Tom Wolfe’s “Me Decade” has come home to roost, and it gave us Miley Cyrus.

Of course, the Hannah Montana star was born 12 years after the 1970s – the “Me Decade” – ended. But with her latest hit, “Flowers,” she has become the perfect poster child for Wolfe’s iconic essay.

On the pages of the August 23, 1976 issue of “New York Magazine,” the famed author observed that, historically, most people “have seen themselves as inseparable from the great tide of chromosomes of which they are created and which they pass on. The mere fact that you were only going to be here a short time and would be dead soon enough did not give you the license to try to climb out of the stream and change the natural order of things.” For this reason, “they have lived as if they are living their ancestors’ lives and their offspring’s lives and perhaps their neighbors’ lives as well.” In other words, they lived with humble communitarianism.

But the “Me Decade,” Wolfe contrasted, had replaced this time-tested outlook on life with “the wicked feeling—the excitement!—of “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a ———! Fill in the blank, if you dare.”

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“They did something only aristocrats (and intellectuals and artists) were supposed to do—they discovered and started doting on Me! They’ve created the greatest age of individualism in American history! All rules are broken! The prophets are out of business! Where the Third Great Awakening [Wolfe’s epithet for America’s rising narcissism] will lead—who can presume to say? One only knows that the great religious waves have a momentum all their own. Neither arguments nor policies nor acts of the legislature have been any match for them in the past. And this one has the mightiest, holiest roll of all, the beat that goes … MeMe … . MeMe . . .”

Today, that song is still being sung – more boldly than even Wolfe could have predicted – but it has new lyrics. The song is called “Flowers,” and it has been topping charts and breaking records since it dropped in January. Miley Cyrus is the singer, but proverbially, all of society is singing along.

The song describes the pop star’s divorce from Liam Hemsworth. However, Cyrus eschews the heartbreak and instead asserts herself and her feigned “self-sufficiency.”

“I can buy myself flowers,” she declares.
“Write my name in the sand
Talk to myself for hours
Say things you don’t understand
I can take myself dancing
And I can hold my own hand
Yeah, I can love me better than you can
Can love me better
I can love me better, baby
Can love me better
I can love me better, baby”

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Granted, this is nothing more than a flowerier rendition of Wolfe’s song: “MeMe … . MeMe . . .”

But more than that, – for a lot of songs these days are worshipful tributes to self – “Flowers” marks a rising bent toward seeing oneself as superior to the whole, the community, rather than as a part of the whole.

Miley Cyrus is one of those people who got out of the stream and decided to shake up the “natural order of things” just because she could. Just because she’s alive. Just because of “Me!

Now she – and all of us – can live life heedless of our ancestors, offspring, and neighbors, or anything else that dare get in our way. Everything must conform to us and our way of doing things.

Noting this trend in 1976, Wolfe wondered where it would lead us. Now we know. The “Third Great Awakening,” made us an idolatrous nation of 330 million gods who divorce, cheat, steal, upend tradition, dress in drag for kids, perform cabarets for toddlers, buy themselves flowers… whatever it takes to satisfy “Me!

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As historian Christopher Lasch wrote in his book “The Culture of Narcissism” (also published in the 1970s), “the logic of individualism” has been carried “to the extreme of a war of all against all, the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with self.” Hence Miley Cyrus singing about talking to herself “for hours.” And millions of Americans singing along.

Lasch went on to agree with Wolfe: “To live for the moment is the prevailing passion—to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity.”

Perhaps I am taking this too seriously. It is just a breakup song, after all. But maybe not. Maybe it is the anthem of a sick, lonely, void people grasping for meaning all the while fighting substantiality. Fighting reality. Fighting God. A people who, despite their “I can love me better” songs and self-centric mysticism, are deeply unhappy, discontented, and diffident. They have been duped into believing that individualism is “the highest attainment of spiritual enlightenment”; that the liberated life is the most fulfilling; that, when dissatisfied, a front of self-sufficiency will be sufficient.

They are only beginning to discover just how wrong they were, how farcical the “Me Generation” was.

Nevertheless, it has come home to roost, and for now, we must live with it.

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