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 work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

Vevo
Show Hide image

Katy Perry’s new song is not so much Chained to the Rhythm as Chained to a Black Mirror episode

The video for “Chained to the Rhythm” is overwhelmingly pastel and batshit crazy. Watch out, this satire is sharp!

If you’ve tuned into the radio in the last month, you might have heard Katy Perry’s new song, “Chained to the Rhythm”, a blandly hypnotic single that’s quietly, creepingly irresistible.

If you’re a really attuned listener, you might have noticed that the lyrics of this song explore that very same atmosphere. “Are we crazy?” Perry sings, “Living our lives through a lens?”

Trapped in our white picket fence
Like ornaments
So comfortable, we’re living in a bubble, bubble
So comfortable, we cannot see the trouble, trouble
Aren’t you lonely?
Up there in utopia
Where nothing will ever be enough
Happily numb

The chorus muses that we all “think we’re free” but are, in fact, “stumbling around like a wasted zombie, yeah.” It’s a swipe (hehe) at social media, Instagram culture, online dating, whatever. As we all know, modern technology is Bad, people who take photos aren’t enjoying the moment, and glimpses other people’s Perfect Lives leave us lonely and empty. Kids these days just don’t feel anything any more!!!

The video for this new song was released today, and it’s set in a (get this) METAPHORICAL AMUSEMENT PARK. Not since Banky’s Dismaland have we seen such cutting satire of modern life. Walk with me, through Katy Perry’s OBLIVIA.

Yes, the park is literally called Oblivia. Get it? It sounds fun but it’s about oblivion, the state of being unaware or unconscious, i.e. the state we’re all living in, all the time, because phones. (I also personally hope it’s a nod to Staffordshire’s own Oblivion, but cannot confirm if Katy Perry has ever been on the Alton Towers classic steel roller coaster.)

The symbol of the park is a spaced-out gerbil thing, because, aren’t we all caged little hairy beings in our own hamster wheels?! Can’t someone get us off this never-ending rat race?!

We follow Katy as she explores the park – her wide eyes take in every ride, while her peers are unable to look past the giant iPads pressed against their noses.


You, a mindless drone: *takes selfies with an iPad*
Katy Perry, a smart, engaged person: *looks around with actual human eyes, stops to smell the roses*

She walks past rides, and stops to smell the roses – and the pastel-perfect world is injected with a dose of bright red reality when she pricks her finger on a thorn. Cause that’s what life really is, kids! Risk! At least she FEELS SOMETHING.


More like the not-so-great American Dream, am I right?!

So Katy (wait, “Rose”, apparently) takes her seat on her first ride – the LOVE ME ride. Heteronormative couples take their seats against either a blue heart or a pink one, before being whizzed through a tunnel of Facebook reaction icons.

Is this a comment on social media sexism, or a hint that Rose is just too damn human for your validation station? Who knows! All we can say for sure is that Katy Perry has definitely seen the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive”:

Now, we see a whole bunch of other rides.


Wait time: um, forever, because the human condition is now one of permanent stasis and unsatisfied desires, duh.

No Place Like Home is decorated with travel stamps and catapults two of the only black people in the video out of the park. A searing comment on anti-immigrant rhetoric/racism? Uh, maybe?

Meanwhile, Bombs Away shoots you around like you’re in a nuclear missile.


War: also bad.

Then everyone goes and takes a long drink of fire water (?!?!) at Inferno H2O (?!?!) which is also a gas station. Is this about polluted water or petrol companies or… drugs? Or are we just so commercialised even fire and water are paid-for privileges? I literally don’t know.

Anyway, Now it’s time for the NUCLEAR FAMILY SHOW, in 3D, no less. Rose is last to put her glasses on because, guess what? She’s not a robot. The show includes your typical 1950s family ironing and shit, while hamsters on wheels run on the TV. Then we see people in the rest of theme park running on similar wheels. Watch out! That satire is sharp.

Skip Marley appears on the TV with his message of “break down the walls to connect, inspire”, but no one seems to notice accept Rose, and soon becomes trapped in their dance of distraction.


Rose despairs amidst the choreography of compliance.

Wow, if that didn’t make you think, are you even human? Truly?

In many ways – this is the Platonic ideal of Katy Perry videos: overwhelmingly pastel, batshit crazy, the campest of camp, yet somehow walking the fine line between self-ridicule and terrifying sincerity. It might be totally stupid, but it’s somehow still irresistible.

But then I would say that. I’m a mindless drone, stumbling around like a wasted zombie, injecting pop culture like a prescription sedative.

I’m chained…………. to the rhythm.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.