Punk Rock and the Millennial Search for Meaning

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Six years ago my bandmates and I sat stranded in a broken down van on the Jersey side of the Holland Tunnel. Though we were nearly 2,500 miles away from our home in Northern Nevada, we naturally assumed that this was just another small bump we would have to endure on our way to rock and roll stardom. After failed attempts at getting a tow truck during rush hour, we slowly came to terms with not being able to make our Manhattan concert that evening. Yet, being the aspiring rockstars that we were, our slightly hopeful arrogance kept us in good cheer. Our only regret that afternoon would be that, for publicity’s sake, we did not break down inside of the tunnel. We figured that the attention we would have garnered in having broken down inside of the Holland Tunnel during NYC rush hour would have been worth a few thousand upset New Yorkers.

When I reminisce about those days I wonder just what we were doing out there. A relatively unknown rock band with its members ranging between late teens and early twenties sounds nothing short of a party on wheels—which at times it was. Our music was fun, yet forgettable. We were in search of that perfect experience we all grew up hearing about in the songs we listened to and the bands that we idolized. Whether it was the catchy and expletive-laced phrases of a Blink 182 song, a musical ballad from Brand New, or the cleverly placed lyrics in a Third Eye Blind track; these bands and their songs, among others, told us for years that our angst would eventually be put at ease. According to them, the easiest way to obtain these experiences would be in avoidance of the burden of expectation. Life should consist solely of seeking the next emotional high or experience that would surpass the previous one.

For those of us who are roughly between the ages of 18-35, to give you a post-modern inversion of Saint Augustine, many of us would simply say that, “our hearts are restless until they rest in the next experience.” After all, we were constantly being told that the life of a working adult consisted of dull responsibilities and nagging family obligations. Blink 182’s track, What’s My Age Again?, told us that, “no one likes you when you’re twenty-three.” So, why get older? Brand New’s anthem, Soco Amaretto Lime, proclaimed that we were going to, “stay eighteen forever / So we can stay like this forever.” Therefore, the picture was clear: stay young forever. The experiences, while perhaps not a comprehensive list, consisted of a loving relationship, an unforgettable moment, and/or a night of inebriation.

Although rock music was not the only instigator of youthful rebellion—movies, TV shows, and broken families all played their part. What made the music attractive to us was the accessibility. We could listen to it in the safety of our rooms, on our headphones, in our cars, and at the summer’s Warped Tour. To our impressionable young ears, this music told us that we would eventually meet the one person who would serve as the pinnacle of happiness and fulfillment of love. Oasis’ hit, Wonderwall, reassured us that this person would, “be the one that saves me.” Yet, love also must be accompanied by repeatable and unforgettable moments.

The music that my band wrote modeled this style. The highest good in life would be finding the ultimate experience, therefore, with our clever melodies and catchy hooks we attempted to encapsulate this. Yet, in its essence, this music is utilitarian. It focuses only on the individual’s pursuit of gratification and how any means to achieve this is viable. Unlike the minstrels and troubadours of old—who largely received inspiration from their foundations of chivalry and the Four Last Things—our inspiration was rooted in self-obsession. Hence, most of the rumors you have heard about touring rock bands are true. The sleepless nights get old but the concerts are fun. Each day you wake up in a new city and temptation is always present. The groupies are there, the availability of drugs, too. From hot-boxed venues in Portland to roadside acoustic sets in Philadelphia; we were really attempting to live the life.

Yet, even though I was surrounded by all of this, I was still waiting to experience the one end-all venture that would still my longings and bring me fulfillment. In hindsight, it must have been sometime between our San Francisco and Phoenix concerts where things slowly started to change for me. After being unable to find a bandmate when he disappeared with a tipsy blonde gal in San Francisco and nearly being puked on at a large house concert in Phoenix, I started to come to the realization that perhaps my search for fulfillment may never end.

If there is any credit to be given in this, then it is in the said generations’ potential to be thriving Platonists. Many of us simply live for the pursuit of the ultimate Form of an experience. The trouble is, as anyone decently versed in Plato can tell you, that these Forms are unattainable on this side of the Realm. Herein lays the problem: the human inability to grasp that which cannot be possessed. Attempting to fill our universal longing for the infinite with the finite has never satisfied anyone. Therefore, unknowingly in quest for this ultimate Form of experience, the hook-ups gain frequency, the unforgettable moments become ones that need to be out done, and the parties become wilder.

When uncontrollable freedom is expected to fill the infinite abyss of the human person, not only will you get sex, drugs, and rock and roll (and probably an STD, anti-depressants, and a broken heart), but you will also get nihilism which is the prevailing view where the morals, values, and dignity of the human person are all lost and with it an absence of a metaphysical foundation. There are no ultimate truths. Over time, what this nihilism brings is a personal sense of meaninglessness that is due to the inability to find meaning in the sex, drugs, and any other promise made by a punk rock song. Thus, all of the experiences that were thought to fulfill have only left the person more empty and lonely than before.

In chapter one, book three of The Confessions, we encounter St. Augustine as he enters the city of Carthage. It is here where he comes to the realization that in his wild young adult life it was not love of another he was after, but rather he was in love with love; the Form of love. “I loved to love,” he proclaimed. “I searched about for something to love, in love with loving and hating security.” Augustine had personified eros and this was the highest good that he sought. He had no beloved that made any sort of demand upon him. He was in love for the sake of love, for the sake of the feeling, for the sake of the experience.

Before this realization, and ultimately his conversion, he was not set on giving himself away for another. And here is arguably the epidemic of my generation: we are in love with eros. We are in love with the experience and all of the feelings that come along with it. Yet, this love is not one that demands and expects from us, instead it is a perversion of love that is uncommitted and solely seeks pleasure. So, if one is going to live in a perpetual state of adolescence, it should come as no surprise to find that your only company are youthful Augustines with a hatred for security and submerged in a meaninglessness brought about by nihilism.

Being the Neoplatonist that he was, St. Augustine was able to notice the universal human longing for the transcendent. It was in this recognition that he realized his longing and search for the Form of experience was not something that would ever be filled by copious amounts of sensual pleasure and electric guitars. Rather, it was a longing that could only be filled by something infinite. His—and everyone’s—search for fulfillment is only given direction when he recognized that this infinite longing was found in God. So, now let’s set the record straight and reinvert St. Augustine’s most famous phrase: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, Oh Lord.” Accordingly, in the midst of the meaninglessness we feel, perhaps this can serve as the template for the way out of it.

It is only in recognizing our inability to fulfill our deepest longings ourselves that we will ever begin to fill them. Once accepted, this is something that will take time to develop and habituate. There may even be moments where we will need to sit uncomfortably and wrestle with the meaninglessness brought about by nihilism. Acknowledging our longing for transcendence gives us hope that we do not have to succumb to meaninglessness. Instead, it shows us that we have such deep caverns in the very depths of our being that can never be fulfilled by anything created. This realization, and ultimately our conversion, is where we will catch glimpses of the Divine, in all its mysteries, and the nihilism will lose its hold.

Later along in our tour we rolled into Cleveland and sitting there near the shore of Lake Erie is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. It seemed to be taboo for us not to visit. So, there we went. While strolling around those dim shrines that afternoon I was overwhelmingly unimpressed. The altars to The Rolling Stones and The Doors sat perched in all their pomp and glamour. Yet, so were the sad stories of the infamous deaths of past rockstars: Kurt Cobain, Jimmy Hendrix, AC/DC’s Bon Scott, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison. Though this does not tell the fate of every rockstar who has reached the peak of fame, it does show that the attempt to be fulfilled by sex, drugs, and rock and roll will only deepen the meaninglessness. It also explains why your dad’s old favorite band has again reunited for one more final tour.

I left the Museum early that day. I walked alone and directionless up the street in downtown Cleveland. It was then that I stumbled upon the open doors of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. There on the altar stood the monstrance enclosed around our Lord who remained hidden and humble in a small white host. Nothing glamorous; no smoke machines or light shows, just a simple beauty, ever ancient and ever new. I sat there in the quiet and still for some time. And looking back, this was my moment of realization. Though I no doubt still have my moments that need work, I left my pre-conversion Augustine days in the Cathedral that day. So, when the punk rock bands, nostalgic sing-alongs, and search for experiences leave one wanting for meaning, know that the longing for the infinite and transcendent can be found; and because of this, there is reason to continue hoping amidst the meaninglessness.

Editor’s note: Picture above is Kurt Cobain (1967-1994), lead singer of the popular alternative rock band Nirvana, playing his guitar.

Patrick Klekas

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Patrick Klekas is a third-year Theology and MA student at St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park, CA.

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