Are you old enough to remember and appreciate the renaissance of Kurt and Courtney and zines and Cabbage Patch Dolls and Daria and Sassy and My So-Called Life? If so, I envy you as only a Gen. Y-er, part of the generation that is defined by disenfranchisement and raging discontent, can.
Before we go on, I should probably stipulate that I consider Gen. X-ers to be anyone born from roughly the early 70s to the early 80s–apparently, there is no 100% agreed-upon date range for Gen. X, but in my completely arbitrary way, I define it as those who were young adults in the late 80s/early 90s.
Being a Gen. Y-er certainly isn’t the worst–I’ll take it over being a baby boomer any day. But I do feel, rather acutely, the sense that my generation doesn’t have a core belief or goal to wrap ourselves around. Whereas Generation X was reactionary because their parents and grandparents gave them things to react against–homophobia, racism, religion, vaguely middle-class ennui–Generation Y is contentious and atheist and promiscuous because, well, why the hell not? That stuff’s cool, right?
Perhaps we Gen. Y-ers are just too pragmatic, mired in reality, because we give the establishment plenty of leeway and we rarely protest its machinations. The things we supposedly care about, like environmentalism and gay rights, are bandied about as talking points, but the people actually sticking their necks out, demanding change–Dan Choi, Jessica Valenti, Jason Russell–are Gen. X-ers.
When Obama was campaigning, there was that brief wave of activism and excitement that was frankly contagious, but it died, unsurprisingly, nearly immediately after he won the election. And my cynicism tells me that my generation jumped the Obama bandwagon not least for the “cool” factor that it invoked, bailing after success because, despite the fact that Obama and the left wing still faced innumerable challenges, the most high-profile part of the battle was over.
Let’s make some comparisons, shall we? First, consider grunge, the musical genre plus the thrift-store/flannel fashion and self-deprecating moodiness it evokes. It’s no secret that once-alternative grunge bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam became wildly popular in mainstream America; Entertainment Weekly had a 1993 article titled “Smells Like Big Bucks” that said “There hasn’t been this kind of exploitation of a subculture since the media discovered hippies in the ’60s.” So what happened to grunge? Within a year of that article’s publication, Kurt Cobain was dead and the grunge movement was virtually over–it didn’t survive Madison Avenue’s attempted co-opting, which made grunge profitable but also destroyed its spirit.
Now let’s examine Gen. Y’s answer to grunge–the hipster movement. Musical genres include anything under the vast umbrella of indie music: electroclash, freak-folk, prog-rock (which isn’t even really ours), baroque pop (again, not ours) surf rock, post post-punk (it’s like postmodernism–you try to see how many “posts” you can add until someone slaps you), and on and on, ad nauseam. I absolutely agree with Salvatore Bono over at the Huffington Post, who says, “When trends seem to come on in this day and age, they seem to come fast and intense and then wither away, especially musical trends.”
If you want to be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of music being made these days, wander over to Pitchfork. I dare you not to get lost in their seemingly endless indictments of this or that artist for being too “polarizing” or “merely trendy.” But the dirty little secret is that Pitchfork is the trendy one; they’re the godfather of hipsters, feeding them a steady pablum of approved, “underground” music and jumping from this awesome, new genre to that re-discovered, co-opted genre like a flying squirrel lunges between trees.
I don’t hate hipsters, but it disturbs me that the defining subculture of my generation is so obsessed with achieving the sheen of credibility that they would never write “Slut” on their stomachs, they would never fail to wash their hair for more than two days in a row, they would never wear thrifted clothes that weren’t ironically fashionable, and that this movement has been capitalized on and marketed practically to death, but it’s still here. It remains profitable, because Gen. Y continues to buy it.
We’re still coming into our own, and that’s the hope that I cling to regarding this generation. The oldest Gen. Y-ers are just turning 30, and there’s still a chance that with age will come settling and a serious consideration of values and ethics and what exists in this world that is really worth fighting for. I’m waiting for something to light a fire under our collective ass, for us to snap our ironic Buddy Holly glasses in two, and realize that sincerity of purpose and belief is more powerful, more life-sustaining, more fulfilling than hundreds of successive, brief highs achieved through embracing whatever cool gadget or hat or political movement or hairstyle is suddenly “it.”