Reality Bites Screenshot via YouTube user thecultbox
Hey, did you hear about the western Antarctic ice sheet? The melting there has reached the point of no return, which means we’re getting an extra ten feet added to our sea levels in the near future. A clear and direct threat to human life as we know it—we should be rioting in the streets, or at least posting more ice memes than net neutrality memes, right? Instead, as everyone knows, the scourge of the postmodern world, the Millennial generation, is too busy updating Snapchat on the iPhones they bought with their parents’ credit cards. But is it really all our fault?
Generation X has a lot more to do with our current shitshow than they believe. I’m not blaming them for the way the world looks—that’s on the Boomers—but our big brothers and sisters in Gen X screwed up our cultural priorities by teaching Millennials that self-obsession is the highest mark of cultural capital.
When we first started dating, my wife asked me to watch Empire Records with her, which she sold as a quirky Generation X romp about a gang of loveable misfits working in a record store, dissecting pop culture and dispensing snarky comments at and about customers. I have a pretty strong stomach when it comes to media consumption (I am part of the first internet generation after all), but this movie shocked me.
On the surface there’s nothing particularly upsetting about Empire Records. It’s a pretty mediocre ensemble dramedy stapled onto a basic plotline that culminates in a giant party, John Hughes 101 type stuff featuring a very young Liv Tyler. The film’s ideological universe is what horrified me. The individuality-obsessed characters in Empire Records are preoccupied with critiquing popular culture, but completely oblivious to their own unfathomable level of privilege. The eponymous record store is independent (of course), yet somehow manages to employ about a dozen twentysomethings and teenagers who are at best incompetent and at worst actual liabilities to the store. In one scene, they hold a faux funeral for a coworker who has attempted suicide (“I went to rock and roll heaven, and I wasn't on the guest list”); in another, the “artist” of the bunch glues quarters to the counter, actually saying “I don't feel that I need to explain my art to you”—all while supposedly on the clock at the store. How did we ever think watching movies like this was fun?
In the introduction to his 2009 book X Saves The World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking, Jeff Gordinier, a card-carrying Gen X-er, talks about how his generation has been ignored in recent years in favor of the cultural parent-child conflict playing out between befuddled Baby Boomers who still believe that by dropping acid at Woodstock they changed the world, and their selfish Millennial offspring who will buy anything with a recognizable logo because they “just love stuff,” according to Gordinier.
Gordinier finds Gen X caught in the middle: the skeptical and morose group that questioned authority, societal values, and moral standards. With all the ironically distanced gravitas of Janeane Garofalo pointing out that Evïan is naïve spelled backwards in Reality Bites, he argues that his generation offers the western world’s only chance of surviving the cataclysmic problems largely created by Boomers that the Millennials are too ineffective to solve. According to Gordinier, Gen X are dreamers, innovators, individualists, and critical thinkers: a Promethean generation of clear-eyed antiheroes.
If you were born in the 1990s, odds are you don’t even know what Gen X is. In short it’s your fortysomething cousin or uncle who drives a Hybrid, sports a Dinosaur Jr. t-shirt on weekends, and occasionally busts out the old hacky sack to the dulcet tunes of Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots and Alice in Chains. Gen X invented grunge, the commercially viable cousin of punk rock. They popularized Doc Martens, briefly turned MTV into a drum circle with the Unplugged series, and made indie cinema a thing. Their existential search for a cultural identity was glorified in meandering offbeat comedies and dramas set in coffee shops, record stores, minimarts, and other sites where a white twenty-something might make a comfortable if Sisyphean living while expounding bite-size philosophy and snarky one-liners. Jaded Gen X slackers nihilistically accept the machine of which they are a part, and can dissect its fundamental facile and evil nature with all the clarity and urgency of a nineteenth-century Romantic poet.
Anyone born between 1965 and 1980 is a member of Generation X, a term that was popularized by Douglas Coupland’s 1991 debut novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, which revolves around a group of young outsiders critically examining consumer society and Western culture. Coupland has built an entire career of dispensing drolly bleak prognostications from his vaunted Gen X perch; in 2010’s “A Radical Pessimist’s Guide to the Next Ten Years,” he promises: “We'll be entering a replay of the antebellum South, when people defined themselves by the social status of their ancestors three generations back…You're going to miss the 1990s more than you ever thought.”
On the surface, at least, it seems he might be right. Urban Outfitters can’t keep cheap florals and high-waisted shorts on the shelves, cool kid music acts like HAIM and Autre Ne Veut offer tweaked takes on 1990s favorites, and normcore (aka dressing like the cast of Seinfeld) is making a weird play for cultural relevancy. Pop chanteuses trying to establish personal brands have found 1990s nostalgia an unusually rich vein to mine, as Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” video (supposedly an homage to, but really just a reshoot of, Clueless) indicates.
But a major downer lurks under all this neon fun: Generation X’s sexy whatever attitude is based on a philosophy of resignation, whose cultural artifacts taught Millennials that introspection is the highest human act. The music, movies, and other detritus of the 1990s correctly depict that it was a great time to live in, the one period where it actually seemed like capitalism was working for us. Material wealth in the Western world was at an all-time high and the economic engine of the middle class looked virtually unshakeable. Remembering what people were afraid of really puts things in perspective: killer bees, earth rays, and Marilyn Manson. Honest to god! That’s how relatively calm everything was in America in the 1990s: Marilyn Manson, the walking Ed Hardy billboard briefly married to Dita von Teese, was actually thought to be a threat to the moral fabric of society.
Gen X movies like Slacker, Reality Bites, Empire Records, and A Dream for an Insomniac operate under the same paradigm. “Anything less than mad, passionate, extraordinary love is a waste of time,” says Ione Skye’s aloof and “deep” character in the latter, an unemployed actress in San Francisco who spends her days quoting poetry and shooting the shit with her friends at the local coffee shop. Only the idealistic pursuit of true love matters to her, a reasonable priority, given her mysterious ability to live comfortably in San Francisco as an unemployed actress. But the bloated 90’s didn’t last. If you work in a coffee shop today, there’s no time to hang out with your friends; Right to Work laws and an influx of desperate unemployed people have made job security a thing of the past. And if you’re unemployed in today’s San Francisco, you may as well be dead.
Gen X’ers complain that Millennials are mindless consumer drones obsessed with brand identity, but they are the ones who cannily designed brand identity to be cool and appealing within the Gen X ideological universe. At the root of Apple’s mythic appeal is the power of its perceived story of the outsider underdog beating the big bad corporate villain. iDavid versus Microgoliath. Ignore all of those supersized Stalin-style posters of Steve Jobs; Apple is all about you, and you are the most important person in the world. Buy a pretty new device!
Generation X fell in love with its own image and shaped Millennials in their hall of mirrors. The oft remarked-upon Millennial inertia reflects how utterly useless this ethos is in a world that might as well be another planet compared to the 90’s. Rather than an inherently solipsistic generation, the problems Millennials face are evidence of the failure of a bullshit philosophy on a crumbling societal structure. There are no jobs in independent record stores today, no time for shallow coffeeshop existentialism.
Empire Records Screenshot via YouTube user Denverfilm
By draining idealism of its optimistic sincerity, Generation X created a culture obsessed with methods of content delivery but disinterested in content. Social media, the greatest innovation of our time, offers unprecedented opportunities for social action, but the only facet that consistently holds our attention is our own image. Millennials are not by nature conceited; it’s just that little else seems worth the effort. This cultural nihilism was a stream of discourse that our big brothers and sisters in the 1990s could choose to buy into or opt out of; for us, it is inherited, pervasive, and insidious.
Millenials have been accused of being oblivious to the real shit sandwich the twenty-first century is shaping up to be. But how can we do otherwise? If the Gen X cultural expression of the 1990s taught us anything, it is that not giving a fuck is the only truly meaningful personal act. Don’t get me wrong: not giving a fuck is always cool, but it isn’t a political statement, and there’s nothing constructive about it. Stop believing there ever was. Ethan Hawke’s character in Reality Bites is not an outsider hero. He’s just a privileged white dude living in the best decade this part of the world has ever seen.
So, yeah. We get it Gen X. Evian is naïve spelled backwards. Thanks.
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