issues, which we will refine over time. To get authorized by Facebook, advertisers will need to confirm their identity and location. Advertisers will be prohibited from running political ads — electoral or issue-based — until they are authorized.

In addition, these ads will be clearly labeled in the top left corner as “Political Ad.” Next to it we will show “paid for by” information. We started testing the authorization process this week, and people will begin seeing the label and additional information in the US later this spring.

Thus, the Broken Promise Land video promotion had been flagged as “electoral or issue-based”. So when the promotion was disapproved, I fell into Facebook’s new vetting process, intended to authorize “advertisers” of political ads. I first had to upload a scan of my US passport to prove my citizenship, and then I waited to receive a letter sent to my US mailing address:

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Then I went online and entered the code to confirm that I am not a Russian bot, and finally I was required to supply some disclaimer text explaining who paid for the ad to those Facebook users who would see it. I guess I do in fact feel some comfort that Facebook has instituted this policy and process, even though at first Facebook’s “disapproval” was a bit jarring. (Their policy launched in the US in May 2018, and this year, 2019, they have expanded it to include ads placed in additional countries. Many of you have likely been following this a bit more closely than I have.)

I have wondered how my promotion was flagged as “electoral or issue-based”. Was it AI, and in any case what features of the promotion triggered it? The video’s promotional text said “Time to come together and mend our broken Promised Land.” While this was maybe a bit cheesily earnest, it on the other hand didn’t seem to express a particularly clear political message. Facebook explains their process here, saying

All ads are reviewed before they're shown on Facebook through a combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and human review. We check an ad’s images, text and positioning as well as the content on an ad’s landing page against our Community Standards and Advertising Policies.

Facebook attempts to identity ads with “content that takes a position on or advocates for or against social issues, as well as ads that are focused on policies or reform related to those issues.” They provide country-specific lists of what are currently considered “social issues” here. For the US, the list includes about 20 specific issues, and I suppose Broken Promise Land does indeed touch on a few of them, e.g. “immigration” and “values”. Ok, so I guess I have to own it: The Broken Promise Land song and video do contain content that takes a stand on a social issue - or two.

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Once the video promotion got rolling, a slow stream of negative, sometimes very negative, comments began to appear. At first I felt a little jolt of trepidation each time Facebook alerted me to a new comment, fearing that it would be negative. After a while I began to assume that every new comment would be negative, so I did get a bit numbed to the effect. But I have always struggled with a lack of confidence in my musical abilities, so the negative comments about the music itself stirred up some of those old feelings (“Go back to day job”, “Worst song I think I have ever heard”, “Terrible music”). Maybe the music is dated or not some folks’ cup of tea or something, but I don’t think it’s actually terrible — I mean I guess I don’t think that.

I have to admit I wasn’t completely surprised that some people would react negatively to the video and its message, but the intensity and near consensus of negativity was surprising nonetheless. A friend of mine said he had turned off commenting for a post of his since the comments just made him feel bad and didn’t seem to serve any constructive purpose. I considered doing the same, but some part of me wanted to continue to gauge the reactions. I was also tempted, many times, to respond with some snarky response to one of the posts. But this seemed a fleeting and cheap thrill that would serve no purpose, and I didn’t think “poking the bear” was necessarily a good idea in any case.

But it was hard to ignore all the comments. So, after much thought, I decided to message some of the posters directly and propose to have a conversation about why they disliked the video so much. Here’s what I said:

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I sent this to about a dozen of the especially negative posters (while still worrying about poking the bear). Most never replied, and nobody wanted to talk on the phone. But a handful answered back, and our exchanges were fascinating. Here’s an example of a first exchange with M (my responses are in blue):

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I followed up with M and ultimately with most of the others with a more specific question:

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And here is mine and M’s resulting exchange:

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In his original comment Q said this: “You’re generation should have fixed it then... quit baiting hate.” Here’s his response to my question about the “message”, along with my replies:

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And here’s an interesting interchange with J:

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I don’t want to speak for others or oversimplify what is clearly a very complex political and cultural landscape, but for me the final exchange with J captures some of what some (maybe mostly white and male) disaffected folks are feeling:

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And what about K, whose “Know your place B o o m e r” so pointedly assailed my own role in all of this? He had a lot to say, so to conserve space I’ve transcribed our exchange here:

K: I wouldn’t be okay with a phone call no, sorry.I don’t feel comfortable giving my number out to strangers. I can message here though.The post was meant to be a shitpost. Just a joke. But there was some criticism to it. I find it ironic when older people attempt to understand the problems that are plaguing the youth in American. Given that they were the ones who often actively contributed to it. It’s something I personally have to deal with a lot. It’s gotten to the point where I’m just generally dismissive towards it without any real thought. It’s not an excuse though and I’m sorry I was rude to you. I try and make music as well and I know it’s hard when other people are jerks on your work. It was thoughtless and I do apologize. If I had to give any actual criticism though, it’d be a few things. One would be your message, it doesn’t feel like you are actually attempting to say anything. It’s not very clear. Some of it is outdated as well for example saying the jobs dried up. The issue isn’t a lack of jobs it’s the lack of worth jobs have, in that the monetary return from them isn’t worth the work. Also saying something like we lost the American way. This country has never been better than it is now. It’s always had the issues we are currently facing. It’s just that the mainstream public has actually started to discuss it. There’s nothing to go back to, the only reason people ever thought America was the golden standard was because everyone was looking at it through rose tinted shades. The only really decent part about it was the economy which didn’t last long. Other than that we’re behind on everything else compared to most third world countries. We took way too long to legalize gay Marriage for example, there still isn’t equal pay for women and trans people basically have no rights at all. Second would have to be the style of music. It sounds like something that would’ve come out of the Vietnam war era. I don’t know who your target audience is but if it’s the youth you are trying to talk to I don’t think it will appeal to a younger audience. Finally I found the ending to be really jarring. It really in my opinion didn’t fit well with the rest of the song. I can see what you were going for but it didn’t really land. The song as a whole feels kind of odd tone wise and like it really doesn’t understand the issues it’s trying to portray. In summary it feels somewhat outdated. That’s not to say there isn’t any positives though. The music itself was well mixed and sound quality was good. The video was well shot and edited. You yourself definitely look like you walked right out of clearance Creedence Clearwater revival or any band that would’ve played rock during the 60’s and 70’s which is a cool look. I think the attempt at sending a message was worth it. Despite being a little confused and for a smaller music group I think it’s something you should definitely be proud of. My advice would be try and talking to more younger people, ask them about their opinions facing them today and I think you’ll get a much more, earnest and current idea of the issues that America currently has, as most of them don’t really effect older generations who have already gone through school for example, or settled down or had a steady job. That’s not to say no one who’s older understands but it definitely seems to be in the minority. Again I’d like to say sorry if I upset you, what I said was mean. It’s easy to just respond with the first thing that comes to mind online

GUY: Thanks for the lengthy thoughts and feedback. I'll definitely try to talk to more people. You're not the only one to suggest that we boomers helped to create today's problems, so maybe I shouldn't be writing lyrics like this. It's not clear what my "place" is, though ("Know your place B O O M E R"). Are you saying that we've had our time, so we should just get out of the conversation?

K: It does feel that way sometimes yeah. It feels the majority of the time having a productive conversation with the boomer generation never goes anywhere. Many are hard headed and are unwilling to listen or change. They list off the basic millennial stereotypes (even though I’m not even a millennial I get lumped in with them) such as we’re lazy entitled we have more opportunity we’re too sensitive, not enough life experience etc. it goes on and on. And that’s not to say the stereotype doesn’t ring true sometimes. There are definitely people in my generation that do fit some of those. But generally I find that the older generation is what tends to fit what most people see them as more often than not. It feels very unproductive most of the time. That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions. Like I said earlier after watching the video and listening a few more times I think you have the right idea. Just not enough information on what the issues are and who it’s affecting. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be writing these lyrics. Who am I to stop you? I’m just some jerk on the internet. I hope what I said doesn’t stop you from continuing to try. It is nice to see someone older at least make an attempt to understand what’s currently going on. Genuinely.

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What to make of all this? I can share some thoughts and reactions. First, it’s way better to be talking to folks versus just taking potshots from inside our respective bubbles. I admit that I spend way too much time in my bubble, and my being coaxed out of it to engage with the posters was refreshing and illuminating, to say the least. In contrast to my initial impressions of the posters, driven by their comments, I ended up liking all of them once we got going on real interactions. I would happily have a beer with any one of them, and I hope they feel the same about me.

Second, from the flame wars of the 80’s to today’s Reddit and other sites, folks will say all kinds of things (and in all kinds of ways) online that they would rarely say in person. The effect can be to amplify or exaggerate differences, and more often than not it doesn’t help matters.

Many of the posters had what seemed to me to be knee-jerk reactions to certain elements of the Broken Promise Land video: M’s comment that “Maybe the negative feedback is because of the obvious diversity”, or that simply by saying the country is “broken” I’m being inappropriately negative, or folks think I’m just plain wrong.

Finally, and following on the last couple of points, I might argue that the online world not only enables but encourages potshots and the lobbing of “grenades” from one bubble into another (if and when we bother to engage with other bubbles at all). You might point out that I effectively lobbed a grenade out into other bubbles just by promoting to a wider audience a video that I am proud of and wanted to share, irrespective of the viewer’s interest in it. That’s to some degree true, I guess. I don’t have (nor do I seek) a technical solution to any of this; maybe instead I’ll just restate what C said about what, sadly, is more and more the harder thing: “We should all just speak like this instead of yelling at each other and mob/riot one another.”

(You can check out the original comments on the video yourself here.)

Let us know what you think about all this. As always, and especially to everybody in this story, thanks for listening.

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Guy Story