Generation X factor

Though often dismissed as slackers, the cohort that produced Elliott Smith, Pavement and Sonic Youth

A decade ago, the Atlantic magazine called them "the most politically disengaged" young adults in US history. Their accelerated culture -- to borrow the novelist Douglas Coupland's phrase -- had taken shape among the over-educated "slackers" who crowded the skate parks and arcade centres of middle America; the alienated offspring of Nixon-era suburbanites who had traded flower power for Wall Street.

Where the postwar baby boomers had Holden Caulfield, their children had Beavis and Butthead. Writing in 1991, Coupland called them "Generation X", in reference to the ambiguity that defined their world view. The label stuck.

Coming of age in a time of recession, rising crime, the Chernobyl disaster and war, and denied even the license for sexual adventurousness that the boomers had enjoyed (largely due to the emergence of Aids), the X-ers had much to complain about. Falling wages and commensurate increases in urban poverty contributed to an atmosphere of economic insecurity, while political scandals (from the US treasurer Catalina Vásquez Villalpando's incarceration for tax evasion in 1992 to the Clinton/Lewinsky affair) only widened the chasm between the generations.

Declarations of mistrust were hurled from both sides of the generational divide. "We are the sons of no one," sang the Replacements in their 1986 college-radio hit "Bastards of Young". A Washington Post headline, meanwhile, exhorted the young "crybabies" to "grow up".

Social liberalism was on the up and huge improvements in the educational system -- hard won by the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s -- had led to a more functional democratisation of knowledge than the US had experienced ever before. By the 1990s, the average student at many undergraduate institutions was a working woman over the age of 22. It was this, perhaps, that engendered the informed cynicism of Generation X, depicted in pop culture as equal parts langour and intellectual rigour.

If young people weren't interested in the adult world of business and politics, they directed their energies toward more private ends. Self-consciously non-commercial music, much of it recorded at home (Palace Brothers, the Beat Happening), as well as photocopied fanzines and comics about intense, personal experiences (Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve) flourished in the era.

Today, fans will be marking the seventh anniversary of the death of Elliott Smith, one of the generation's icons. Born in August 1969, Smith began his musical career at the height of the grunge boom as a co-founder of the Portland indie rockers Heatmiser. Smith, a philosophy graduate who named his album Either/Or after a Kierkegaard treatise on aesthetics, was a bedroom musician par excellence; over a span of half a dozen albums, he chronicled his failed relationships and spiralling drug abuse with rare clarity.

After the demise of Heatmiser, Smith became a fixture in the New York singer-songwriter circuit, where his whispered vocals and Big Star/Beatles melodies caught the attention of the film-maker Gus Van Sant. Van Sant commissioned Smith to write a song for his 1998 film, Good Will Hunting, which unexpectedly resulted in an Oscar nomination (Smith would lose out to Celine Dion). A short period of minor success followed and his music grew ever more ambitious. At the core of his writing, however, remained the hesitant romanticism that had distinguished him in the first place.

Smith's suicide in 2003 has seen him crudely cast as a rock'n'roll martyr. Yet what he will be remembered for is his music. On 1 November, Domino Recordings will release An Introduction to Elliott Smith, a compilation of his hits that never were.

It's a strange feeling to see the bands and musicians of our youth repackaged as "classic" artists and reforming for nostalgia tours. But the X-ers are all in (or approaching) their middle age. Between 1-3 October, the indie label Matador celebrated its 21st anniversary in Las Vegas, with a mighty roster of alternative music's prime movers, including Pavement and Sonic Youth. That the 1980s no-wave veterans Sonic Youth have been around five years longer than the Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner has even been alive is a stark reminder of the new irony of that band's name: sonic they still are but youth they most certainly are not.

The buzz surrounding the festival and the compilation, however, attests to the enduring legacy of the X-ers. Many of today's rock luminaries (including the Bright Eyes singer Conor Oberst) cite Smith and the Matador set as major influences. Generation X may have seemed like a lost generation but perhaps this was deliberate -- after all, who likes a try-hard?

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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