Van Halen and the New Orthodoxy

Van Halen’s debut record recently celebrated its fortieth birthday. Consequence of Sound featured an article, by Wren Graves, on the record and the culture that made it possible. I was struck by the observation Graves makes that much of the band’s antics at the time wouldn’t be tolerated today.

Late-70’s Van Halen were flamboyant and full of themselves. Some of their higher-profile hijinks are the stuff of legend. In those days, there were a few rock stars that were notorious for trashing hotel rooms. Van Halen took it to the next level and trashed the whole seventh floor of a hotel in Madison, Wisconsin. The band was infamous for their pretentious tour riders demanding a bowl of M&M’s with all of the brown ones taken out. Van Halen’s cocaine and heroin use was well known and just considered part of their persona.

Graves writes about the difference in public perception of such behavior between now and then.

In many ways, the public has become more tolerant than it was in the 1970s, especially in regards to marginalized groups. But it’s interesting to note the ways in which audiences have become less tolerant, too. The rock and roll lifestyle, with its grams and groupies and all its messy grandeur, is no longer quite socially acceptable. Wanton destructiveness is no longer cool; the health and lifestyle choices of the rich and famous are fair game for criticism; and diva demands get you ripped apart on Twitter. All of this goes to show why superstars are more risk-averse today than they were in the ’70s and ’80s: They have to be. In the internet age, mockery is the national pastime and mistakes linger forever.

I personally think the lack of tolerance for such behavior is mostly a good thing. I don’t want to see hedonistic, well-heeled rock stars trashing hotels, glamorizing drug use and marching toward self-destruction under the gaze of impressionable youth. What fascinates me, though, is thinking about the broader cultural trends under which allowed the arena rock bands to engage in such behavior with very little career-damaging repercussions.

When I was in college, in the mid-90’s, a good friend of mine used to complain about his dislike of Christianity, because its tight morality was keeping him restricted from living the life he wanted to live. Since he was living a carefree college lifestyle, regularly getting hammered at bars downtown and occasionally even sleeping with girls he didn’t know, I asked him what Christians were preventing him from doing. He didn’t have an answer to that.

Some say we are now living in a post-Christian era in the US. It’s ironic that, in this post-Christian era, the outrage culture of the internet has created a new moral orthodoxy. In some ways, this new orthodoxy is most restrictive than any religious-based moral code we have seen in recent times. Those who transgress, or step outside of the bounds of what is considered acceptable, find themselves subjected to punishing levels of scorn and derision. All of this is fueled and enabled by a level of technological interconnectedness the likes of which we have never previously seen.


Robert Rackley @rcrackley
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