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?