A recent The Atlantic article took on the concepts of “You Only Live Once” or “YOLO” in popular culture, specifically, pop music, in very contemporary terms, along with “Live fast, die young.”
Leah Sottile, alas, made out “YOLO” to be not only synonymous but the same as the concept of “Live fast, die young” or “Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse.”
I was driving and the M.I.A. song “Y.A.L.A.” — short for “you always live again” came on the radio. Only hours before, I had (uncritically) read Sottile’s essay on dying young in popular music.
I posit that “YOLO,” only living once, and life fast, die young are two entirely separate, although related, concepts and are, by no means, yet another indicator that today’s youth and pop culture are on a suicidal slide.
The concept of only living once is not the same as dying young, for multiple reasons. Only living once implies that there is no afterlife (such as Heaven or Hell) and that there is no second chance ( à la reincarnation.)
Only living once, rather than being a banner for living so hard that one incurs an early death, is actually a call, and a reflection in our larger society for, a change in how we behave. Only living once means that individuals only have one chance at this life: there is no afterlife to look forward to, nor is there another chance to look towards.
YOLO is an existential and an atheistic theme, I think, reflective of greater changes in our culture. Rather than being the rallying cry for why one should not care about the future, YOLO is a reflection of why we should care: there is no other chance. The only chance for good we have, in fact, the only chance at all, is contained within a singular life. Rather than a call for hard living, and early leaving, it is a call for the cherishing of life.
I will admit, Ke$sha’s “Die Young” is an appeal to the live fast, die young ideal. However, Icona Pop’s “I love it” is not. Besides being a lyrically-empty song, the entire contents played within the first thirty seconds, the song does not call for young death, as Atlantic writer Sottile posits. Rather, it is a call for a loosening of inhibitions.
The acts “I love it” describes are as follows:
1. Crashing one’s own car into a bridge, followed by watching it burn. (Insurance money, anyone?)
2. Throwing the second person’s belongings into a bag, and pushing them down the stairs, which is done in the context of the second person being gone, on a summer day.
The first instance is specific in its lust for life. The narrator crashes the car to watch it burn. There’s some lust of life to want to watch something burn.
The second instance is all about moving on, albeit, in a harsh way. The narrator attempts to eject a presumably close person (you) from her life. Rather being banner for a want to die young, it seems more like a theme of living life now, and planning for the future.
As childish as “YOLO” appears to be, it underlies a much deeper concept, that of human mortality in a context stripped of the niceties of religious beliefs.
I’m pretty sure I’m only going to live once, which means I certainly want to make the most of it. I’m pretty sure pop culture does too. Let’s just not confuse the concept of one life to live with dying young.
Photo from a set of Las Vegas portraits, taken of strangers, on Black Friday, 2013. The full set is here: