What does the late, but still great singer Meat Loaf have to teach us about maturation and mortality? Quite a lot as it turns out.
Americans, Meat Loaf, Maturation, and Mortality
When the great rock album Bat out of Hell was thrust into the market in 1977, I was too young to appreciate its power. It would take years for songs like “Bat Out of Hell,” “All Revved up and No Place to Go,” and “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” to resonate with me. And as for Meat Loaf’s Jim Steinman penned rock opera masterpiece, “Paradise Under the Dash Board Lights,” well, let’s just say in 1977 I barely knew what third base meant in the baseball context.
But when Bat Out of Hell Two was released in 1993, I could appreciate its strength and virtue immediately. I was a young man recently transferred from my home base in Chicago to a city six hours away. This transfer was important because I left behind my first long-term girlfriend, who I was enamored with enough to consider marriage. And that is why “I Would do Anything for Love” resonated.
The song starts with the now patented, expansive Steinman lyrics, a combination of grit and vaulting poetry,
And some nights you’re breathing fire
And some nights you’re carved in ice
Some nights you’re like nothing I’ve ever seen before
Or will again
And maybe I’m crazy
Oh it’s crazy and it’s true
I know you can save me
No one else can save me now but you
As long as the planets are turning
As long as the stars are burning
As long as your dreams are coming true
You better believe it
That I would do anything for love
And as great as those lyrics are, they read like the starry-eyed, dewy love yearnings of a sixteen-year-old male in the first throes of girl-induced obsession. Like those uttered by the boy in “Paradise Under the Dashboard Lights,” who will say just about anything to get to home base, including professing love until the end of time (yes, in 1993, I finally understood the baseball analogy).
But this song, like so many Meat Loaf songs, is not a solo. Instead, it is a duet as sung by Lorraine Crosby (no, the women in the video lip-synced), and the song gives her lyrics that cite holy water and getting hot and all that. But then Crosby’s lyrics harshly veer into an ice bath of reality.
I know the territory
I’ve been around
It’ll all turn to dust
And we’ll all fall down
And sooner or later you’ll be screwing around
Upon which Meat Loaf emphatically sings, No, I won’t do that.
The heroine of this song will not fall for the protestations of timeless love. Unlike the naïve girl in Paradise, this woman has been around. But the boy is different as well.
Suddenly, the boy from the Paradise song who would rather sleep on it exclaims a statement of steadfast commitment. He has grown up. The man now says, with absolute conviction, that he will not let her down. No, men do not do that.
Why the dissertation on the now late, but still great, Meat Loaf? First, the concept of maturation in the sixteen years between the albums. This maturation is notably missing in today’s American culture, especially among young males. And the second part involves Meat Loaf’s death. An acknowledgment of mortality and what that means.
We live in an era in which American culture seeks to keep males locked in a too-long state of boyhood through video games and delayed marriage. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Nebraskan Senator (and historian!) Ben Sasse stated, “Adulting” is an ironic way to describe engaging in adult behaviors, like paying taxes or doing chores—the sort of mundane tasks that responsibility demands. To a growing number of Americans, acting like a grown-up seems like a kind of role-playing, a mode of behavior requiring humorous detachment.
Let me be clear: This isn’t an old man’s harrumph about “kids these days.” I still remember Doc Anderson standing in the street in 1988, yelling at me to slow down as I drove through his neighborhood in our small Nebraska town. I was 16 and couldn’t stand that guy. Years later, when I had my own children, I returned to thank him. Maturation.
What’s new today is the drift toward perpetual adolescence. What’s new is seeing so much less difference now between 10-year-olds and young adults in their late teens and early 20s. A great many factors have contributed to this shift toward perpetual adolescence. The economy has something to do with it, of course—but social and cultural developments do too. The list of culprits includes our incredible wealth and the creature comforts to which our children are accustomed; our reluctance to expose young people to the demands of real work; and the hostage-taking hold that computers and mobile devices have on adolescent attention. Our nation is in the midst of a collective coming-of-age crisis. Too many of our children simply don’t know what an adult is anymore—or how to become one. Perhaps more problematic, older generations have forgotten that we need to teach them. It’s our fault more than it’s theirs.”
Sasse is talking about both sexes, but there is definitely a dichotomy between the aging of boys and girls (I do not have the time to go into the ever-expanding gender definitions for this podcast). One of my favorite statements on this subject came from a professional woman in her 30s who would like to get married and raise a family, but the choices were limited. “The men I date seem far more like the boys I used to babysit than the dads who would drive me home.”
Writing for Salon, Tracy Clark-Flory provides a counterpoint to culture working on these hapless males, “young men are throwing an epic generational tantrum. Such is the argument in Kay S. Hymowitz’s “Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys.” As she tells it, both sexes are putting off marriage and kids until later in life -- but feminist advances have led young women to excel in both academia and the professional world, in many cases far surpassing their male peers. This has left dudes feeling listless, emasculated, and confused about what it means to be a “real man.” Clark-Flory is having none of Hymowitz’s contentions, “Meanwhile, cultural commentators from our parents’ generation continue to tell us that we’re getting it all wrong. But -- from the attack on hookup culture to the call for guys to “man up” -- the generational response is: Did you get it so right?”
Clark Flory has a point. The Baby Boomers pioneered 40-50% divorce rates, single-parent households, and peter pan syndrome. I do not think one needs to be a social scientist that when a young man grows up without an adult male role model in the house, they will fail to mature and may not see the point. Did they get it right? I would argue that no because, like Baby Boom legacies of runaway national debt, they left us with massive challenges and significant societal changes without providing any decent answers.
I would contend that blaming the rise of women in information-based professions hitherto dominated by men as the diminution of men is something of a cop-out. At the core of capitalism is competition, and men should be prepared to compete for the prizes in our system. But what is relevant are two new aspects: that professions previously dominated by men, such as manufacturing, have been increasingly outsourced. If the world were divided into production sectors, the current United States would be the white-collar service side. And the cultural take on traditional masculinity.
The Dispatch writer David French penned the following piece: The APA Can’t Spin Its Way Out of Its Attack on ‘Traditional Masculinity, “Earlier this week, I wrote an extended essay defending traditional masculinity from a frontal attack by the American Psychological Association. The APA has drafted new guidelines for psychological practice with men and boys who declared “traditional masculinity” harmful. According to the guidelines, “traditional masculinity ideology” has been shown to “limit males’ psychological development, constrain their behavior, result in gender role strain and gender role conflict, and negatively influence mental and physical health. So, according to the actual, enduring guidelines (not the public-relations response), “traditional masculinity” actually includes a number of very common, inherent male characteristics. Are boys disproportionately adventurous? Are they risk-takers? Do they feel a need to be strong? Do they often by default, reject stereotypically “feminine” characteristics. Yes, yes, yes, and yes.
Are those things inherently wrong or harmful? Absolutely not. It depends greatly on how a boy is raised — how his traditional masculinity is channeled. In fact, traditional masculinity rejects harmful extremes. A man properly brought up to be traditionally masculine seeks to protect others from those harmful extremes.
In a separate piece, French adds, “We do our sons no favors when we tell them that they don’t have to answer that voice inside them that tells them to be strong, to be brave, and to lead. We do them no favors when we let them abandon the quest to become a grown man when that quest gets hard. Yes, we do them no favors when we’re not sensitive to those boys who don’t conform to traditional masculinity, but when it comes to the crisis besetting our young men, traditional masculinity isn’t the problem; it can be part of the cure.” I will provide more content in a separate content on the nature of work within the United States of today, but it is without a doubt that there is a correlation between changing work patterns and the immaturity of our people, especially men.
Part of the concept of immaturity is the inability to deal with death because, as I seem to remind people in this world of COVID paranoia, we are mortal! I know, big news. But dealing with that concept should be something for the mature to manage. For example, children will be fearful when there is a tremendous thunderstorm or a tornado warning. It is the role of the parent, the adult, to assuage those fears, “It will be alright.”
Now, of course, there is a possibility that lightning may strike the home, or a tornado may arise.
But that possibility, though possible, is highly improbable, and it is the role of the adult not to equivocate. A five-year-old does not need a position or a dissertation; they just want to know that things are ok. Facing the concept of our mortality is what adults do and, as much as possible, keep that concept from children. In our covid fevers and panic, we have abrogated this responsibility. According to the CDC, of the over 800,000 deaths from COVID (2 tenths of a percent of the entire population), child deaths have been 1,000. Pneumonia will take more lives than COVID. And yet we have been masking and distancing and remote learning six-year-olds as if they were the over 65 group, which is actually in danger. This is parents, healthcare providers, and teachers all projecting their fears (or trying to avoid litigation) onto children with detrimental results we will have to manage for years to come. It is backward, and it needs to stop. The protector role of the male has been maligned with this as one of its results.
And what of mortality itself. Descriptions label Meat Loaf or Michael Lee Aday’s death, at 74, as tragic. So can a death, just five years shy of the average time of death for American males, be called a tragedy? Americans have an uneasy time with the concept of death in the early 21st century.
Author Alexi Bajayo, writing a 2018 article on Medium entitled Death and American Society, Why Do we Fear It, states, “before now, death was not feared as much. So, while death is indeed morbid in some cases, why do we as a people fear it so much in the United States when it is both respected and celebrated in festivities in other countries? For example, the Latin American Dia de las Muertos (The Day of the Dead) has become popular due to its beauty. So, when did death become taboo in American society? What have others done about it? Have we come closer to accepting it in recent years?”
Bajayo notes that the fear of death began around the Civil War with the emergence of a new role, the undertaker. “However, when the Civil War struck, death became so common that the need for somebody else to take the stage began to take root. Thus, the position of “undertaker” — a funeral director — came to be. The purpose of an undertaker was to do what the family used to do: embalming, burial, and other funeral responsibilities. They would take care of everything having to do with funerals. This, in turn, took out the intimate time one could spend with their deceased loved ones, and instead left people to brood and think of death more negatively.”
Then there is the celebration of the individual, which is something prevalent in this podcast though Bajayo provides an interesting result from this attitude. The rise of the “independent” and power of the “individual” has become massive in scope and scale, causing it to be a value of American society as a whole. This can even be seen in popular media and films, where an individual often struggles to resist dull and conformist society where homogeneousness is heavily encouraged. The hero instead strives to stand out and be unique. They defy norms because it is better to be an individual than to be one with the crowd. This, in turn, encourages us to stand out alongside numerous ad campaigns and the like. Unlike our fictional heroes, however, we die eventually.”
I would make the dichotomy between the rights of individuals and the celebration of individualism that needs to be provided by the collective. It is not enough for a singer to sing, an artist to paint, or a person to discover a new identity (gender or otherwise) in a Disneyfied world. Instead, society as a whole must celebrate these achievements, even when they are mediocre. And in this group celebration lay a conformist attitude of forced allegiance. The use of pronouns (she, he, her it-whatever) is supposed to identify individual identity. But of course, not doing it marks one not as non-conformist free in their belief system, but instead a bigot who would deny rights, especially trans rights.
But I digress. It is not that we lack depictions of death. Browse the top-selling video game selections, or peruse nightly newscasts, and one will see plenty. But these are distant concepts. Video games are fiction, and newscasts are things that happen to other people. Because we are, you know, mortal, Americans die every day, 7,000 as the sun goes down just today, 2.7 million annually. But we are a nation of 330 million. That means that losing someone we know is less than 1% chance.
We have all lost loved ones; it is a part of life, but not a common part as it was for most of history. And of those 2.7 million, the vast majority were older Americans. Though COVID largely follows these patterns with nearly 3 quarters of all deaths occurring among the elderly, it is represented as death to all, even if the science does not support that contention.
I would posit there is a correlation between the decline of religion and the rise of the fear of death. According to Pew Research, “The religious landscape of the United States continues to change at a rapid clip. In Pew Research Center telephone surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, 65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion, down 12 percentage points over the past decade. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009.”
In many areas of the political discourse, especially on the left, religion (with the exception of Islam) tends to be either dismissed or denigrated. But religion, especially the three Abrahamic religions, answer the big question. What happens when we die? One possible historic trend is a dichotomy between the material success of a place and the prevalence of religion. The no atheist in fox holes concept. But this is not always the case. The rise of the Saudi Kingdom, with the discovery of oil, also led to a rise in Wahabism, one of the trunks of the tree that spawned the likes of Al Qaeda and ISIS. But at its core, the further one gets from religious practice, the less one contemplates the afterlife. I just watched the movie Don’t Look Up from progressive director Adam McKay. It is a clumsy and wasted analogy of climate change featuring a comet hurdling to Earth. I will treat this and several other recent movies in an upcoming podcast but suffice it to say the movie contains comments on the presidency, politics, the media and climate denial. The one missing piece? Religion, in a movie that presents a modern-day Apocalypse, a Greek word that gained fame from the book of Revelation. Because McKay does not consider religion, it is missing from this movie. And as the left controls many of the levers of modern culture, no religion, and thus, death as distant thing.
This is not to say that death is not considered. After all the entire point of climate change is to predict the end of days. But note, that the one tool available to the climate change crowd that could actually work, nuclear, is dismissed. Where do we store the waste? What happens if there is a leak? What about a terror attack? If climate change means the death of us all, these are manageable issues in comparison. They do not really believe in Armageddon, or their deaths. Even the climate crowd does not really consider it.
And so, we are faced again with the prospect of mortality with the death of Meat Loaf. But not mortality as faced by those of the middle-ages nor the prospects of Americans in the mid-1800s who looked at 50 years as the average life span. Part of the reason for maturation was simple. There was work that had to be done and little time to do it. Maturation was forced upon previous generations rather than acceptance due to ever-present reminders of mortality.
This is not all a dissertation on the ills of our society. It is strangely optimistic that a man like Meat Loaf, diagnosed with Wolff Parkinson disease 16 years ago, could live to an age most Americans would not have imagined before the 20th century. We live without fear of armies coming through our towns, food is always available at a nearby store, and COVID paranoia notwithstanding, diseases rarely carry us off. But none of that completely takes the sting out of a death-like Meat Loaf’s, a singer who sang songs that felt like he was talking directly to you like his contemporary Bruce Springsteen.
And that girlfriend of mine? I married her in 1995, still married. There have been times when I wished I were a better husband in terms of listening and empathy. But for the concerns of the heroine in that 1993 song, I followed Meat Loaf’s advice, some of the best I have received. As in the case of Meat Loaf, it is important to deal with death directly, not living in a bubble world or living in fear of our fellow humans. It is what grown-ups do.