‘I’ve heard Generation X called a lot of things but “forgotten” isn’t one of them’ – my first thought when I came across Letter from the Forgotten Generation on LinkedIn a few weeks ago. My second thought: ‘Didn’t I propose something along these lines back in 2008 with my over-ambitious article, Whatever Happened to Generation X?’.
As most of you belong to my generation, here’s the original article (strangely never published) with a much-needed edit circa summer 2014. I hope it brings back a few good memories for you like it did for me.
Whatever Happened to Generation X?
In the summer of 1994 there was a song getting heavy radio rotation in Los Angeles called “Alright Guy” off the album Songs for the Daily Planet by Todd Snider, a singer-songwriter from Portland, Oregon.
The first track on Songs was called “My Generation (Part 2)”. Having just entered the workforce at the ripe old age of 22, I felt pretty damn grown-up when I got all the jokes and references in a pop song for the first time in my life. Growing up in a house with landmark albums like Bridge Over Troubled Waters and Tapestry it’s fair to say that most musical social commentary went over my head the first 20+ years on earth.
This brilliant “Side 1 Track 1” made references to everything from 80’s innovations such as hair gel and stonewashed jeans to “a thousand points of light” – a classic George Bush Sr. sound bite. Incidentally, I never did find out if there was a “My Generation (Part 1)”.
1994 was also the year the posthumously labeled spokesperson of Generation X died from a self-inflicted gunshot. Like Snider, Kurt Cobain was born in the second half of the 60’s, thus signifying automatic inclusion in the MTV or X Generation. They were both born in the Pacific Northwest as well – the birthplace of grunge, as it were.
Whereas Cobain had helped pioneer the whole punk/hard-rock fusion which exploded out of Seattle in the early 90’s, Snider had written a folk song poking fun at the ’90’s grunge scene. “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues” featured a band so cool it refused to play.
By 1994, Generation X, MTV and grunge were inextricably linked. And I happened to be connected to all three – 10 years of my childhood spent in Salem, Oregon, birth year1971 and my junior year of college a few hours south of grunge ground zero at University of Oregon.
It seemed you couldn’t open a music or lifestyle magazine in the 90’s without reading something highly relevant about Generation X. Or how much Kurt Cobain had meant to this spoiled generation that had dodged a war and grown fat off the Reagan “me” years. Also referred to as “Twentysomethings”, Gen X-ers even got some pretty decent coverage in 1990 and 1997 Time Magazine cover stories.
The Compact Oxford English dictionary describes Generation X as: “The generation born between the mid 1960s and the mid 1970s, perceived as being disaffected and without direction”. Not a bad description if you combine the apathetic grunge aesthetic with the bummed-out, slightly paranoid ethos of the “slackers” – another group of aimless twentysomethings with little or no ambition as embodied by the young Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites – directionless slacker by day, über cool grunge musician by night.
Labeled a Generation X picture by the media, the now very dated film follows a group of recent college graduates making a documentary about their day-to-day challenges and career choices, or lack of them in Troy’s (Hawke) case.
MTV also plays an important role in the film as the raw footage of the disenchanted friends is transformed into a slick new reality show in the vein of The Real World, another cultural institution sprouting from the early 90’s.
I’ll never forget something the class valedictorian said in her speech at my brother’s high school graduation ceremony – “1981 has been witness to the death of disco”, to paraphrase slightly. Nevertheless, at 9 years old it was the single most profound thing I’d ever heard.
Had I witnessed the “death of grunge” just as my brother and his classmates had buried flared polyester slacks and mirror balls? Had grunge really died on the announcement of Cobain’s death? God knows the airways were over-saturated with countless alternative acts claiming to be the next Nirvana. Some of them were so cool they didn’t even need to play (see “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues”). For what it’s worth, this ill-informed observation has never quite sat right with me. Pearl Jam made a great album in 1995 and another good one before the decade was out. The Screaming Trees arguably put out their best album in 1996. As a card-carrying member of grunge, I think my opinion holds more weight than some ambitious ivy-league journalist living 3,000 miles from where it all happened.
So, if the actual date of grunge’s demise is unclear what about the waning significance of the X and slacker generations? When did it become no longer cool to work at the local café by day and jam in the garage with the band at night? For the pure, unadulterated embodiment of the grunge ethos, see Matt Dillon as Cliff, front man of Citizen Dick in Cameron Crowe’s not-as-dated Singles from ’92.
Relocating to San Francisco in late 1999 after spending the second half of the 90’s teaching English and traveling abroad, it was as if I’d landed on a different planet. Intent on flying the Dick flag despite the sea change, I moved into a shared flat and got a job teaching English by day and making trendy espresso drinks at night. Working at the Café Dante around the corner, I’d bring a few CD’s to play on my shift just like the guys at Championship Vinyl in Nick Hornby’s London – or John Cusak’s Chicago. Like Vinyl sycophants Dick and Barry, it didn’t matter that I was back at minimum wage.
Although I’d only been gone a few years, I felt like an alien. It seemed everyone around me had transformed into either Joey, Russ or Chandler from Friends. And when had the IT Silicon Valley crowd hijacked the goatee and pony tail? When I left L.A., grungy facial hair and white tennis shoes were as compatible as a jeans and a baseball cap at a funeral. Having kept my hair long and shaggy from my Lost Weekend in Asia, I’d go to parties with my flat mates and stick out like a sore thumb. Way too 1994 for most.
At that point I realized that Generation X had either died off with grunge, or I was dealing with a whole new animal. Perhaps the twentysomethings had simply become thirtysomethings and this was the cleaner, more responsible version. A freshly shaven Ethan Hawk had married an A-lister, after all. Dave Grohl’s fist-pumping, stadium-filling new band had lost some of the misanthropic trajectory of his old band. Eddie Vedder was all over film soundtracks.
Gone were the days of shooting pool to “Aqualung” pumping out of a massive jukebox with a Marlboro red dangling from your mouth. Now you could play pool in a cleaner, smoke-free room with uninterrupted digital radio streaming through tiny speakers hidden in the walls. Full cellular coverage to boot.
All of this begged the question: What happened to Generation X? And who were the spokespeople anyway? Kurt Cobain, River Phoenix, Chris Farley? They were all gone now but had they ever been spokespeople? Did death signal automatic qualification?
Bret Easton Ellis had given us the quintessential portrait of 80’s boredom and excess in American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. Was Bateman a good representation of my fading generation or an explosive cocktail of the Reality TV, internet porn and hyper-violent Gaming soon to come? Either way, I’d like to think Todd Snider still lights up occasionally in a digital-free environment and reminisces on that “dirty book of pictures with Madonna naked”.
Christian Bale as American Psycho Patrick Bateman circa ’00.
Despite making fun of the Too-Cool-For-School grunge musicians and his own lack of ambition that has kept him cranking out quality tunes for 20 years, I’d like to officially nominate this “Alright Guy” as my Gen X spokesperson. By the way, he happens to be one of the best storytellers I’ve ever come across – give his YouTube clips a viewing when you get a chance.
One final thing. If Todd Snider ever does come across this blog post he should know that it is high time he brought out “My Generation (Part 3)”.