Monday, May 26, 2008

Gen X Pundit of the Month

Meghan Daum, who writes a column for the LA Times Op-Ed page on Saturdays, is one of my favorite newspaper columnists. Today I am bestowing upon her the title of "Gen X Pundit of the Month" (which I just made up), because she finally said what many people have been thinking for a long time. This week, she wrote a piece for the Sunday Opinion section of the LA Times, about a topic that I have been thinking about for oh so many years - the overwhelming cultural dominance of Baby Boomers, and their everlasting nostalgia for their youth in the '60's. The online title says it all:

The millstone of boomer milestones

I like the Beatles. I once saw the Rolling Stones in concert, and I can understand why some people would pay $500 for a ticket to see them live (I saw them for free) - they really are amazing. I like a lot of classic rock. But dear God will these people ever shut up. In the Books section the same day, just a few pages away, is a review of "Girls Like Us," which has the subtitle "Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon -- and the Journey of a Generation." I like all three of those women. But are the stories of three women who recorded most of their songs 30+ years ago really the story of a generation? Why are these people addicted to generalizing about themselves?

I particularly identified with this:
Boomer-era classic rock is not just music but a life force.

As a member of Generation X, I should know -- I've been strong-armed into an appreciation of '60s and '70s pop culture my whole life.
It has taken me a long time to be able to appreciate my own culture, as opposed to that of the 60's. Back in 1993, I started a group called Generation X (and I actually owned the trademark, with my partner, for about three months). It was a non-profit that was supposed to unite all of the young (at the time) activists mobilizing in Washington, DC, at the start of the Clinton administration. It didn't work, I think in part because the idea of a nonprofit mobilizing the "voices of a generation" was very much a 60's idea - and this was the 90's. So we were trying to find a way to be different from Baby Boomers, but using a very Boomer idea - start a nonprofit! Set up an office and start making grand pronouncements!

As I read her piece, I think I finally hit on a strategy for containing Boomer nostalgia: point out its rather severe limitations, which are confined to mostly two areas of life: rock and roll, and politics. We can all tune in to the legacy of classic rock by turning on the right kind of radio station (at least one in every city), or maybe just shopping in a department store. And, of course, there's the whole anti-war thing, as well as civil rights and feminism. Good stuff all around.

But where the Boomers really didn't get much done, and where, in retrospect, Gen X really rocked it, are movies and technology. Name a great rock band from the 1960's. Name a great Beatles album. Not hard, right?

Now name an Oscar winner for Best Picture.

A little harder, no? There were some great movies made in the 1960's - The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, In the Heat of the Night. But did you know that the Best Picture winner for 1968 was Oliver!? In 1969 it was a countercultural film, Midnight Cowboy, but in 1970, it was Patton. Honestly, I've never seen any of those last three, and I'm not sure I ever will. The Best Picture for 1965 was The Sound of Music. A good movie, to be sure, but not exactly countercultural.

The difference between the revolutionary impact and lasting resonance of the music from the 60's, as opposed to the rather less dramatic impact of the movies from that era, can easily be explained by the difference in cost in producing them. It doesn't take much to write a song and record it; making a movie is somewhat more difficult and expensive.

And technology? The great technical achievement of the 1960's - the space program - took place completely within the government and the military.

Generation X, on the other hand, saw the debut of MTV on August 1, 1980 - a great fusion of art and technology. Boomers may dismiss MTV as superficial eye candy, but some videos are small masterpieces of filmmaking, like Madonna's Vogue, George Michael's Freedom, or Billy Idol's Cradle of Love. Back in the 1980's, I was one of those intellectuals who looked down on pop culture fluff like MTV. But now I realize music videos are an art form, and should be appreciated as such - Boomer judgments be damned.

Our youth also saw the launch of the PC, the Mac, Windows, and a bazillion software programs. We also were the first people to play video games. And then there's the Internet.

One of the great Boomer songwriters, Neil Young, tells us that it is better to burn out than to fade away. Of course, there's an entire generation ahead of us that will refuse, until their dying days, to do neither. But that's OK. I know many great people who are Baby Boomers, like many of my aunts and uncles. Really good people. Boomers gave us the The Doors and a tradition of protesting. But we have U2, REM, the Go-Go's, 10,000 Maniacs, Prince, the Dead Kennedys, Public Enemy, Garth Brooks, and Duran Duran. They gave us James Bond; we have Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker, Neo and Morpheus, the Blues Brothers, Harry Potter, and the X-Men.

And we have Barack Obama.

Fortunately for them, we're willing to share.

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