Generation Ex

Some get a decade; we get a moment

This time it's personal. High school student Reese Witherspoon leaves teacher Matthew Broderick cursing his so-called life in Election. No shocker; couldn’t be a teen film if the kids didn’t have all the options and the adults weren’t a pitiful mass of stifled redundancy.

What hurts is that the emblem of slow rot is Matthew Broderick. Wasn’t he just a teenager a minute ago himself in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, one of those John Hughes films that we, the youth of today, survived puberty with?

Oh, wait. That came out in 1986. Broderick is 37, and we’re not youths at all, even if it still seems to us as if we are because our place in the culture is recognized so damn late.

Once upon a time there was Generation X. I do mean once. In the World Almanacs I grew up with – kind of a pre-web thing – a generation is 20 years, maybe 25.

We got three.

Nirvana sold a few records in 1992, Clinton was elected, and the rotation seemed complete: boomers assumed political power and we post-everythings were going to inherit the counterculture or, better yet, steer the consumer culture. Finally: we were already well into our twenties. Yes, there was groaning as underground went mainstream— that's part of the drill. But admit it, my fellow Neverminders, it was a kick seeing our own ilk moping up all the attention. (though alternative stuff is not so much self-loathing— for every Kurt, Courtney, Tupac, and Trent there's a Beck, Breeders, Busta, and Bagge— as larger-than-life in a defensively small way.)

In a blink it was gone. Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys, Dawson's Creek and Felicity, Teen People and Columbine, Venus Williams and Derek Jeter. Alternative rock dead in the water. Hordes of Star Search, Menudo, and the new Mickey Mouse Club alumni given everything, just as the '60s dinosaurs were. We'd always been Born Too Late. Suddenly we were Born Too Early as well. It was official: our crew— roughly 25-to-39-year-olds, though culture never breaks neatly— were the needy middle child of the latter 20th century. Caught between domineering elder sibs and spoiled youngsters.

So farewell my never-really-a-generation. We invented college rock and Lollapalooza, before that turned into cute little Third Eye Blind and Matchbox 20. We had women in rock, too, before Liz Phair became Alanis Morissette, who became pedophile's delight Britney Spears. We championed rap (well, some of us), in the days when it was a genre of smart alecks instead of coddled thug-impersonators with Bill Gates dreams. We reclaimed insecure Jan on The Brady Bunch. We watched The Simpsons. We were the most ironic cast of Americans to date until we went and saw through the promise of irony. No hopes whatsoever! You know the routine.

It all comes down to numbers. Population: the less-than-fabled baby bust that lasted until boomers started breeding in full. And economics: coming of age after 1973, when the U.S. economy slipped badly, we grew up hearing that on average we'd be worse off than our parents. Better dressed for success than any cohort in history, we had it instilled in us that collectively we'd never amount to anything. Our diminutive, ripening demographic was ignored and felt even more ignored: witnessed liberalism kicked in the teeth by Reagan, endured the 1960s as a mandatory rerun, studied postmodernism and identified with the footnotes.

What are we supposed to do now? The stock market is over 10,000, Clinton is a distinctly lesser monster than Ronnie, American triumphalism has been restored, and ready to lap it up is a once-more-humongous teen population that advertisers can't stop salivating over. Thanks for letting us warm the bed for you, kids.

The group we mostly resemble is the Silent Generation, born in the 1930s, too late to be ennobled by the Depression or fight Hitler, too early for rock and roll and the heights of postwar prosperity. When Clinton was elected they winced for a different reason: it meant they'd never get to elect a president, despite holding their breath every four years since JFK. Like them, we've never shown the slightest ability to assume power.

But marginalized minorities have a lot of time to sit around telling jokes. So we've taken over comedy, coronating the nebbish so that the Silent Generation's Woody Allen becomes rule instead of exception. Compare, for example, the Adam Sandler­Mike Myers­David Spade­Chris Rock Saturday Night Live casts with the rampaging likes of John Belushi and Eddie Murphy. It's the difference between having tasted the revolution and having repeatedly watched Planet of the Apes week on The 4:30 Movie. To proudly slur my own: we've all become a bunch of wussy Jews and Canadians.

Now Myers and Sandler are big-deal movie stars, and The Spy Who Shagged Me and Big Daddy perform exorcisms of our insignificance; fantasies as much as Election, but of a universe we actually dominate. It's a trivial universe, but we'd be fools not to take it. The salvation of Sandler in Big Daddy isn't ultimately the kid he wants to adopt— it's a woman he meets who shares his love for Styx. Austin Powers has claimed back the '60s, proving in the name of freedom that things were just as insipid then as they are now. Myers even beats up on our younger tormentors, scapegoating Seth Green as the doctor's kid, Scott Evil. Boomer pop like "American Woman" and "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" is defanged by the credless likes of Lenny Kravitz and Everlast.

The game of references as quasi-generational markers never ends. They're like Elvis sightings for Xers; an easy joke that somehow never gets old. In Neal Stephenson's new novel, Cryptonomicon, the hero keeps his bearings— Stephenson, too— by taking Cap'n Crunch to the far corners of the planet. Crunch is a low reference. (Our affection for same is called cheesy, which has to be understood in the near-total absence of non-cheesy reference points unique to us.) High references are nearly always obscure, touchstones that will disappear if we don't save them, like Tinkerbell, by clapping our hands. That '70s Show's theme song revives Big Star; the Farrelly brothers give Jonathan Richman a recurrent cameo in There's Something About Mary; Myers starts his movie with a They Might Be Giants parody of Goldfinger.

It's hopeless, of course. Our heroes will remain obscure and our preoccupations strange. Forget becoming president: we'll never become a Spielberg, either, or make a Star Wars, though liking Star Wars in the teeth of boomer scorn is perfectly fine. Brokaw and Jennings can chart the course of American heroism. We'd rather gargle and spit, like that satirical Xer alt-weekly The Onion and its unlikely bestseller, Our Dumb Century, with 100 years of fake front pages. Sixties: "Sanford, Son Killed in Watts Rioting; Aunt Esther Missing." And the glorious events of our own lifetime: "Berlin Wall Destroyed in Doritos-Sponsored Super Bowl Halftime Spectacular."

As The Onion is only the latest to prove, our gift is for mocking, if helplessly adoring, the jargon of official bullshit and formulaic crapola. Accepting the conventions and then stretching them into silly putty, we create products that pervert the lines between art and commerce. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the work of Xer Joss Whedon, views demons as no more or less serious and scary than high school, acts realistically snide and impossibly earnest, breaks with propriety as casually as slayer Faith asking virginal Xander if he'd like to fuck now that they're off patrol. Yet the WB didn't even air the season-ending episode after Littleton. How does one argue that Buffy has too much stature to be trifled with when its greatness roots in its being sold to the network, and still marketed, as a piece of trash?

Similarly, try explaining to someone outside the loop The Matrix, a mixture of the highfalutinly adolescent superhero comic, the Hong Kong action film as it went down this decade with white and then black urbanites, cyberpunk conspiracy theories, and a crazy little thing called Keanu. And these are the successes; good luck with The Cable Guy, Jim Carrey's one generational nod and biggest flop, or albums where Weezer and Fountains of Wayne let success go to their heads and tried to sing about their, er, roots. Again, Big Daddy and Austin Powers are very wet dreams of a world where our manifold references are commonplace, not just interior landfill fit only for our signal contribution to journalism: the comparative rather than interpretive "charticle."

Marshal the tidbits! Cover lines from the first issue of McSweeney's, Dave Eggers's pseudojournal: "Welcome To Our Bunker! . . . Relying on: Strength in numbers, provided those numbers are very, very small; Hoping for: Redemption through futility." Protagonists of a story inside: Philip Glass, Stephen Glass, Ira Glass, Seymour Glass, and George Glass. (Footnote: Minimalist composer, discredited young journalist, successful young NPR host, tormented young Salinger character, and imaginary Brady boyfriend.) A story, too, from David Foster Wallace, the big cheese of under-40 lit. Streams of spew he can regurgitate: therapy speak, university theory, sports commentary, metafiction. Favorite letters: i.e. Beginning of recent tale from his collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men: "The fuzzy Hensonian epiclete Ovid the Obtuse." Well, exactly.

Eggers and his various cronies may end up taking over the genteel magazines, but only in time to watch them slide into oblivion. Knee-jerk anticapitalists (sour grapes), Xers have a knack for symbolizing integrity in areas that have long since stopped meriting any. Adam Yauch and the Beastie Boys wheeze to put on a Tibetan Freedom Concert every year and redeem pop; alt-rock icons and MTV's Matt Pinfield will patiently explain the underground history of music to anyone willing to let them yammer. The "literate smut" of Nerve.com fights to keep cheekiness alive on the Net, when everyone knows that unselfconscious bluster is the only way new media spells IPO.

Eventually, though, most of the successful people crack, finding ways to refuse the honorable Gen-X course of wasting genius on socially incomprehensible piffle. One traditional argument used to explain my group's lack of overt generational solidarity is that identity politics diverted the struggle elsewhere. Maybe so, but television quickly filled that hair loss for men, idolizing the suave, neotraditional jockishness offered by TV's waspish anti-wuss Craig Kilborn and his launch ground, ESPN's Sportscenter. Sandler uses gratuitous meanness strategically (the fate of the girl who dumps him in Big Daddy, for instance), to dispel the threat of his soft side (or maybe the cuddliness inoculates his inner psychopath). Innumerable other Xers have, too, from the pickup experts in the fiction of Wallace and films and plays of Neil LaBute to all the rap-rock shockers.

But as Myers has proven and Rosie O'Donnell, Will Smith, or Lilith Fair epitomize, a niceness that pretends no animosity exists is just as effective. Rosie can out-Brady the best, she has her undeserving obsession (Broadway), she's an Xer all right— only instead of manifesting the usual twisted relationship to mass culture we developed from outside she gloats in her newfound access, sings the praises of Kmart. (Cap'n Crunch even advertises to adults on her show.) Carefully, she pitches herself in the most broadly accessible terms, a Regis and Kathie Lee with an encyclopedic grasp of trashlore.

Kilborn and O'Donnell make the X factor palatable, but demographics are demographics and today's bulging young have won, so many in our group find it necessary to hide who they are. How convenient that our childhood remains a preoccupation. Whedon's behind-the-scenes role in Buffy is generational drag; for more see Go, a suspiciously complex rave-kids film by Doug Liman, previously known for the less sublimated Swingers. Animation is even better: displace your anomie onto the nuclear family, like King of the Hill and all the other post-Simpsons, and none need realize you're another slacker.

South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone needn't show themselves to be felt, just as they hardly require punk rock to stage Circle Jerks. Their plot says it all; no, not the swipes at family entertainment values, the idea of making those nebbish Canadians, our secret selves, America's invasion force. And they indulge one sappy musical number after another, long past the funny stage, just can't stop believing, until ex-Doobie Brother Michael McDonald sings "Eyes of a Child" over the closing credits. What transparent softies.

Ultimately, it ain't generational drag that's driven Buffy's stake through our heart. It's the economy, stupid— a boom mentality where rich is best and mopery really does just get you nowhere. The relentless positivity of the cyberworld has wreaked a deep schism within us, even as the onset of all the new technology— with its corresponding focus on the very young, those precious early adapters— has made rehashing network television trivia and '70s rock stars a little quaint. Sure, Web content takes all forms, but the real game isn't blurring genres now, it's constructing towering structures of e-commerce.

The teen culture, which happily marries itself to the adult mainstream (with a few honorably cynical exceptions, though usually the teen stars have to age to turn into Robbie Williams), forbids gloominess and incisive parody as a matter of course. I hate my MTV all of a sudden— now broadcasting from a beach in the Bahamas like fucking Gidget, where a particularly glassy-eyed VJ said to Parker and Stone after they bragged about how sick their film was, "I'm sure there's a message." In the street-conscious early '90s I loved it. Not that it's hard to explain the shift: alternative culture was about the least profitable mainstream variant ever, a product that practically begged to be taken off the shelf.

Our new young masters will achieve greatness; they're too secure not to, knowing what a winning hand they've been dealt. I hear it in the music of those over-21s at that world's "angry" forefront, the rap-rockers who grew up after Nirvana and Dr. Dre and have never faced the mindscrew of seeing the true sounds of their youth automatically ghettoized. One can point out a million exceptions, raise issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality, but in that famous last instant the underlying dynamics of demographic size and economic context get their licks in, making some cohorts naturally grand and others bite-sized.

And so, entering a new century that removes even our ability to serve as the forlorn coda to the last one, we'll return to the periphery, play the, what else, quirky relative in teen comedies (Sandler's little buddy boy is just the start), worry about how to turn irony into sincerity while everyone else is worrying about how to turn sincerity into irony. The children of the boomers will make common cause with their parents, a seamless transition of power, while those of us who haven't cashed in behind the scenes shake our fists from some wretched little garret. Like a Dostoyevsky character. Or like Matthew Broderick hurling his lunch at the limo bearing Reese and the congressman at the end of Election, smearing up the works for just a second, then running away as fast as he possibly can.

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