For the past couple of years, I’ve been listening over and over to the song “Deacon Blues” by Steely Dan. Despite being from the 70s, it was only a recent discovery for me, and the only prior exposure I had to Steely Dan was though the JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure character of the same name.
But it’s a timeless song that has me revisit it on a regular basis and to think about its messages. Its first-person narrative about a guy in the suburbs who dreams of a nightlife of playing saxophone, getting drunk on Scotch whiskey, and dying in a car accident indicates an unease I find reflective of the song’s very specific context: a distinctly white, male, and suburban fear of mediocrity. What strikes me most is that this fear still clearly exists today, and it bleeds heavily into American culture. Whether it’s drug abuse in suburban communities to escape the everyday drudgery or people turning to games to exercise their power fantasies, the general mood of “Deacon Blues” persists.
I’m not white and I’ve never lived in the suburbs, so I can’t directly relate to the malaise and yearning described in “Deacon Blues.” From my perspective growing up in the US, the suburbs were more of a distant dream for hard-working parents to strive for—even if I myself was never a fan of that vision. So as an outsider with respect to white suburban culture (or lack thereof), what I see is a community where people can be in so privileged a position that it creates certain unique challenges which strike at the core of how people define themselves and their success. Fear of mediocrity assumes there’s a safety net that keeps one from falling through the cracks, which is not a luxury everyone has.
Just consider that the white suburban fear of a boring, mind-numbing existence resulting from limited success would be a mere pipe dream for many people of lesser means and fewer opportunities. There’s a saying about how black people don’t go camping because it’s just white people spending lots of money to pretend they’re poor–it’s not that different from what’s being said in “Deacon Blues.” The narrator there is glamorizing a life of pain and struggle because it’s something he can’t have while in his comfortable, repetitive life.
This is not to minimize the effect of suburbs on the psyche–there’s evidence that their strangely sterile construction and layout does affect people negatively. Nor am I trying to trivialize the cultural circumstances that make being a minority in the US a challenge. But I think people in the suburbs (or indeed similar situations) often want something to fight against as a way to stave off a rutterless sense of direction. It leaves many vulnerable to manipulation, as they’re convinced that their “purpose” is to loyally fight for some terrible and often xenophobic cause.
I actually think the general dimensions of these feelings of inadequacy are not exclusive to white American culture. In Japan, for example, the presence of hikikomori (chronic shut-ins) and the recent popularity of isekai (parallel world) fiction both seem to suggest a society where people often feel powerless and directionless. Hikikomori generally have the luxury of being cared for by relatives in a way that makes them seem coddled, but a fear of what lies outside is all too real. Isekai fiction tends to be very heavy on male power fantasy, but it’s a particular kind of fantasy tied to one’s gaming and nerd knowledge. It speaks to a desire to have one’s time and effort validated. There’s even a similarity when it comes to each country’s fight with recession, and the way that both the “lost generation” of Japan and the millennials of the US were forced to notice that the seemingly endless prosperity of their parents’ generation was abused to the point of near-failure.
However, one difference is that the American suburban mood is ultimately tied to a failure to reconcile the American dream’s inherent contradictions within a capitalist society where success and failure are supposed to say something about one’s character. The fear of mediocrity creeps in, taunting minds with notions of “What if I could’ve been more?” And it’ll continue to haunt the suburbs for as long as they remain dull and discouraging towards expression.