From The Archive

Twenty-Nothing

  

s
a
l
v
o
s

There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization

—Pound

All across TV-Land official America is caught up in a serious but amusing identity crisis. Not that you’re having any difficulty with your own image, to be sure: your problem is in deciding just how to nail down a large and influential group of consumers so we can be properly targeted for TV shows, movies, records, and above all, advertising. In a nation that idealizes youthfulness and demands that each generation bear a simple tag-line, the current crop of young people are proving difficult to corner. A nettlesome little problem, to be sure, one that has sent legions of Harvard grads through the revolving doors of ad agencies and Hollywood sound stages, promising the key to the youth market, trying their hands at producing any number of soon-to-be ubiquitous looks. This is the frenzy to define the “Twenty-Somethings,” the summoning of the infotainment world’s greatest minds (Time magazine, Oprah, Barbara Walters) to the burning question: how are we going to sell these people?

Pinning the label on the generation is one of the culture business’ favorite and most profitable games. Ever since the fabrication of the initial “youth movement” by people like Pepsi and adman Peter Max, you have sought names for the young, prefab identities by which people may be molded, manipulated, and sold for the rest of their lives. This process now seems so natural to you, the original TV-produced generation, that you have created a national pseudo-hysteria over our seeming lack of definition, publicly wringing your hands over the enigmatic youth of today, wondering if maybe you’re finally on the wrong side of “the gap,” and providing an enormous market for the tidal wave of magazines, movies, and sitcoms purporting to speak for the “twenty-somethings.” Columnists churn out articles packed with meaningless speculation, anchormen shake their heads sadly, and ’60s veterans intone gravely on the nature of youthful idealism, each contributing to the flood of silly ideas about ‘generations’ and how they are constituted. Ordinarily this bizarre pseudo-debate would be amusing—what with its high, serious tone and its benevolent, advice-giving posturing—was it not so pathetically and openly just the simple whining of a people obsessed with youth about to approach middle age.

noheroes

But try as you may, you can’t seem to decide which label really fits us. Just a few years ago we were the violent, criminal generation, raised on a steady diet of TV crime and frightening the Eyewitness News crew with thrown rocks. Then we were the practical and conservative generation, happily corporate, voting by the herd for Reagan and voicing opinions whose lack of idealism was supposed to send Sixties People reeling in astonishment. How well we remember the colorful graphs that announced that version of the story from the front page of USA Today. But all too quickly we were the compassionate generation, the ones whose concern for the environment and poor folks, according to Newsweek was supposed to transform the 1990s. And now we’re the “twenty-somethings,” struggling against economic adversity, rejuvenating the record industry, providing the look and ‘tude for movies like “Singles” and TV shows like “The Heights.”

This is your doing—you, the baby boomers—with your bottomless need to compare all youth movements, real or imaginary, to your own.

The most striking thing about this confused generational soul-seaching is that members of our own age group have not really participated in it. Oh, sure, twenty-something author Douglas Coupland penned Generation X, but this fake novel with its dictionary of non-relevant terms was strictly a quick way to cash in on all the media hype, an effort more akin to The Preppie Handbook than The Sorrows of Young Werther. And yes, real live twenty somethings have been interviewed for articles in the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, Utne Reader, and a Barbara Walters special that no doubt had parents around the country holding their hands to their mouths in mild approbation. But participation of this kind is to be expected, as many young people are easily lured by the shiny covers of your slick magazines and will happily accept the opportunity to appear as “authentic” members of the species. They are about as credible to us as the Monkees were to you when the network dressed them up and had them sing, “we’re the young generation.”

No, this is your doing—you, the baby boomers—with your bottomless need to compare all youth movements, real or imaginary, to your own. Generational categorizing is one of your most beloved pastimes, since you yourselves have been the greatest beneficiaries of it, fairly monopolizing the talk shows and news magazines for the few years in which you kept the “establishment” gasping in collective outrage at your mock-threatening antics. Predictably enough, a good part of the “twenty-something” discourse is just plain insulting, consisting of solemn declarations by bona-fide Generation Authorities that the youth of today don’t measure up to their world-shaking predecessors. According to this understanding, we have no vision, no ideas, no shiny features to redeem us. Then turn to the fashion pages for the rest of the discussion: a flurry of stories about “grunge,” descriptions of a cooptation technique so perfect that, you boast, styles make their way from “the street” to the boutiques quicker than ever before. Both understandings are backed up with a weighty array of pop psychology, pop history (focusing mainly on “influential” TV shows and fads), and, your infallible statistical divining rod, mass demographics.

We certainly don’t need this mass media affirmation of our lives, so why are you so concerned with this scrutiny?

As you learned from your own experience, youth sells, even better to oldsters than to actual young folks. But before you can penetrate the market, you must first invent an easy generational stereotype in order to properly transform the allure of youth and, ultimately, the memories of a decade, into concrete, salable products. According to you, we are what we consume. You go to great lengths to specify “our” music and “our” look—glossing blithely over any real thoughts we might have—so that you can invent and then mimic an attractive “twenty-something” lifestyle complete with distinct, imitatable tastes and brand preferences. This is the intent of the dozens of articles written about “our” generation that describe us whimsically in terms of the TV programs we are supposed to have watched in the ’70s, the records we are supposed to have purchased, the gum we chewed, and the clothes we wore. In your hands this is our tawdry fate: a generation of people understood as the sum total of their hairstyles; an entire decade known by the popular records of the day.

mygeneration

Your payoff is in the dollars and loyalty of millions of teenagers, anxious to fit in, and of any “twenty-somethings” you can convince who may still be able to cough up the eighty dollars for a pair of sneakers that will set them apart with the likes of Spike Lee. But even more important, and more lucrative, is selling the image to an older set, as an elixir for exorcising the demon aging. Locked forever into a self-understanding invented for you when you were twenty-something, you can conceive of nothing more crucial than remaining “in touch” with whatever the young look happens to be. Afraid that you might be nanoseconds behind the latest craze, veteran suburban hipsters line up in Gaps around the country to grab flannel shirts in a show of solidarity with the Seattle scene.

All of this casting about for identity, then, is an attempt to rewrite our history even as it happens, an effort to package and market the ‘youth culture’ commodity to hungry consumers. More disturbing is the thought of these products being sold in the form of nostalgia years from now. We can doubtless look forward to television shows like “Slammin’,” chronicling the adventures of a group of alienated Washington D.C. teenagers who use peculiar dance rituals to express their misunderstandings with their parents. “This Old Garage” will peek in on the coming of age of a homosexual vegetarian brother and his feminist sister as they clash and come together on the fringes of the Seattle rock world. More important than the shows will be the products sold along with them. As teens today sport the tie-dyed shirts of the sixties and the bell-bottoms of the seventies, so will our children model Doc Martens, special hair-griming formulas, and knee-exposing jeans in the year 2005.

Even though the “twenty-something” debate is transparently absurd and painfully shallow, we can’t simply reject ‘generational identity’ as a totally meaningless category: there have of course been small circles of people from countless age groups that have shared world-views in a general way. But it is senseless to expect to find meaningful common ideas held by everyone born between 1960 and 1970. And yet this is exactly what your prattling TV, your “news magazines,” attempt to do, since they’re interested in the clues to mass-marketing rather than in the thoughts of real live people. It’s as though you think the doings of groups like the Young Hegelians were characteristic of the vast majority of their contemporaries, as though the “lost generation” had something to do with flagpole sitting, Amos ‘n’ Andy, and the religious revivals of the American 1920s.

When it comes to actually examining the beliefs of our generation’s authentic spokesmen, to listening to our cacophony, you don’t like what you see and hear. So in the same way your monotone rock music industry has ignored the entire creative outpouring of the past fifteen years in favor of warmed-over versions of the pleasantries you listened to in the 1960s, you have ignored, suppressed, or just refused to consider the true concerns of youth. No wonder you’re so badly confused.

 

And yet perhaps your confusion points directly to the most salient aspects of our thinking. We are a generation that is, at last, wise to your game. Our paramount aim is to resist, to negate the officious everyday assault of this botched civilization you have created. We don’t think about bright futures and business opportunities and the suburban spread that will someday be ours: our posture is a defensive one, as we build barriers between us and the incessant stream of lies and stupidity that is your public culture. We aim to carve out autonomous space, to somehow free ourselves from the daily drivel that drones from all sides. It’s a worldview that is necessarily incomprehensible to your standardized, mass-mediated ways of knowing.

While you spin your fantasies about a generation raised solely by TV like yourselves, a youth so pliable and clueless that advertising and sitcoms are their common tongue, we have in fact been learning the utter falseness of these, your most revered institutions. You gloat that our understanding has long since been scrambled by the constant brainwash, you snicker that our identities are little more than a patchwork of lines remembered from episodes of the TV programs we watched as children. But in fact our early familiarity with the medium has taught us precisely the opposite: the novelty has worn off for us; the pictures don’t dazzle us just because they move.

We refuse to accept your central historical/televisual myth, the golden tale of the ’60s, since we see it for the transparent suburban fantasy it is.

Our youthful vision of the world was influenced more by Minor Threat (“who’s that?” you wonder) than by the Partridge Family. We have grown to automatically distrust your all-too-pat characterizations of us and the world; we don’t believe the lukewarm homilies of your New Age, media-friendly philosophizing, even when it’s mouthed by people as convincing to you as Geraldo Rivera. We refuse to accept your central historical/televisual myth, the golden tale of the ‘60s and innocence lost, since we see it for the transparent suburban fantasy it is.

You find we are lacking in idealism, but in fact all we’re really missing is your farcical public display of disillusionment. Having grown up under an astonishingly mean-spirited government, we regard people who pretend to see answers or even reason in your politics, your issues, your self-righteous hedonism, as simple at best, but more likely just dishonest. To us the idiocy, depravity, and soul-crushing cruelty of your human machine is so obvious, so plain and undisguised, that we set ourselves in radical opposition to it as a matter of course. It is not the ’60s’ rosy bromides or revolutionary posturing that rings true for us, but the quiet determination of the ’20s and ’30s: Harold Stearns’ call for intellectual secession, Dos Passos’ recognition that “we are two nations.” Nor did we have to go through a long, embarrassing, fully-televised process of coming to these realizations. The “whole world” doesn’t watch us because we aren’t interested in your watching, aren’t eager to ham it up for your cameras or begin a much-publicized postmodern dalliance with your bad taste and lunatic culture.

reactive

And you know none of this because our discourse takes place not on audience-participation TV programs or in the hidebound pages of your glossy magazines, but in the small cénacles in college towns; the sub-movements of punk rock that you’ll never hear about; the little magazines and independent record labels by the score that share nothing with the understanding of the world broadcast from everywhere by the official institutions of American speech. You would have to dig deep and listen carefully if you really wanted to know what we thought, but you’d rather hire somebody like the Red Hot Chili Peppers or River Phoenix to play the part for you, to tell you that it’s OK; that all the twenty-somethings have come up with are a few stylistic innovations, a new sound and look that can be easily and fashionably imitated.

I have read them all,

hoping against hope to hear the authentic call.

A tragical disappointment. There was I

Hoping to hear old Aeschylus, when the Herald

Called out, “Theo, bring your clowns forward.”

That turned me sick and killed me very nearly.

Hugh MacDiarmid

You do seem to sense that we are something of an unhappy group. But our disaffection is not simply the result of the contemporary economic crisis, as your commentators repeatedly assure you. For most of us its roots are deep and about a decade old, planted firmly in the soil of a solid suburban upbringing. As youngsters with eyes and minds we always suspected there was something deeply wrong, that the picture on the set needed adjusting. Just beneath the order of lawns and malls and home entertainment systems lay a world of despair, of unimaginable sufferings, of fantastic injustices. Though coddled as we were, we couldn’t help wondering about the petty egotisms and hatreds that made human relations so poisonous; about the TV violence people just had to have, each cowering individually in their living-room cave; about why the products that had been such a thrill to purchase always seemed such a letdown once we got home from the mall. Our first brushes with the mandatory bloodlust of business, the arbitrary authority of the state, or just simple economic lack was all it took to throw your great national myths into question in our privileged young minds.

You wonder about the nature of the “twenty-somethings”: here’s your answer. We are TWENTY-NOTHING.

And then for each of us there came a point of revelation; a sudden, astonishing realization of the way your world worked, of the real purposes of your media, your politics, your academy. Other generations have been formed by particular historical events, but our decisive moment came at a different time to every one of us. For many it came from rock music, from bands faithful to the spirit of 1977 (do you remember what happened in that year, Barbara Walters? Bret Easton Ellis?); from a hundred local scenes alive with enthusiasm and camaraderie and the promise of asylum. It was the sudden knowledge that the music—and, by extension, the literature, the thoughts—that spoke most earnestly and honestly to our lives were virtually forbidden, barred from the record labels and airwaves choked with ’60s-style liberationist pap. Here for the first time in our lives, was both an expressive form that rang true and a means of resisting, an instrument of autonomy. Never again could we blithely file away the hours in your office complexes, listening dutifully to Madonna on the official radio. Never again could we read your newspapers uncritically, assuming their contents bore any relation to what went on in the world. Our entire generational compass was recalibrated instantly with one glimpse into the working of the machine: we were now outside, our tastes and thoughts automatically condemned by a smug alliance of hippies and businessmen.

We have lived apart from you from that day to this.

It is this experience you will never understand, nor will your co-optations, your manufactured replicas ever bring us back to the fold. Our resistance is not a hairstyle or a Nirvana record or even a leather jacket with safety pins. You have created in us an implacable enemy of the worst kind: a foe that understands how your cultural machinery works, who you are not physically capable of retrieving.

ourstyle

You wonder about the nature of the “twenty-somethings”: here’s your answer. We are TWENTY-NOTHING, forever lost to your suburban platitudes; lost to the simple blather of your TV; deaf to your non-politics; hopelessly estranged from your cult of ‘professionalism,’ the brain-deadening architecture of your office complexes. We no longer flinch when the tough guys on the screen point their weapons our way. Nor do we nod, stomachs growling, when your intelligentsia instruct us in the fine points of indeterminacy. Our youth has been a classroom of resistance in which we have learned how to free ourselves from the grasp of your understanding, your manipulation.

Although your anointed authorities may not take it into account when they do their “studies” of the young, there is a vast cultural resistance underway. Your best and brightest want nothing to do with you. We were too cynical too young about your motives, your politics, your TV, your bad rock ‘n’ roll. This is a generation that will never again cooperate, will never make your coffee with equanimity or discuss happily the latest doings of your favorite sitcom characters.

Thus we proclaim your American Century at an end, with a shrug of distaste rather than the bang you had counted on. We are a generation that finally says NO to your favorite institutions: not only will we not fight for oil, but we don’t believe anything that you broadcast, we avoid your malls, we don’t care about the free play of signifiers on your cable TV. And you can never be rid of us. Your feverish attempts at co-optation have begun far too late; too many will have defected long before your latest youth look (it’s “grunge” this time, isn’t it?) hits the malls this spring. However you may demographically turn matters about in the future to convince yourselves that youth just isn’t capable of your sophistication, your idealism, your credit limits, we’ll be out there, slowly corroding the machine, filing down the teeth of the gears, readying your historical epitaphs.

The Baffler will not win this dispute by itself. You will believe what you choose to believe, and you will go on using your telephone surveys and your public-opinion polls to rationalize it. But then again, we don’t care. We know who we are, no matter what labels you choose for us. Now leave us alone.

Thomas Frank is a political analyst, historian, journalist and columnist for Salon. He is a former columnist for the Wall Street Journal, authoring “The Tilting Yard” from 2008 to 2010, and a founding editor of The Baffler. He is the author of a number of books, most notably What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004). His newest book is Listen, Liberal.

You Might Also Enjoy

Semiotics Mailbag

Théophile

Dear Théophile: My partner’s sexual praxis might conventionally be characterized as “kinky.” A favorite discursive intervention. . .

odds and ends

Baffler Newsletter

new email subscribers receive a digital copy of our current issue.

Further Reading