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16 March 2017

The musical heroes of Generation X didn’t have to be political – until now

It feels more important to stick it to The Man when The Man is . . .  Donald Trump

By Yo Zushi

Not so long ago, the alt-right cartoonist Ben Garrison published a drawing called Attack of the Crybullies, in which a procession of giant-sized babies tramples over grown-up liberals (one of whom lamely apologises for his fate: “Sooo sorry!”) outside Yale University. Another fat, angry-eyed baby sits in a box labelled “safe space”, his or her hair dyed in rainbow colours, while books bearing the words “logic” and “reason” on their covers burn on a bonfire across the street. It’s a morbid image that summarises that distinctly Trumpy suspicion of “snowflakes” – or young people who are “perceived to be too sensitive, easily offended and weak”, as Amelia Tait recently defined the term in the New Statesman. Jeez. Haven’t those bozo kids heard? It’s the age of “winners” now, and “caring” is for losers. So man up, or shut up!

This kind of attitude is nothing new. Back in the 1990s, the Washington Post despaired of the generation born since the mid-1960s and told it in a headline: “Grow up, crybabies”. In the decades since Life magazine introduced the idea of the modern teenager to the world in 1944, conservative adults have casually pooh-poohed the sensitivities and political inclinations of the young, all the while forgetting that they, too, were probably once told to man up, or shut up, and for God’s sake stop crying.

Yet there is a difference between today’s crybabies and the crybabies who so upset the Washington Post two decades ago – at least in the way they are or were perceived. Millennial snowflakes supposedly cry about political issues such as transgender rights and racial representation, while their Generation X counterparts cried about… what exactly? According to the Atlantic journalist Ted Halstead in 1999, surveys indicated that “Xers” were “less politically or civically engaged” and “more materialistic than their predecessors”; indeed, they appeared “to have enshrined political apathy as a way of life”.

A few years ago, I wrote here that if the young people of the “MTV generation” weren’t particularly “interested in the adult world of business and politics”, they directed their energies instead “towards more private ends”. Go listen to some Nirvana and you’ll know what I mean: where Bob Dylan raged against “masters of war” in the 1960s and the racism of the US legal system in the mid-1970s protest song “Hurricane”, Kurt Cobain generally explored an inner world where “it’s fun to lose and pretend”. (Punks such as the Minutemen and many rappers directly addressed social and political issues, but they were in the minority, at least in the mainstream.)

This political apathy was, perhaps, a luxury of a time when even the most appalling politics seemed to operate within established rules of some sort. And, as Halstead suggested, the Xers’ disengagement had much to do with a sense that the very real problems they faced were largely being ignored by those in power. “In the nation’s political system, they perceive no leadership on the issues that concern them,” he wrote. “Rather, they see self-serving politicians who continually indenture themselves to the highest bidders.” So what was the point of engaging with it?

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Then again, we all have our limits. “I don’t care who gets elected,” sang the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg in the late-1980s blues song “Election Day”, most likely reflecting on the choice between the hawkish George H W Bush and the decidedly liberal Michael Dukakis – candidates who offered significantly different conceptions of what kind of country America should be. But would Westerberg have tossed out such a line if faced with the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?

“It’s unprecedented,” the US musician Sam Coomes told me at a gig venue in south London last weekend, as we spoke about his country’s new president. “I don’t think somebody has been so openly out to subvert the entire concept of responsible government before.”

The slight and silver-haired Coomes, born in Texas in 1964, co-founded the alternative rock band Quasi in 1993 with Janet Weiss, who is better known today for drumming with Sleater Kinney and Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus. Coomes himself has been at the epicentre of indie music for decades, having been a member of Heatmiser and Elliott Smith’s touring band, as well as playing with Built to Spill, Jandek and the Go-Betweens. An archetypal Xer, he rejected the conservatism of his upbringing (“My dad was military…”) and worked “a long list” of day jobs to support his music career in its early years. “By the time I was able to start forming my own ideas, I immediately began to branch off from my environment,” he said.  

When Donald Trump was inaugurated as US president in January, Coomes and Weiss responded by releasing a compilation called Battle Hymns, featuring a roll-call of 1990s alternative rockers, from Stephen Malkmus, Jon Spencer and REM’s Peter Buck to Sleater Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker. Quasi then organised an accompanying concert in their home town of Portland, Oregon, which included many of the same performers and hosted local activists campaigning against Trump’s right-wing, “post-truth” onslaught. All proceeds from the album and the event went to Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union and the climate change-focused group (Battle Hymns has raised $36,000 so far.)

Coomes, unlike many of his peers, had long been politically conscious in his work. (He ended his Iraq War-era song “White Devil’s Dream” with a spoken-word diatribe that went: “A big fuck you to George Bush, father and son. Jeb Bush, too. All Bushes – fuck you. Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld… All you motherfuckers. Fuck you, Tony Blair, sell-out motherfucker…”) When I asked him whether he thought that musicians had a duty to engage with what was going on in the world at large, he said: “I’m not sure about a responsibility, but if we don’t, who will?”

Coomes believes that artists “should be out ahead of the curve, not just accepting the status quo. And that should be on multiple levels, not just aesthetically, but probably socially and politically, too.” And although “not all artists are going to do that, or are good at that”, he told me, “If you have any inclinations in that direction at all, now is the time!”

It may be overstating the case to claim that the rise of Donald Trump has suddenly radicalised all the Xers, but I feel that it’s significant that these bands and musicians – many of whom are associated more with lyrics about “summer babes” and “dystopian dream girls” – have so explicitly come out in opposition to a specific administration. And their kind of activism is sensible and has a specific, well-reasoned objective. Since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, Coomes told me, “fringe groups on the right” had become “a little bit bolder in being open with their toxic ideologies”, motivated “in large part by racism”. Yet he acknowledged that these were largely “local, grass-roots organisations and, in some ways, it was all very democratic”.

What these Xer rock heroes hoped to achieve was to help create their own, rival grass-roots movement, using their music to “energise” fans “to fight the power”. “And we wanted to give people information and opportunities to volunteer, and expose as many people as possible to these ideas,” Coomes added.

In the 1990s, there was much griping about the supposedly “bad attitude” of Generation X. I suppose I’m glad that this stick-it-to-the-man world-view is being weaponised at last – and what an easy man Trump is to stick it to.

Sam Coomes’s new album, “Bugger Me”, is out now on Domino Records
Yo Zushi’s latest album, “It Never Entered My Mind”, is released by Eidola Records

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