Monday, July 30, 2012
Is Anger, Like, So Over? Or, What Happened To Generation X?
Remember Nirvana? The band? "Smells Like Teen Spirit?" "Heart-Shaped Box?"
It's only been about twenty years since their massive popularity hit its peak, but in some ways their era and their music feels more foreign and far away than that of less recent musical artists. Exhibit A: The Talking Heads. See also Cyndi Lauper, Prince, and Michael Jackson's "Thriller." All feel very much "of our time."
If you go to the gym, or shop, or hang around cafes, you can hear music from pretty much every decade since the 60s. How often have you been out and said to your friend or to yourself, "Oh my god, remember that song?"
But when's the last time you heard Nirvana? I don't think I've heard a Nirvana song since I last listened to one of their CDs in around 1997. Where is the love, people?
I have a theory about why you never hear Nirvana these days. My theory is that Nirvana was a genuinely angry, angry band. And something weird is going on with anger. Something frightening. Anger is disappearing. Or, rather, its being co-opted. It's disappearing among the youth, and being taking over by white middle-aged men who feel like they deserve better and want someone to blame. Old resentment is on the rise; youth anger is on the wane.
Obviously I don't mean private anger, like when you're enraged at your family, friends, and lovers for buying the wrong kind of cookies or ignoring you or posting your secrets on Facebook. That kind of anger will always be with us.
I mean public anger. The anger of rebellion, of why should I play by your stupid rules, of everyone's a goddamn hypocrite, of looking at adults and thinking, how could you people fuck up the world so completely? What the fuck is wrong with you?
I've had occasion to think about this off and on for years, since as a university professor I spend a lot of time with 18-22 year-olds. I'm often surprised by their lack of anger -- at their lack of rebellious rage at their parents, at their institutions, at the world in which they find themselves. Generally, I find today's young people to be temperamentally pretty kind, quite cooperative, and mostly constructively interested in making the world a better place.
Those are all excellent qualities. You could have them and also be angry at the same time. But that's not the feeling I get. The feeling I get is that it would seem stupid, naive, and childish these days to get all riled up and pissed off, to wear crazy punk rock clothes, to raise hell for no reasons, to create a band like The Sex Pistols.
Speaking of which, and as if to prove my point, the Wikipedia entry for The Sex Pistols says that they in 2006 the surviving members refused to attend a ceremony inducting the band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, quote, "calling the museum 'a piss stain,'" unquote.
I was reminded of the anger situation this morning as I was thinking about the late, great but short-lived Spy Magazine and how there really isn't anything like it any more. Spy was a mix of satire, goofiness, ironic detachment, mean-spirited attacks, vicious take-downs, and actual journalism. I wasn't surprised to learn that the editors cited as an inspiration H. L. Mencken, who personified public anger at pretty much every stage of his life.
When did comedy leave behind "Log-Rolling In Our Time," a regular Spy feature that showcased actual examples of authors giving one another lame mutually adoring blurbs for one another's books, and become Hangover 2?
What do you think the story is? Clearly there's plenty of stuff to be angry about.
Is it that the stuff these days is so overwhelming that it transcends anger, turns in on itself, and becomes anxiety and depression, and that's why there's so many young people on psycho-pharmaceuticals?
Is it that the world has become so frightening and risky -- so stratified, so winner-take-all -- that sheer survival leaves no mental room for anger?
Is it that young people are angry, but anger is too hard to express in their world, in which the internet and social networking make every gesture and every word open to the analysis of everyone on the planet?
Is it all of the above?
So you can see, my theory is that you don't hear Nirvana because Nirvana doesn't fit with our new no-anger youth ethos. I was amused to read today on Wikipedia that Nirvana was considered the "flagship band" of Generation X, of which I am a proud member.
Maybe you remember, we Gen-Xers were supposed to be the great slackers of the world. Everyone was enraged by the way we wanted to just sit around coffeeshops all day (before the internet! we brought books, and paper and pens!), wearing our Doc Martins and smoking cigarettes and talking and shooting the shit, instead of respectably hauling our asses of to McDonalds to get a crappy job.
I've always thought that insofar as this portrait of Gen X was accurate, it actually showed we had good values. We wanted to talk about things; we thought it was an outrage that we'd be paid minimum wage to make crappy burgers for some megachain; and we were willing to have roommates and to live without creature comforts like cars and TVs because we didn't have any money.
It makes me miss the world in which all that was possible. It makes me miss Spy Magazine. And it makes me miss Nirvana.