The Dennis DeYoung Dilemma

I’m sitting at a poker table. Or a bar. Or at the gate waiting for a plane. It doesn’t matter, because I ask the same question in all of these places and more.

“If you could be yourself or Dennis DeYoung as he is today, which would you choose?”

It’s a simple question, really. Right now I can snap my fingers and you can be the 2010 version of the former lead singer of the band Styx. It’s your choice. It’s either that or remain in your own existence and take your chances.

There are two curious things that happen when I offer this option. First, most people actually seem put off that I asked the question in the first place. It’s as if I am wasting their time or making idle “do you prefer Mac and Cheese or Cheese and Rice?” questions. Second, people invariably answer that they most certainly would remain as themselves. In the dozens of times I’ve asked this question, I’ve not yet had one person answer “I’d be Dennis DeYoung of 2010.” Everyone says, “I’d be me.”

A third thing happens that I don’t find as curious, but I do consider a lot more telling. Very few people ever ask why I would bother to pose the Dennis DeYoung Dilemma in the first place. After getting over the initial frustration with the hypothetical, they are happy to answer and get on to more important topics of conversation. It’s a rare–and I dare say nonexistent–person who wants to ponder the possibilities.

I haven’t yet bothered to force The Why of it on anybody. I guess, some would say, that is why I have a blog.

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Styx in its heyday

If you don’t know, DeYoung was a founding member and one-time lead singer of the prog rock cum what-the-hell band Styx. Most people of my generation–even if they don’t know the entire discography of the band–have heard “Mr. Roboto.” The people ten years younger than me are probably more familiar with South Park’s Cartman singing the Styx hit “Come Sail Away.” In either case, I don’t know a lot of people who sit around, smoke weed, and listen to Styx today. That probably has a lot to do with the people I’ve chosen to call my friends, but I think there is probably also a very large segment of the world’s music-listening population who looks to Styx as a relic of an bygone–and thankfully so–era.

There are fewer people, however, who can identify DeYoung by name, face, or career. In the line that begins with Mick Jagger and ends with Peter Cetera, DeYoung lost his place a long time ago, and Phil Collins isn’t giving up his spot.

Oh, sure, you can hit Wikipedia like anyone else and see that DeYoung is still active as a musician. He once or twice reunited with Styx, he did a couple of tours on the Simon Cowell Exploitation Train, and he has been the honored recipient of the “Great Performer of Illinois” Award. You can see that DeYoung was once the frontman for a band that had many a top ten Billboard hit. He played to sold out arenas and is probably solely responsible for most Americans’ introduction to the phrase “domo arigato.” The man was–and by some lesser measure still is–a star.

And you have the chance to be him.

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If not for the fact that I really, really have lost patience for most people, I’d put a lot my spontaneous subjects to some further questions. Here are some follow-ups that I think might be instructive:

  • Do you want to be rich?
  • Do you want to be famous?
  • Do you watch Jersey Shore?
  • Various people would answer the questions above in different ways, but there is a natural aversion to actually admitting to any of the above. It’s unseemly to publicly hope for riches, fame, or Snooki. Similarly, there is something difficult about admitting publicly that you would rather be someone other than yourself. But privately…well, there is the rub.

    It’s a far different question to ask someone “If you could be yourself or Johnny Depp, who would you choose to be?” Depp is still a name, still a face, and has proven he’s got a spot on the Walk of Fame that will shine even after his death. I suspect I would have lot more people answer they would be Depp. But, then what about Paris Hilton? Justin Bieber? Ryan Seacrest? The Situation? Would you trade for any of those lives circa 2010?

    I agree, it’s an endless and largely pointless series of hypotheticals and you or I would be hard-pressed to find someone who will answer in a way that makes them look anything less than proud of who they are. If we’re bred to be anything, it is prideful.

    What is unaccountable in the answers I receive is how we as a people have allowed ourselves to feel less than we are because we are not capital-m More. We want for more consumables. We want for more recognition. We want and then we want on top of that. It is as evident in suburban ennui as it is urban struggle. It is as pronounced as strongly by the Office Space prototypes as it is the people who have complete freedom to be whatever they want. I am as guilty of it as anyone, which is probably why I pose the Dennis DeYoung Dilemma.

    Of course, it’s human nature to want more than what we have. Those of us brought up under capitalism have heard Horatio Alger stories enough times that we long ago forgot that a bootstrap was once just a piece of footwear. We can’t be blamed–nor should we–for our natural desire to wake up every day and work to rise above our station. If not for that drive, we would have neither the freedom nor the prosperity we have now.

    Dennis DeYoung today

    But as we sit in private and lament the unfairness of it all (Why didn’t I get that job? How can this woman be on TV? That guy doesn’t have half the talent I have. I deserve more.), we should each and every one of us ask ourselves if we would rather be Dennis DeYoung. Because, he was an effing rock star. He lived a dream that few people could ever realize. He was, at least for a time, a rock god. With one snap of my fingers, you could be him…as he is today. That is to say, if you’re lucky, one in a thousand people have heard your name, and one in ten thousand know who you are. You can smile because you hold the Great Performer of Illinois Award.

    This is meant as no disrespect to DeYoung, a man infinitely more talented than I am, a man who has managed to parlay early stardom into a lifetime in the music industry. This is simply to remind anyone who cares that fame is fleeting. And not just traditional groupie-sex-drugs-money-fame. Little fame. Little riches. Little luck. Big luck. It’s all fleeting. The neighbor’s wife you covet can be a crack whore by Friday.

    It very easy to want. It’s very easy to covet. It’s very easy to look to the life of a rich man, a successful man, or, indeed, a rock star and say, “I want that.”

    It’s a lot easier to look at Dennis DeYoung and say, “I think I’ll see what I can make of myself.”

    Do that. And be happy with it.