cuz you’re lonely in your nightmare let me in

5/12/09

In Which I Get Totally Generational Again

Look, I helped write two books on this stuff. You should listen to me. Unless you think that any talk about American generations is hopelessly generic and paints with such a broad brush as to be patently misleading – but since that describes everything I write on here, you should ask yourself why you keep coming back for more punishment.

Here’s the scoop: I’ve oft moaned about my particular generation’s relatively pathetic contribution to the arts, especially given that we were supposed to be the next great creators. The Baby Boomers were batshit and changed the game, sure sure, but us Generation Xers were supposed to take it all in, remain fascinatingly introspective, and create the kind of Masterpieces the Silent generation had done before us.

Not clear? Here’s a simple guide:

Silent Generation, born 1925-1942. You got your Beatles, Stones, Brando, Woody Allen, etc.

Baby Boomers, born 1942-1961. You know these motherscratchers.

Gen X, born 1961-1981. That’s us. Unless you’re under 28, in which case IT’S YOUR BEDTIME

ANYWHOODLE… generational behavior, like recessive genes, tend to skip generations. We were supposed to be more like the “Silent” folks, who grew up in the rigidity of the 1940s and 50s and became the storytellers. Sure, the Baby Boomers freaked out and danced badly, but they didn’t actually create any of the art from that time – that was the folks a decade older than them.

Neil Howe and Bill Strauss predicted the same thing would happen to us: we would be a “reactive” group of people, a cohort of Americans who would look at the carnage wracked by the Boomers, call bullshit, and then write our novels, make our movies, etc… but the eldest of us are pushing 50, and we really haven’t stepped up to the plate.

Who are our writers? We already lost David Foster Wallace, leaving us with some very good writers like J. Lethem, Z. Smith and the like, but are there any Updikes, Fitzgeralds, Vonneguts and Roths? In pop music, do we have anybody that can stack up against the oeuvre of the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Elvis Costello, U2, R.E.M. or even Duran Duran?

Sure, the marketplace is entirely different now, and plenty of writers, musicians, journalists, painters and other artists aren’t allowed the time to flourish the way they did in years past. But would you call Generation X a cultural juggernaut?

DuranDuranearly.jpg

I think I understand why we’ve failed ourselves. Every generation has a fatal flaw. The Silent Generation had one of the worst ever: they went through the “sexual revolution” at the same time as the Boomers – except the Boomers were doing it at 18, and the Silents were doing it at 38 with their spouse and kids at home. It was just bad luck for the Silent Generation; awesome sideburns, finding your G-spot, and having sex with your neighbors just came around too late for them to partake without fucking up us li’l Gen Xers.

As for us, it ain’t rocket science. Here’s Gen X’s problem in a nutshell: the internet appeared in the world at EXACTLY the right time to ensure we would never dive into our Masterpieces. As we were winding up to slap the world upside the ass with our lusty, groundbreaking works, we were fucking sidetracked by that “I KISS YOU!!!” guy from Turkey.

Since then, we have deviated from, digressed over, and forgotten completely about our Greatest Works in the face of the most overwhelming onslaught of Attention Deficit Disorder entertainment since the Roman Vomitorium. We have so much cool shit now, from the Wii to the Shuffle to YouTube (and prøn, of course) that asking us to concentrate on Art is like distracting a fat kid from cherry frosting.

There’s something poisonous afoot here too; the easy access to videos from our youth, to Facebook friends from third grade, to ironic T-shirts with Grape Ape on them… it retards our growth and throws us into a toxic soup of nostalgia, irony and snark. All three elements can destroy creativity – nostalgia begets preciousness, irony promotes cliché, and snark snuffs out the light.

They say narcissism is as viral as the flu, but it doesn’t have a thing on ADD – if you don’t have ADD yet, you aren’t trying hard enough. Shit, I’m amazed I’ve kept this blog for seven years, given how badly I get shoved off-course (during the writing of this, I also accidentally researched J.D. Salinger’s girlfriends, looked at all the recent pics of Duran Duran’s drummer, read some notes from 1992 about “13th-GEN”, and then learned how to make an “ø”).

I write televisions and movie scripts by forced sabbatical; it’s the only way I can do it. Give me 36 hours, and I can give you anything. But not everybody has that luxury, and god knows it drives my wife bonkers.

Already, I can hear the emails and comments: What about hip-hop? What about the Art of video games? Why do you always present these ideas in generational terms? Aren’t you just describing your own problems and extrapolating them to us?

Perhaps that’s true. And perhaps so much about American culture has shifted that nobody is allowed to be a superstar in their field anymore, because that space is now being taken by thousands of people basking in the fifteen minutes afforded them by the internet. Or maybe the jury’s still out on Gen X, and we’ll get it done – we’ll be known for more than just excellent writing on “The Daily Show” and “30 Rock”.

It’s just that I’ve always been mindful of that great Aimee Mann lyric:

I should have seen the cracks in the ceiling

and the mirror covered up with dust

But I was busy talking on the phone

0 thoughts on “cuz you’re lonely in your nightmare let me in

  1. Killian

    “nostalgia begets preciousness, irony promotes cliché, and snark snuffs out the light”
    That’s the perfect nutshell! Take heart, Ian; I think the jury is still out. And I don’t think any of those ADD things you did during the writing of this blog are detrimental to ART–I actually think they are fodder. In a good way. I am a firm believer in feeding the brain whatever miscellany it is attracted to–if said brain belongs to the soul of an artist, Art will out!

    Reply
  2. kent

    Indeedly, what about hip hop? For that matter what about techno and house music? Sure they barely register on your generation-o-meter, but globally they’re huge.

    Reply
  3. Sean

    The problem with art in our generation has come about because of the fallacy of intellectual property. If you think the Beatles went to Hamburg because they thought they would sell more records than the Beatles, then… well, you’re wrong. They wanted to be awesome.
    We now have a great iron scaffold in place so that you can create a thing and then start pressing copies and selling them for X, and if you happen, by pure chance, to make a great thing, then next thing you make is gonna have an eye for the press, and it’s always gonna be asking you, “can this sell?”
    Sgt. Pepper didn’t have a single. It was one of the most important pieces of art of the 20th Century.
    Until we understand that a living wage for artists, based on the marketplace, is impossible, then we’re never gonna create anything that lasts. Our culture is *built* on planned obsolescence and on the exchange of *materials*. The idea that a man can write a great poem on a large wall and all of the country can read it is utter anathema to Americans.
    We shouldn’t be making money with art. We should be subsidized, and the art should be made without any concern for commerce. It should be made because the artists want to be really, really awesome. But that isn’t gonna happen, and the asshole bootstrap-pullers get furious at the mere thought of it. Even though Art is usually the only thing that survives an empire once it has fallen, your friends and neighbors are hell-bent that all that will remain, once we’re gone, are giant landfills of old CDs and poetic kitchen magnets.

    Reply
  4. Anne

    I am thoroughly convinced that my youngest son’s (age 16.5) recently diagnosed ADD and his mastering of the art of procrastination, both of which have led to massive academic problems, are attributable in large part to the Internet and its potent lures.
    We never had video games in our house (still don’t), limited TV when the kids were young to the occasional “Barney” and “The Waltons” re-runs, and read books like crazy to them every single day and night. Great start!
    But in their teens, both our sons found the Internet way more exciting than books or games, a turn-on, an addiction. (Daughter seems to have maintained a sensible balance, for whatever reason.)
    I myself have your syndrome, Ian: I go to research one thing and end up crawling around the Web like a meth-addled spider. Why, here I am back at my desk after a long meeting and what am I doing? Reading and commenting on Xtcian! Case closed. :-)

    Reply
  5. marymac

    love the bloggy.
    born in 69 so guess i qualify.
    as a pro writer and mom of four, i can tell you that it’s just possible that for some women, we are having a hard time ‘producing’ because our dearly beloved bra-burning sisters in the 70s sold us a false bill of goods. We’ve even pissed off Erica Jong by not burning both ends of the candle fast enough.
    We can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never never let you forget you’re a man? Realllly? Because after being told that I could have BOTH a career AND a family (lucky me), I barely have enough energy to remember to buy the bacon at the store in the first place.
    Anyhoo, just stopping by to say hey. My humor (unless you don’t think it’s funny…then ‘sucky’) blog is at http://www.pajamasandcoffee.com.
    Glad to find Xtcian today.
    Cheers!

    Reply
  6. CM

    Sometimes you need a rearview mirror to judge art. In fifty years, people may consider those guys in your photo…well, geniuses. Do you think anyone realized the Beatles would change history back in 1964? Sure, teenagers thought the Fab Four were cute and a bit radical with those long haircuts (ha ha) and they even got to be on Ed Sullivan, but no one would have known the list of classics they’d collectively and individually release over the next seven years.
    I’m curious to look around and predict what might be considered genius in 30 years, things that have come from our peers. It’s really hard to say right now, but I definitely would like to hear some possibilities. (And why wouldn’t U2, Duran, REM etc. count as our generation? We were the ones who listened to them, not the Boomers. Even if they’re old dudes.)
    The Updikes, Roths etc. did first gain prominence in their 20s, but at the time, no one knew they’d go on to produce so much more.
    And by the way, please keep gettin’ generational!

    Reply
  7. Salem

    “but are there any Updikes, Fitzgeralds, Vonneguts”, in our generation, well, no. If a tree falls in the forest….. If the book doesn’t open, it cannot change or define an era. I don’t think we can separate the impact of how society responded to yesterday’s authors from the intrinsic value of their work. I don’t think today’s great authors have a shot at that kind of impact. I’m pretty sure that “The Idiot’s Guide to Motorcycle Maintenance” would out sell “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” if they were released in 2009. The economics of pop culture make it even tougher. Bizarre amounts of money distort the cultural landscape. I think it’s tougher to dig through the crap. We got “Earth, Wind and Fire”, and we deliver Nicole Ritchie. We got the Sex Pistols and Virgin Atlantic ala Richard Branson, and we deliver Maria Carey in the shower on Branson’s Island. (Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous) I don’t know which new rap sensation Little Bow Wow will produce to the top of the charts next week, but I am certain I won’t be enjoying him 40 years later like I am James Brown’s original bass player, Boots Collins. (Bootzilla here, the world’s only wind-up, rock star, doll-baby momma!) OK, bad example.

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  8. Joanna

    A few thoughts . . .
    1) I was comforted to learn my compulsive Google searching is good for the brain!
    http://www.cnn.com/2008/HEALTH/10/14/google.brain/index.html
    But what if I only use my sharp brain for more Google searching?
    2) Could parenting by the Silent Generation, who followed their bliss to the devastation of their families, have made Gen X darn good family people? Aren’t we the ones who got our ya yas out when we were young, waited long enough to find the right person, and endlessly obsess over doing right by our children? Maybe healthy families will be our humble legacy.
    3) Do our screenwriters and directors really fall short of other generations? I’m not so sure. Charlie Kaufman only misses us by a few years and is generationally so “us,” I say we adopt him. I watched the amazingly beautiful Swedish vampire flick, Let the Right One In, last night (named after Morrissey lyrics and instant play on Netflix- watch it!) and was pleased to learn Tomas Alfredson is ’65. Michael Gondry ’63! Score!

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  9. Bud

    It occurs to me that most of the great works of the Lost Generation were created after 1929. Seems to me 2009 roughly equates to 1930.
    Also, the media of today are vastly different from those of that era. I’m sure at the time the novels of Fitzgerald and Hemingway weren’t considered Great Works. I imagine the cultural intelligentsia lamented the lack of great opera (etc).
    Perhaps 40 years from now, some of today’s best blogs (for example) will be regarded as cultural gems. So stay tuned… and keep creating.

    Reply
  10. emma

    This is consistent with a problem we were working on at a marketing meeting for our local performing arts theater. The age group that is consistently the most difficult to get to attend shows and events is us – the 25-45 group. I can’t figure it out b/c there is really very little that I would rather do than go see some sort of live performance – be it a play or music/band. But our age group (at least in my part of NC) is not supporting this. What is it that you guys would pay money to see live? (I can’t wait to hear caveman’s comments.)

    Reply
  11. jason savage

    Nirvana is Gen X, no? I’d say what they did will be looked back on as great. Rap, without a doubt, culture changing. Blogs themselves….the idea that people can self-publish, is itself a whole new art form.
    And I think Michael Jordan just makes the cut, and boy if that wasn’t great art…..
    I think you’re being unfair and quick to judge Gen X. Comparing Fitzgerald to anything modern is apples to oranges, anyway.

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  12. xuxE

    i think andy warhol and basquiat and the ny punk scene and hip hop culture and alan moore, all the stuff that started in the 70’s set the stage for our generation of a new world order of art that really enjoyed flipping the scripts, critiquing the art mediums themselves as well as the messages and getting outside of the old boxes.
    and i think that anyone who is forever stuck exclusively in paper books and fine art and acoustic instrumentation, basically looking for artistic mediums to stay stagnant and stay in their familiar comfort zone are just being friggin media elitists with their heads stuck in one particular patch of sand on one cold beach which is probably located on the east coast.
    the art of my generation that i love swims easily through the electronic music genre, even sees the art in commerce oriented work like commercials, embraces graphic design, anime, graphic novels and comics, digital photography, pixar animation studios, definitely film and tv shows, street fashion, graffitti, and basically i think it really is in any creative pursuit whether it’s commercially viable or just a really cool piece you bring to burning man or a poetery slam.
    what’s different now is that you don’t have this one mega monolithic publishing industry or motion picture industry or vanguard of cool saying “this is the art”. which to my mind is the biggest liberation, mind bogglingly revolutionary – don’t sleep. just go to a really good magazine store – look at the vast array of magazines serving all the different interests. look at the blogs, even. there are so many audiences out there that appreciate different perspectives, messages, and mediums.
    i mean, i can’t stand bob dylan or woody allen, honestly i think they are overrated and they mostly suck. so i am totally thrilled that what i have today instead is totally different than what the prior generation had, because even if i decide that i think highly produced electronica sucks, i can go to straight to the lo-fi crowd and find my superstars there. or the neo-folk artists. or the nu-new-wave. and on and on.
    we don’t have to define my artistic sensibility through a monolithic generation-defining lens anymore. everything is micro and niche in terms of taste, but also at the same time widespread and accessible to all via technology. this is fucking BRILLIANT.
    so in my opinion…it’s not the art that isn’t there anymore – it’s your construct of all encompassing generational sensibility and taste as a paradigm for defining generations from here on out that is broken. that was then, this is now. our art is just as fantastic, our artists are just as good. it’s just way way more specific and niche because it can exist and thrive just like that and doesn’t have to try to please every person born during a certain time frame.

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  13. dean

    I had a similar chat with my wife recently, but it was about music. She & I were lamenting that there has not been a musical revolutionary in quite some time.
    Yes, there are musical artists out there that are doing great work, but too often it is in anonymity. Or, there are great artists out there (Jack White comes to mind) that can’t seem to affect the culture as much as the following:
    Less than 20 years ago, while in college, the likes of Nirvana and also Guns ‘N Roses came around. Unlike the top-selling artists today, these 2 groups signalled a tectonic shift in popular music and also sold bazillions of copies. When was the last artist to sell a bazillion copies and also be seen as new, fresh, exciting, and important?
    In the 1980’s, there was Michael Jackson, Prince, Springsteen, et al. Although some of their music may (or may not) stack up to the Beatles, even at the time of the popularity, they were seen as groundbreaking. Where are the similar artists today?
    OK, maybe Clay Aiken, but I digress.

    Reply
  14. xuxE

    the bazillion copies does not equal greatness.
    the bazillion copies is a completely separate thing than the greatness.
    today what you have is greatness without the bazillion copies.
    you still had greatness without the bazillion copies in the past but you never knew about it.
    you had the rolling stones, for example, in the past. but you didn’t have knowledge and access to the artists they ripped off. i would argue if the rolling stones emerged today as they had back in the day, i would have googled them, found the blogs talking about how they ripped off these other artists, googled the other BETTER artists who originated the stones sound and then bought tracks from those other artists, justifiably cannibalizing the stones success.
    or i would have heard the stones on pandora and listened to 10 other artists i hated plus this one i totally loved just as much as the stones, located their ukranian asses on itunes and downloaded their digital album.
    or i would have seen the stones at a local venue, tweeted about it #stones, and started following a bunch of heads who turn me on to a whole thriving scene of stuff i never would have heard of otherwise.
    or i would have gone to the stones’ myspace and looked at their friend list and sat there for an hour accumulating knowledge of the other bands they admired, listening to these other bands, checking their inspirations, the inspirations of those inspirations, and on and on.
    if i was really digging the stoes i would go buy a t-shirt from their online store and find out where and when their next nearby show was. then i might click on their link to a youtube video and share it with my friends on facebook, spreading them virally across multiple continents.
    big record label bazillion copies days are dead but the stones would still be the stones.

    Reply
  15. littlerattyratratrat

    Open your eyes and ears: there are plenty of great writers and poets, great musicians and great filmmakers at work today. Maybe the signal-to-noise ratio is lower than in years past–maybe–but there’s wonderful stuff out there.
    Still, come one, if you want a musical revolution, make it yourself. If you want a great novel, write it yourself. This sitting around and waiting for “Generation XYZ” to produce fine works for your enjoyment seems…well, you fill in the adjective.
    Truthfully, I find all this generational stuff pretty tedious and on par with astrology. I like hanging out here and listening to y’all anyway.

    Reply
  16. Lindsay

    “The problem with art in our generation has come about because of the fallacy of intellectual property.”
    Sean, I hope you don’t mean what I think you mean by this. Please explain more. Lessig? I hope it’s not Lessig. You are so much smarter and cooler than that tool.

    Reply
  17. Dave Sohigian

    Fantasic post, Ian. I will be quoting it on my blog. I recently did a post about “Defending the Honor of Gen X” (http://www.thegenxfiles.com/2009/03/10/defend-the-honor-of-generation-x/) where I asked readers to create a list of great Gen X’ers (with some success). I agree with Bud:
    “It occurs to me that most of the great works of the Lost Generation were created after 1929. Seems to me 2009 roughly equates to 1930.”
    We need to give it some time. Gen X is a generation full of talented INDIVIDUALS, and there will likely be several great artists that emerge over time.
    Thanks again for the great post. I am officially subscribed!
    Dave Sohigian
    TheGenXFiles.com

    Reply
  18. Susan*5

    One poster asked why 25-45 don’t go to arts events? Um, maybe because we don’t have any money to go, cause the boomers are STILL hanging on to all the good jobs, and even refuse to retire till they have 6 million dollars saved for their Tuscan mansion; and maybe the rest of us are busy raising kids. Two university degrees – chronically unemployed and underemployed.
    Maybe instead of the internet, we can blame the early saturation of Gen X with the mind-numbing proliferation of television programs. However, I think there are many accomplished Gen X artistes out there – it all depends on your interests and definitions.

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  19. jenx67

    pretty brilliant generational stuff you’ve got here. i’ll be following your blog. I love that song lyric at the end.
    I want to believe Generation X has made significant contributions to the arts. I navigated here from Dave Sohigan/Gen X Files blog. He was compiling a list of Gen X greats for awhile. The thought that we have nobody great in our generation – on par w/ those you’ve mentioned – really bums me out. I don’t believe it.

    Reply

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