If you had told me in 2010 that in six years I would spend my Saturday nights watching a documentary on a musical about Alexander Hamilton or cheering its star Lin-Manuel Miranda as he hosted SNL, I would have scoffed at you. I was in high school when a friend showed me the video of the Pulitzer Prize-winning star performing at the White House for the Obamas, rapping about the life of Alexander Hamilton. I had been raised on 1776 and was consequently a loyal John Adams girl.
“I’m not into it,” I told her. “‘Bastard son of a scotch peddler and a whore’—you know John Adams said that, right? Hamilton was this self-made nobody who went on to centralize the government and make people like him poor. He sucks.”
Though retaining deep affection for John Adams, I’ve since eaten my words—and enjoyed every bite. I listen to Hamilton everywhere I go: in the shower, at work, in the car, on a run. I find myself working, writing, and running like Hamilton; I enter that data, write that cover letter, finish that mile as though the fate of the nation depends on it.
In many ways, Hamilton reminds me of another non-stop born runner and all-American immigrant dreamer: Bruce Springsteen. Whenever I’m not jamming to Hamilton on my jogs, I’m trying to figure out what a “tenth avenue freeze-out” actually is.
I’m sure I’ve lost most of you with that comparison. Hamilton is the hottest, hippest millennial hit; Bruce Springsteen is balding, baby boomer belting. Sure, he fills stadiums, just like Hamilton fills theatres, but it’s mostly middle-aged white dudes swilling BudLites and awkwardly shimmying to “Glory Days.” Plus, Hamilton repeatedly fertilizes on the Garden State, something that the jongleur of Jersey simply would not abide.
Hear me out, if only for your old man’s sake. Springsteen and Hamilton both arrived at a crucial moment in American history. In the early 70s, twentysomethings sneered at the false promises of Vietnam and the failed hopes of the 60s social revolutions. The same holds true of the world we millennials inherited: instead of successfully spreading democracy and boosting the economy, the Iraq War left many of us feeling hopeless and jobless. In both cases, the more critical, ironic distance gained from American imperialist stupidity, the better.
And then, against all odds and expectations, Springsteen and Hamilton thundered onto the scene. Young, scrappy, and hungry, neither had any patience for the disaffection and stalling—or indeed, any patience at all. Both are utterly lacking in “chill.” In her 2015 article in the Washington Post, Alexandra Petri celebrates Hamilton as bringing “the end of irony.” “Irony,” she declares, “has held us in its stifling tendrils long enough. We’ve exhausted so much effort trying to look like we’re not making an effort.” Hamilton, according to her, “has wasted no time trying to act as if it does not care…It’s not image-conscious. It’s genuinely passionate. And this is the source of its cool.”
That boundless energy also characterizes the Boss. Springsteen croons, yelps, grunts, and rasps. His concerts last over four hours; his songs number in the hundreds; his career spans four decades. “The man,” to quote Hamilton, “is non-stop.” And yet it is precisely this earnestness, energy, and eagerness that has lead millennials to reject him, per E.J. Dickson’s 2013 assessment in Salon: “I’m not going to proffer an in-depth sociological explanation for this sweeping wave of Bruce hatred, because I think ‘a widespread generational embrace of postmodern irony accompanied by a universal rejection of all that is honest and genuine and sincere pretty much says it all.” If both of these authors are correct, there’s some deep hypocrisy at work here, and it deserves investigation. How can we reject Springsteen for his sincerity, and yet embrace the same qualities in Hamilton?
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