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Cloud Yells at Old Man

Neil Young has sown the wind, and he shall reap the whirlwind.
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Everybody’s mad about illegals this week. A whole mess of ’em are massed on the southern border, and Biden’s ICE has apparently opted for the “take all the young, unvetted single men and ship them around the country on the taxpayers’ dime” solution to the crisis. But what’s really got people fired up is a border-jumper from the north, an Ontario native who pawned his band’s equipment in Toronto after the frontman was arrested for going AWOL, then used the proceeds to buy a Pontiac hearse he drove to Los Angeles where he worked for half a decade before finally getting around to getting a green card.

Everybody’s mad about Neil Young.

On Monday the aging rocker published an open letter to Spotify, the audio-streaming giant, demanding that it remove either his entire catalogue or Joe Rogan’s popular podcast. With an endearing mix of boomer sincerity and senescent cluelessness, Young announced: “I want you to let Spotify know immediately TODAY that I want all my music off their platform. I am doing this because Spotify is spreading fake information about vaccines—potentially causing death to those who believe the disinformation being spread by them.” He delivered an ultimatum: “They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.”

The Godfather of Grunge, bless his heart, seems to have overvalued his social capital. Though the letter was taken down not long after posting (Young seems to have realized that he did not actually own the distribution rights to his music) a new one thanking Warner Bros.’ Reprise Records (who do) for their support in the move was published Wednesday. Young’s 40-odd albums vanished from Spotify that evening.

The king is gone but he’s not forgotten.

The choice was fairly obvious for Spotify. Neil Young had just over 6 million monthly listeners on the platform; Rogan has about 11 million per episode. Though its details are not public, the platform’s exclusive licensing contract for the Joe Rogan Experience was reported to be upwards of $100 million. Spotify was much more valuable to Neil Young than the inverse—providing about 60 percent of his streaming revenue, as the musician admitted in the second open letter. Business is business.

(Young has a habit of picking losing fights. A friendly feud with Lynyrd Skynyrd in the era of George Wallace hardly went his way: “Sweet Home Alabama” is still on repeat at every summer party in the country 50 years after its release, while “Southern Man” is played every once in a while by the kind of burnt-out record-store clerk who says he voted for Bernie but really voted for Hillary.)

Of course, there are directives higher than the commercial ones. As I write, I’m listening to Neil Young songs on YouTube (because I can’t listen on Spotify). A comment on one catches my eye, posted the day after Young’s first open letter: “CAPITALISM, is DISENFRANCHISEMENT! / It’s the well-being of one another, that’s TRUELY of worth! / You cannot serve both, GOD and CAPITALISM ! / STAY FREE!” A noble sentiment. “No man can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one, and love the other: or he will sustain the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” So saith Johnny Atoms to his six subscribers.

Upon further reflection, I don’t know if the comment had anything to do with Neil Young. But either way, I’m not sure that’s really what’s happening here. Despite the fact that he signs off his open letter “In the name of Truth, neil young,” it can hardly be said that the conflict here was between capitalism and God—nor even between capitalism and some detheologized Truth. In fact, it’s hard to say what was in conflict: Neil Young (a liberal nihilist whose best artistic work is generally about life being miserable and meaningless and brutal) is mad at Joe Rogan (a meathead existentialist who just lets people talk, and makes a fortune doing it) for not being 100 percent on board with an experimental vaccine that may (or may not) slightly prolong a miserable and meaningless life.

Young and his art typify the boomer ethos and its consequences: Rejecting—even destroying—all traditional sources of value and meaning, then lamenting the meaninglessness that follows, then resolving the problem in an unrelenting, inevitably destructive indulgence of the self. Importantly, this is not a dig against Neil Young the artist; despite being Canadian, that insufferable ancient hippy has an unassailable place in the first rank of American songwriters. But he is an artist of cultural and spiritual death, whose music wallows in a desolation it cannot even bother to escape.

Young is, in some sense, just a cranky old man unable to see that his moment has come and gone (he actually opens one paragraph in the second letter with “These young people…”), lashing out at the culture of the new age and the very realization that the world has passed him by. But he is more than that: an exemplar of a class defined by their inability to grapple with the consequences of their own worldview.

Joe Rogan is something else. I cannot pretend to be an avid listener of the Joe Rogan Experience. (I did watch one of his stand-up specials once; it was not funny.) But I am familiar enough to understand the appeal. Unlike Young and the rest of the boomer mainstream, he’s curious. He invites on people who have something to say, and he does a good job getting them to say it. It need not be explained why this appeals more to a younger generation than “life sucks; I will not be taking any questions” punctuated by killer guitar solos.

It is, in effect, a search for the “Truth” Young himself invokes. But it is a relatively aimless search, which is the problem with Joe Rogan. Three millennia of Western tradition and the wellspring of revealed religion are readily available to him; he opts instead for mushrooms, weed, and chats with Bari Weiss.

The assault on actual orthodoxy leaves a vacuum to be filled, and plenty of things will rush to fill it. (As C.S. Lewis said: “For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.”) For more than a few of Neil Young’s friends that thing was heroin, which did not serve them particularly well. But most boomers turned to less obvious poisons: rationalism, liberalism, and lately the medical religion. Since they know their position is precarious, these pretenders to Truth are jealous in its defense: An underreported detail of this dustup is that Spotify tried to cover themselves by pointing out to the Hollywood Reporter that they had, in fact, “removed over 20,000 podcast episodes related to COVID since the start of the pandemic.”

Neil Young is doing what Neil Young has always done: getting mad about the world he helped to make. This time, the world got mad right back—and just as he could not admit his own hand in making it, Joe Rogan’s world could not admit its debt to him. A few years down the road, only one will still be here. A few years later, neither will.

It’s better to burn out than to fade away. Here’s hoping you were right about that one, Neil.

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