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.

Photo: Warner Bros
Show Hide image

Every single line spoken by actor Harry Styles in the movie Dunkirk, evaluated

Judging the actual speaking and acting the from teen icon.

When it was announced that Harry Styles had been cast in Dunkirk, most people assumed it was a Drew Barrymore in Scream sort of deal. A big name, who would be plastered over the posters, front and centre at promotional interviews, but given a barely-speaking part and probably killed off in the first five minutes. Not so! Not only does he not die early on, Harry has a very significant amount of time on screen in Dunkirk, and even more surprisingly, a lot of that time involves actual speaking and acting from the teen icon. In this action-heavy, dialogue-sparse film, he has more lines than most.

Of course, the most normal human response to this revelation is to list every single time he speaks in the film and evaluate every moment on a line-by-line basis. So here it is. Every single line spoken by actor Harry Styles in the movie Dunkirk, evaluated by a very impartial Harry Styles fan. Let’s go.

Obviously, this contains spoilers for Dunkirk.

“What’s wrong with your friend?”

It’s the first line, but it’s a goody. So nonchalant; so effortless; breezily accompanied by a mouthful of toast and jam. Curious, friendly – but with dangerous edge. A lurking threat. A shiver of accusation. This sets up Alex as a normal, if self-assured, bloke who also wants to be sure you’re not about to get him killed. A very strong debut – the kind of line that, if you didn’t know better, would make you think, “Hm, who’s this charismatic young guy”?

A cheer.

Solid 8/10 cheer, believe this guy has cheered before.

“You can’t leave us! Make some room!”

It’s only been ten minutes, but things have really kicked up a notch. Raspy, panicked, desperate, this line left my heart jumping for my poor sodden son. A triumph, and certainly one of Harry’s best lines.

“Hey!”

Here, Alex yells “Hey!” to get the attention of other soldiers, which turns into louder, repeated cries for their attention. I can find little wrong with this “Hey”, and indeed later “Hey”s, but I would not nominate it for an Oscar. This “Hey” is just fine.

“What’s that way?”

I believe that Alex does not, in fact, know what is that way. (It’s a boat.) 7/10.

“S’grounded!”

Alex has delivered the last three shouts with exactly the same intonation. This is good because normal people do not opt for variance in tone when desperately yelling at each other across the beach. I also appreciate the lack of enunciation here. Great work, Harry.

“’ow long’s that?”

I believe that Alex does not, in fact, know how long it will take for the tide to come in. (It’s about three hours.) 7/10.

“Poke yer head out, see if the water’s come in”

Alex is ramping things up a notch – this is authoritative, even challenging. Excellent pronunciation of “aht”, more great slurring.

“Talkative sod, aren’t ya?”

A big line, important for the growing hints that Alex is mistrustful of the silent soldier in their group. And yet not Harry’s absolute best. A little too much forced vowel for me.

“For fuck’s sake!”

Oh my God, we’re here now boys. It’s begun. The water’s not come in. Forget the high-explosive, Alex has only gone and dropped a bloody F-bomb, and Harry’s performance is actually stressful. What an about-turn. Delivered with spitting fury; the “for”, if there at all, almost inaudible; a dropped box clanging to the ground for extra impact. We know that Harry ad-libbed this (and a later) F-word, and this spontaneous approach is working. A truly superb go at doing some swearing. 10/10.

“Yeah but ’ow long?”

I would describe this delivery as “pained”. A little groan of fear hangs in the back. This is, as they say, the good shit.

“Why’d you leave your boat?”

This whispered anger suits Harry.

Some extreme shushing.

Definitely would shush.

“We have to plug it!”

Alex’s heart doesn’t seem really in plugging the bullet holes in the boat, despite the surface-level urgency of this delivery, probably because he doesn’t want to get shot. Nuance. I like it.

“Somebody needs to get off.”

A mic drop of a line, delivered with determined focus.

“I don’t need a volunteer. I know someone who ough’a get off.”

The way his cadence falls and his voice falters when as he reaches the word volunteer. It’s a sad, resigned, type of fear, the type of fear we expect from Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley. Harry’s dropping clues that Alex doesn’t really want to be shoving anyone off a boat to their deaths. But then Alex steels himself, really packing a punch over that “ough’a”.

“This one. He’s a German spy.”

The momentum is building, Alex’s voice is getting breathier and breathier, panic is fluttering in his voice now. I’m living for each and every second of this, like a proud mother with a camcorder. You’re doing amazing, sweetie.

“He’s a focking Jerry!”

Go on my son! Harry’s voice is so high only dogs can hear him now. The mix of fear and aggression is genuinely convincing here, and more than ever it feels clear that you’re practically watching a group of schoolboys with guns scared out of their minds, desperate to go home, who might shoot each other dead at any second. This is undoubtedly the pinnacle of Harry’s performance.

“Have you noticed he hasn’t said a word? ’Cause I ’ave. Won’t speak English: if he does it’s in an accent’s thicker than sauerkraut sauce.”

This is, objectively, the silliest line in this film and maybe any film, ever, and I love it. Never before have the words “sauerkraut sauce” been uttered as a simile, or as a threat, and here, they are both. Inexplicably, it sort of works through Harry’s high-pitched voice and gritted teeth. My personal highlight of the entire movie.

“Tell me.”

Alex is going full antagonist. Whispered, aggressive, threatening. It is safe to say I am dead and deceased.

“Tell me, ‘Gibson’”.

Ugh, now with an added layer of mockery. I am dead, but also please kill me.

“A frog! A bloody frog! A cowardly, little queue-jumping frog. Who’s Gibson, eh? Some naked, dead Englishman lying out in that sand?”

Brexit Harry Styles is furious, and his accent is going a bit all over the place as a result.

“Maybe he killed him.”

Just-about-believably paranoid.

“How do we know?”

This is too close to the delivery Harry uses in this vine for me to take seriously, I’m deeply sorry about that.

“Well, we know who’s getting off.”

I believe that Alex does, in fact, know who is getting off. (It’s the French guy.) 7/10.

“Better ’im than me.”

I agree!!!!!

“Somebody’s gotta get off, so the rest of us can live.”

Empassioned, persuasive, fervent. When glimpsed in trailers, this moment made me think Alex would be sacrificing himself to save others. Not so! He just really, really wants to live. A stellar line, executed very well.

“Do you wanna volunteer?”

Good emoting. I believe the emotion used here is “disbelief”.

“Then this is the price!”

I believe the emotion used here is “desperation”.

“He’s dead, mate.”

So blunt, delivered with an awkward pity. A stand-out moment thanks to my high quality son Harold.

“We let you all down, didn’t we.”

Dahhn. Harry lets us know this is not even a question in Alex’s mind, its a fact. Poor depressed little Alex.

“That old bloke wouldn’t even look us in the eye.”

The weird thing (irony? joke?) here is that the old bloke is actually blind, not refusing to look them in the eye. Slightly bizarre, but Harry rolls with it with this relaxed approach to the word “bloke”.

“Hey! Where are we!”

Good God I love this rousing line. The bell chiming in the background, the violins stirring. There is something curiously British about this line. Something so, “‘What’s to-day?’ cried Scrooge”. Here, Harry is doing what he did best in the early one direction days - being a normal lad from a normal town whose life was made extraordinary even though he’s just, like, so totally normal.

“What station!”

I take it back, THIS is probably my favourite line of the whole movie. Purely because it sounds exactly like Harry Edward Styles on an average day, going about his business, asking what station he’s at. Alex who?

“Grab me one o’ them papers! Go on!”

Now, this, I love. Newcastle brown in hand, f’s dropped, a “go on” barely lacking a “my son”. Put a flat cap on the lad and hand him a chimney sweeping broom - we are in deliciously caricatured Brit territory.

“I can’t bear it. They’ll be spitting at us in the streets, if they’re not locked up waiting for the invasion.”

How rapidly joy turns to ashes in our mouths. One second so elated, with the nostalgic scent of home quivering in his nostrils, Alex is now feeling extremely sorry for himself (fair enough, to be honest). A fine “sad voice” here.

“I can’t look.”

The “sad voice” continues.

“Wha’??”

Hahahahahaha. Yes.

And with this very confused noise Harry Styles closes his debut film performance, which I would describe as extremely solid. Even if I am fuming that he didn’t get to die, beautifully, and at length. Well done Harold.

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