How one song from Avenue Q kind of explains the tumult of the 21st century.
One of my favorite show tunes is “For Now,” the concluding number of the terrifically entertaining Tony-winning musical Avenue Q, which ran on Broadway from 2003 to 2009, then ran off-Broadway from 2009 to 2019. The show posits a sort of Sesame Street for 20-somethings, set in a neighborhood populated with both puppets and humans who learn important lessons about entering adulthood.
“For Now” sums up the musical’s ultimately sunny message: Nothing in life will last forever. You are going to be fine, no matter how terrible your current circumstances seem and no matter how much you might long to go back to college. How could you possibly not be fine? You’re young and, if you’re at the theater, presumably financially stable. Things are great! “For now, we’re healthy. For now, we’re employed. For now, we’re happy, if not overjoyed” goes one lyric. (The song brims with the bouncy sincerity that is the hallmark of multi-award-winning composer and lyricist Robert Lopez, who co-wrote Avenue Q’s music and lyrics with Jeff Marx.)
The crescendo of “For Now” builds to a sequence where the company shouts various things that are only for now, like so:
is only for now
is only for now
is only for now
Here’s a video that will give you a sense of what the number is like (though it’s not from a stage production):
Avenue Q isn’t plotless, exactly, but it has about as much story as any given episode of Girls, if you were to replace most of the show’s characters with singing puppets. “For Now” works so well as a closer to Avenue Q because it’s a reminder that — as nearly the last lyric in the whole musical goes — “Life may be scary, but it’s only temporary.” When you’re in your 20s, right after college, it’s easy to dwell on things that feel like they might last forever, but none of them will. You’ll figure it out. You’ll have new problems, but those will only be for now as well. You’re going to keep going up and up and up.
I still love this song as much as I did when I first heard it in 2007 (when the show’s terrific touring cast swung through Southern California). But it’s also a lie.
A brief history of Avenue Q’s sociopolitical commentary
When George W. Bush left office in early 2009, replaced by Barack Obama, the creators of Avenue Q held a contest to replace the exclamation of “George Bush!” in “For Now.” They called for fans of the show to contribute their own spins on the lyric, with options ranging from “recession” to “Prop 8” becoming contenders. In the end, the show’s producers ultimately decided that “George Bush” worked better than any possible replacements and decided to just stick with it.
That decision wasn’t the end of the story. Over the years, many alternatives (“recession” and “Fox News,” among others) were swapped in for “George Bush” in “For Now,” and in the last years of the off-Broadway run, somewhat appropriately, “Donald Trump” replaced “George Bush” and provided an unexpected symmetry. Two Republican presidents, both assumed to be broadly disliked by the theater-going audience, both things that are only for now. (Here’s a really great timeline of Avenue Q lyric replacements.)
“For Now” isn’t the most famous song in Avenue Q (though it should be). No, the most famous song in the show is either “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” (“Everyone’s a little bit racist, sometimes/ doesn’t mean you go around committing hate crimes”) or “The Internet Is for Porn” (the title is really the most representative lyric). Both of these songs have become strangely passé since the musical launched. “The Internet Is for Porn” feels dated because, while the internet remains a wonderful repository of porn, the idea of the internet as either a wonderful new invention or a den of sex-soaked depravity feels extremely early 2000s.
But “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” is dated in a more interesting way. The song is all at once a chuckling eye roll at the notion of overstepping PC culture, an attempt to argue that microaggressions are no big deal (though the song would never call them microaggressions), and a satire of both of those views — one designed to make the audience complicit in its central assertion that we’re all a little bit racist.
If you read the lyrics on Genius, you’ll see the annotations are filled with people arguing about the “true” interpretation of the song. Does “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” mean to tell us that we should stop caring about microaggressions and other racist statements and actions that don’t rise to the level of hate crimes? Or is it creating a rich and layered satire of anti-PC comedy by turning the idea that “everything’s a little bit racist” into a literal children’s song? Children’s songs almost always present overly simplistic morals, and many of the other songs in Avenue Q present overly simplistic morals, too. “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” might be doing just that.
But whatever interpretation you choose, one thing is clear: “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” is part of the last gasp of a particularly pernicious cultural narrative from the 1990s: Caring about how you or others feel isn’t cool. What’s really cool is being above it all and not making a fuss. And for as much as I love Avenue Q — and I love Avenue Q — it can’t escape all of the ways in which it hides its big beating heart behind a faux edginess, meant to seem cool.
Then again, when Avenue Q was written in the early 2000s, many other artists were over caring, too.
A brief history of ironic bigotry as a comedy device, particularly as it pertains to South Park
The most famous example of “caring isn’t cool” comedy is probably the long-running Comedy Central series South Park, with debuted in 1997. At times throughout its 23 seasons (and counting), the show has produced genuinely brilliant satire; at others, it’s been a herald of our current age of entropy.
The most charitable interpretation you can make of South Park is that series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are really great at presenting racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice ironically, to poke fun at society’s foibles. They put their most jokingly offensive statements in the mouth of Cartman, their most obviously awful character, then make sure to end each episode with a heavy-handed lesson that usually equates to some form of “Give people a break already!” — an idea elastic and formless enough to encompass both anti-racism and racism.
Even under this most charitable interpretation, however, you have to grapple with the idea that even today, a lot of people take the ideas South Park has espoused across its run incredibly seriously, deciding that, sure, it’s cooler not to care about climate change or voting or systemic racism. Lots of people viewed Cartman’s racism and anti-Semitism not as an elaborate ironic goof but as something to emulate in order to win comedy points. The more that basic idea of boundary-pushing-as-bold-and-edgy-humor was repeated, the more the irony chipped off and revealed actual bigotry.
To give credit to Parker and Stone, recent seasons of South Park haven’t exactly done an about-face on the show’s original approach, but they have seemed a little embarrassed with some prior episodes (particularly regarding climate change). Parker and Stone are still libertarian dung-flingers (which can be a lot of fun if you’re unlikely to end up covered in dung but can be exhausting if you are), but they seem a little more aware that their own point of view is ever so slightly myopic.
But it wasn’t just Parker and Stone. Ironic bigotry was kind of a thing in the 1990s. The two South Park creators weren’t the heralds of this movement; they were just its biggest beneficiaries. Tons of comedians with some degree of cultural weight broke out in this world. And many of them remain significant cultural figures, even if they’ve completely changed their comedic voice in the years since. (Sarah Silverman is an obvious example of one figure who’s completed such a shift.) Parker and Stone are notable for being the two guys who still operate in that mode and are still largely popular.
Outside of South Park, Parker and Stone’s most lasting cultural contribution might be the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, which opened in 2011 — somehow still less than 10 years ago! — to wild critical acclaim, lots of Tony Awards, and a general sense of Parker and Stone vaulting from potty-mouthed class clowns to part of the American mainstream. (They were already in that mainstream, I would argue, but having a hit show on Broadway still carries way more cultural clout than having one on Comedy Central for pointless, New York-media-centric reasons.) The Book of Mormon treats its Mormon characters lovingly. But when it comes to the Ugandans they’re meant to be missionaries to, well, let’s look to Helen Shaw’s apt description of the problem in an excellent essay at Vulture about how The Book of Mormon already feels like it’s from another time:
The sequences in Uganda are grimly unfunny, especially as black actors are forced to sell jokes about curing AIDS by sodomizing babies. The romantic interest Nabulungi (Kim Exum) is the brightest girl in the village, and she thinks that “texting” means typing on a broken typewriter. That’s not a joke about poverty or disenfranchisement. That’s a joke about an African woman being an idiot. In 2011, some critics called the show out for its painful racism, but not many. The assumption was that the offended parties would be Mormons.
What Shaw gets at here is something that many white Americans have gotten better at understanding in the long gap between 2011 and 2020: The media is too susceptible to prioritizing the emotions of white people and writing off people of color who have legitimate grievances with the status quo. The humanity of an imaginary white Mormon who will probably never see The Book of Mormon is easier for many white Americans to conceive of than the humanity of a black theatergoer sitting one row ahead of you and not laughing at the jokes about Ugandans. A white theatergoer might simply conclude that the person in the next row should just lighten up already! Everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes!
Believing that problems are only “for now” is inherently a position of privilege
If you look back at Avenue Q, you’ll find a kind of dry run for much of what The Book of Mormon later turned all the way up to 11. And the connection between the two shows isn’t just thematic. Parker and Stone brought in someone to help them craft The Book of Mormon into something Broadway-ready. And the person who helped them was Robert Lopez, the co-writer of Avenue Q.
I don’t mean to suggest that Lopez is insincere. Far from it. His post-Book of Mormon career has been largely spent working with Disney, and if nothing else, Frozen’s “Let It Go” (which he co-wrote with his wife and writing partner Kristen Anderson-Lopez) is an ultra-sincere power ballad to belt out in the shower. Lopez is really good at what he does. He just spent a lot of time steeped in a cultural context that rewarded ironic detachment, working in a medium that too often removes any sense of culpability inherent in an audience that is whiter and richer than the average American population.
My point is that a lyric like “George Bush is only for now” — a lyric in a song that taught me a lot about getting through rough patches — can only be swapped out for a lyric like “Donald Trump is only for now” if you are relatively sure that once either man leaves office, you will be fundamentally okay. Equating a president you don’t like with bad sex or bad hair is a position of extreme privilege. So is the idea that everything in life is only for now. It’s only “for now” if you have the expectation that America is a ladder that keeps going up and up and up. That’s true for me, but I’m white, and I have enough money. I have the luxury of believing my setbacks are only temporary.
Yes, it’s worth understanding that every bad situation we get into indeed is only for now, and yes, it’s worth understanding that in the vast sweep of human history — or even just in the vast sweep of your own personal history — things will change. The end hasn’t come yet, so there’s no reason to expect it will come tomorrow. But when it comes to our own personal histories, “for now” is not always a guarantee.
Assuaging people’s fears by saying that difficult moments are only temporary is all well and good if you’re trying to help people endure something truly dark and terrible, trying to help them imagine a light on the horizon even when it’s pitch black. It’s much harder to stomach if you’re treating bad things, horrible things, brutal things as unfortunate but survivable circumstances that happen largely to other people, as if they’re merely peripheral characters within your own story who should really just learn to take it easy. Can’t we all just get along? We can agree we’re all racist, right? A little bit?
It is so easy to believe that everybody’s problems are like your own when you don’t face any real problems. It’s so easy to numb yourself to the horrors of the world because confronting them might require examining your own culpability. I love “For Now” so much, and it’s a song that found me when I needed it most. But it’s a song designed to placate people like me, to turn a haircut or a president or systemic racism into a boss in a video game.
Where I live, just across the freeway from downtown Los Angeles, the whir of helicopters and blare of police sirens have been omnipresent sounds. The mayor instituted a curfew last weekend, and anyone caught in violation of it could be arrested. The city feels not like itself, breathing and alive, but like a brute-force attempt to impose some other, more sterile city over the one I love.
A friend and I took a walk around downtown last Saturday. Storefronts were missing windows, the Shake Shack looked like it would be closed for a bit, and the words “Fuck cops” were spray-painted everywhere. Local news had sold me on untold devastation, but it mostly looked like shattered glass that will be easily replaced in time, a temporary setback to the gigantic wheels of gentrification.
It is a failure of imagination to think that all problems are merely inconveniences. It is a failure of empathy to believe that all other people experience life like I do, as a series of steps and events carrying me toward some uncertain but hopeful future. It is a failure of understanding to assume that optimism is the natural offshoot of being an American, because the country has so, so many social issues and injustices with deep roots that will not be so easily torn out of the ground to build something better.
But it’s worth trying to build that something all the same, and that will require some degree of getting really, truly invested in something bigger than yourself. The comedy of not caring worked for an era when academics earnestly declared that history was over, that capitalism had won. It doesn’t work as much in an era when life feels like being sucked into a bathtub drain. Is that the fault of Avenue Q or South Park or any other art of this ilk? No, of course not. Nothing can escape the cultural context in which it was created. But it is our fault if we choose the comforting lies of the past over the grimmer realities of the present.
An early version of this article originally appeared in Emily VanDerWerff’s newsletter, Episodes.
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Author: Emily VanDerWerff