“Only the young bring anything in—and they are not young very long,” said William Burroughs of American culture. This is obviously a warning, and not a dull truism, since Burroughs isn’t only referencing literal age, but also the co-opting of adolescent disdain for societal expectations. He’s talking about the real energy of youth, the recklessness and spiritual vigor, transmuted into novelty for the marketplace. Another Burroughs quote that I think pairs well with this one is his withering assessment of the legacy of his Peter Pan Beatnik frère Jack Kerouac: “Kerouac opened a million coffee bars and sold a million pairs of Levis to both sexes.” Again, not literally, of course—Kerouac could barely keep himself alive into his fifties, much less run a commercial empire—but the idea is that Kerouac’s lifestyle found such a warm reception in the catholic imaginations of American marketers and moneymen. Recklessness is only dangerous if it’s bad for business.
The commodification of youth culture continues unabated through the present day, albeit in new keys, and emphasizing different au courant trends. The ubiquitous construct “I can’t even” is the subject of the latest bit of hand wringing about the ever-shifting vagaries of teen slang, an Andy Rooney-style rant about “kids these days” that appeared in the New York Times Magazine recently. The linguistic construct is spread over the page and read like mystical chicken guts portending the true character and fate of our unreachable children. The article gives the contradictory analyses of both the domestic doomsday vision of nihilistic teens so out of control they can’t even be bothered to communicate in a common language and the paranoia that, what’s worse, they’re speaking in code specifically to keep parents in the dark.
But the inexplicably threatening prospect of teenagers creating new languages pales in comparison to the truly terrifying corporate brand-appropriation that’s mentioned:
Teenage slang curdles from ingenious to embarrassing in record time, snapped up by brands for the purposes of selling their products. “I can’t even” has already embarked upon its promotional tour. On Twitter, Cap’n Crunch cereal “just can’t even with this right now.” Taco Bell “literally can’t.” When a public relations firm listed Charmin among its favorite Twitter brands last year, the toilet paper company tweeted: “We. Can’t. Even.” Applebee’s favorited it. In turn, the young have found a way to monetize this process of linguistic appropriation. Corporations hire recent undergraduates to tune company Twitter feeds to appeal to their younger siblings.
It’s a bit much to suggest that the most recent generation to enter business is the first one to figure out how to market slang. Slang is one of America’s biggest cultural exports, has been at least since the Jazz Age. The very idea of something being “cool” is itself an American twentieth century marketing gimmick. To paraphrase Adorno, our economy is our culture and our culture is for sale. Baffler founder Thomas Frank explored how youth culture gets sold in The Conquest of Cool, focusing on the market-created sixties counterculture, which was a “counterculture” in the same way that stadium-filling nineties “alternative rock” was actually an alternative to something and not the status quo itself. Capitalism is able to quite easily appropriate youthful rebellion—the more narcissistic and transitory the better.
The Greatest Generation and The Pepsi Generation might exist on the same economic continuum as the Twitter Generation, but the small economic fissures separating them are very real. The Times article notes that the phrase “sold out” isn’t used by young people anymore. That’s telling. Selling out was such a rich phrase, resonant with the cultural baggage particular to Baby Boomers. In fact, one could argue that Baby Boomers had to create the phrase in order to describe what they were doing with their lives.
When considering what it means to “sell out”, it’s useful to look to the classic 1983 film The Big Chill. Fifteen years after graduating from college, a group of friends and former radicals come together to mourn the suicide of one who used to be in their clique. To a t, each character has given up on progressive aspirations to focus on him or herself in various ways—drugs, money, babies, etc. In fact, the one person who was still trying to act for the higher good is Nick, the guy who killed himself. Nick’s descent from radicalism to academe to social work and then complete and total absence is powerfully symbolic of the erasure of progressive ideals, the transition into the eighties, and the coming of Yuppie. The film is like a home birth movie, in which a group of insufferable Baby Boomers midwife a neoliberal fever-dream about the moral sacrifices that adulthood should entail.
My generation won’t have a Big Chill. We can’t, for the same reason that “selling out” can no longer mean anything. At one point in the not so distant past, Baby Boomers inherited a post-war economy robust enough to support middle-class people making a choice to opt-in or opt-out of the larger economy for some duration. It wasn’t a choice their Depression-era parents got. And thanks to Boomers wasting the gift they were given, it isn’t a choice for Millennials, either. Along with the shrinking of the middle class came the neoliberal reforms that seamlessly blended every aspect of culture with an overly privatized civil society and an anemic economy. In an Orwellian turn, the word “reform” has come to mean privatization. We create content for Twitter for free. We’re saddled with almost incomprehensible levels of debt from school. Ideas are “branded” before their umbilical cords are even cut. To sell out or not sell out isn’t a choice that we get to make. We’re forced to sell out, without even really getting to cash in.