25 Jul LAUREL CANYON, LATE CAPITALISM, AND ME
In our living room, we have a drawer filled with CDs neatly filed away. We have had the same stereo since we moved into our house eighteen years ago that can only rotate six CDs at a time. Given the six-album limit and my dad’s propensity for never tiring of an album no matter how many times we listened to it, there are only a few albums that register from my memories in my childhood home: Greatest Love Songs by Frank Sinatra, Patience by George Michael, Hell Freezes Over by The Eagles, Mi Tierra by Gloria Estefan, Best of 20 Chansons by Charles Aznavour, and Piano Man: The Very Best of Billy Joel by Billy Joel. In the car, we had other albums on rotation: The Emancipation of Mimi by Mariah Carey, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb by U2, and the Chicago (2002) soundtrack; the latter of which mysteriously disappeared for 10 years when both my sister and I were old enough to understand the sexual innuendos that saturated the score.
My mother and her family moved to Montreal in 1976 to escape the civil war in Lebanon. My paternal grandparents moved from Palestine to Montreal in 1968, the year before my father was born. Since my family immigrated to Canada just as the mythic music scene in Laurel Canyon, California was winding down, learning the nuances of the folk and rock scenes was not particularly high on my grandparents’ priority lists. So when I started watching Allison Ellwood’s Laurel Canyon, I was enthralled in a world wholly unfamiliar to me. Separated into two parts, Ellwood painstakingly reconstructs what it was like to live in the Canyon in the ‘60s and ‘70s in the midst of a burgeoning, now-iconic music scene that has left a lasting imprint on the shape of American culture.
Needless to say, I’d never encountered the musicians featured in Ellwood’s documentary before. It was not something we played at family gatherings or listened to on road trips. I hadn’t heard of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young until I saw the CSNY acronym on Twitter a couple of months ago and was deeply confused. Joni Mitchell was a name I was familiar with in passing, but I couldn’t name a single one of her songs. Jackson Browne didn’t exist in my universe until he was introduced in the second episode.
I’d never been enamoured with California as I’ve been with New York. As someone who has never been able to sit still, the fast-paced life of the New Yorker greatly appealed to me. LA was always the artificial, smog-covered beacon on the other coast, not the idyllic haven depicted in Ellwood’s doc. Various musicians take turns calling the winding mountain streets spanning Kirkwood Drive and Rosilla Place the “Garden of Eden” (radio DJ Jim Ladd), an “artistic Shangri-La” (singer Linda Ronstadt), or, as David Crosby states less poetically, “just a better place to live.”
Laurel Canyon uses old footage and pictures paired with musicians’ first-hand accounts to depict an isolated haven, nearly impervious to the problems that plagued the world in the ‘60s. Their only goals were to create and to collaborate in the hopes of playing music forever.
What appeals to me most about the life these musicians led in Laurel Canyon is the sense of agency with which they lived. They wanted to make music and they did. They don’t have anyone to answer to. They’re writing songs during the day, performing at the Troubadour at night. Their lives are simple and straightforward. Their decisions aren’t marred by the notions of financial stability, of what they “ought” to do. This kind of freedom is beautiful, but it’s also an ideology that most students today cannot afford.
If everything goes right, I should be graduating next year. Whenever anyone asks me what I’m going to do, I smile, blink back tears, and say confidently, “I don’t know.” It’s better than lying that I want to work some corporate job, or pretending like I’m going to take a shot at fall hiring and spend hours prep for case interviews, or acting like I’m going to reach out to people on LinkedIn in the hopes of ensuring that I’m financially secure for the rest of my life by the end of the calendar year. I wish desperately that this appealed to me more than anything, but every attempt I’ve made to compromise my own desires has left me half-heartedly spewing corporate buzzwords, wholly disingenuous.
In Anna Weiner’s memoir Uncanny Valley detailing her time working for start-ups in San Francisco, she uses an acronym that both repulsed me and also left me with a weird sense of recognition: DFTC, Down For The Cause. It’s the act of buying in completely to a company’s mission without compromise, no matter the cost. DFTC as an ideology operates on the premise that if you pour yourself into a company, you’ll eventually be rewarded (in the case of Silicon Valley start-ups, that saving grace usually takes the form of an angelic IPO). DFTC in a linguistic sense is one of many examples of what literary critic Molly Young and Anna Weiner call “garbage speak.” They’re referring to the inane words that corporations, especially tech corporations, have developed to describe various facets of their work; parallel path, integrated deck, omni-channel, operationalize, etc. are a few more. Young believes that this fabricated language is “a way of selling our jobs back to ourselves” and “confirms our delusion as an asset in the workplace.” I can’t see myself saying these words as if they mean something, I can’t see myself buying into corporate culture such that it envelops my entire identity until I am merely an extension of the corporation itself.
My education thus far has prepared me for employment with very little emphasis on actually understanding the material being taught. I transferred into engineering after first year because I knew I’d be employed quicker than with a degree in arts or science. I liked math and physics enough to study them for three more years and it kept my options open. In class, we’re being packaged, taught to commodify ourselves in ways unnatural to the process that is supposed to foster personal and intellectual growth. We’ve entered a stage of economic development where, according to political theorist Fredric Jameson, “everything, everywhere, became commodified and consumable”– our own selves included.
This isn’t to say that developing an industry-relevant curriculum is inherently bad. However, an overt emphasis on having a slick, high-paying corporate job because it reflects well on your program and pads your school’s statistics adds undue pressure on young people desperately trying to figure out their place in this world. The margin for error is minimal: if you don’t have something snazzy with which to update your LinkedIn six months after graduation, I’m sorry, but you’re a fucking loser.
When applying to jobs and preparing for interviews, there’s a specific set of rules to follow in order to ensure success. A variation of the phrase, “I’ve always wanted to pursue a career in ____,” needs to be included in your cover letter, the latter being another element that is mandatory if you really want the job even though the likelihood that an employer actually reads it is slim to none. We’re taught to build a narrative in interviews about how our lives have led up to this moment, that this job is a purposeful culmination of our actions. The answer to “Where do you see yourself in five years?” is always “Here, in some mid-level management position.” Everything about this process has an almost dystopian feel and the fact that we’re pipelined into the workforce immediately after graduation is unsettling. My career, or, as my currently unemployed situation indicates, lack thereof, shouldn’t be the defining feature of my life. The fact that I need to pretend that it is, while my interviewer sits across from me, sure that I’m lying, is weird. I need to lie well enough to a potential employer for them to be convinced of something that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
I know I’m lucky to have the freedom to be able to choose what I want to do with my life, a luxury that a lot of other people aren’t able to afford. The fact that I can even think about it long enough to write an essay about is insane, but since I do have the freedom to choose, I want to choose wisely. This isn’t some kind of ‘special snowflake’, ‘I’m not like other girls’ bullshit– I’m, like, actually concerned. I don’t want to participate in institutions that equate “success” with work that takes advantage of marginalized people. I want to stray from working in industries that thrive on inequality and injustice. I’m trying to find the path that leads me furthest away from soul-crushing monotony but doing so has proven to be elusive and stressful and frustrating.
And as much as I want to live a life motivated by these principles, I also want to someday own a house. The ever-increasing cost of living in Toronto is frightening and draining, and unless I want to live in my parents’ house forever, I’m gonna need to find a way to make enough money to support myself. Ultimately, this probably means taking a corporate job that I have a deep-seated aversion to. It means that one day, I’ll probably be in a boardroom saying words that mean nothing to both me and my coworkers, battling with the “…sense that what we’re doing may actually be trivial, that the reward of ‘free’ snacks for cultural fealty is not an exchange that benefits us,” says Young.
Watching Laurel Canyon was joyous and wonderful because it gave me a glimpse of a simple, laid-back existence that could never exist today. I’m jealous of these musicians. No one would question the gaps in their resumes. There are no corporations that they need to dedicate their lives to. There are no billionaires whose pockets grow deeper while stealing from their customers, while their employees suffer. I was enveloped in a world at once unknown and unfamiliar, yearning for a place without the pressure to succeed. It isn’t that I don’t want to be successful. I do, I do so, so bad. But our definition of “success” is flawed. I want room to grow, I want room to fail. I don’t know where I’ll be in twenty years– I don’t even know where I’ll be in a year– but at least I’ll know the decisions I made to get me there were mine.
HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: George Wylesol