Monday, April 02, 2007

The Kids Are Alright

"They say all teenagers scare the living shit out of me. They could care less as long as someone'll bleed. So darken your clothes and strike a violent pose -- maybe they'll leave you alone, but not me."

-- My Chemical Romance

I speak from experience when I say that the only thing the modern media loves more than scaring the crap out of Americans for no good reason is making sweeping generalizations about just who they are. It's a given that most news outlets have never met a poll they didn't like -- particularly during an election season, when the grotesque and demeaning practice of reducing the choice between political leaders to a series of cliched sports metaphors becomes the order of the day. At the very least though, this ritual form of vox populi only attempts to reveal a few select opinions as opposed to acting as some sort of blanket Rorschach whose aim is to diagnose the social anthropology of an entire generation.

In that regard, no generation has been as poked, prodded, probed and -- consequently and confidently -- pigeonholed, as our kids.

I'm of course not refering to one particular wave of American offspring as much as the ever-popular generic and perpetually recyclable notion of "kids these days." Adults have always concerned themselves, occasionally to the point of apoplexy, with the thought processes of those mysterious and often infuriating creatures bringing up the rear; the difference in the latter half of the 20th century and early days of the 21st is that those same adults have an unprecedented global coalescence thanks to the technological advances in mass communcation. Unfortunately, they also have a hell of a lot of people with access to this mass communication who are more than happy to play armchair sociologist -- drawing conclusions from isolated incidents involving children, then casting them as fact and ramming the whole package down the collective throat of the general public. Needless to say, their adjudications rarely serve as good news from the front for anxious grown-ups. (Remember, what's the one thing that's more beloved than sweeping generalizations?)

All of this is why over the past twenty years or so, you've been able to count on both hands and feet the number of news cycles that have included one alarming pronouncement or another about the state of America's kids: the way they think, behave, dress, fuck, arm themselves with automatic weapons, etc.

I've mentioned before that there's serious money in fear-mongering (Idiot vs. Predator/03.01.07), and nothing strikes visceral terror into the hearts of your average 35-54-year-old consumers like the notion that someone else's incorrigible rugrats will kill them at an ATM or kill their own drunk, pregnant and meth-addicted spawn at school (provided the latter don't fire first). The only possible exception might be the nagging suspicion that said-same ungrateful spawn will eventually dump them in a third-rate rest home and forget about them until the probate hearing.

About a month ago, my wife and I did something which even at the time seemed utterly ridiculous given our respective ages: we hopped the Long Island Railroad and traveled all the way out to the Nassau Coliseum to see My Chemical Romance. We figured going into it that we were likely to be the oldest people at the show not either part of the road crew or providing supervision for a couple of fifteen-year-olds dressed in every possible shade of black. I'm proud to say that at the very least neither myself nor my wife made any attempt to look like we were a part of the band's youthful core audience, but this admittedly caused us to stick out like, well -- like two adults at a My Chemical Romance concert. Right off the bat, the guy at the door sized us up and used the Jedi Mind Trick to suggest a different course of action than the one dictated by our tickets.

"Hmm -- floor seats," he said, intimating no small amount of concern for our well-being. "You don't wanna sit there. You wanna be away from all that shit and be someplace you can see."

Whatever his reasoning, he was right -- we did in fact want to be away from all that shit and be someplace we could see, so we followed his instructions and met an usher who escorted us to an area of elevated seats right next to the stage. Whether it served as the designated "Unaccompanied Adults" section I have no idea, but if so, it would've confirmed our initial theory about the width of the generation gap on this particular evening, given that we had the area all to ourselves for the length of the show. I remember thinking at the time that the benefits of this were substantial: it would keep us safely out of the path of the arterial spray should any of the goth kids become so overwhelmed by the presence of the Way brothers that he or she would decide to end it all right there, and it would save my wife and I the shame of knowing that the final sight that same poor kid took to the grave was of the two drunk old people dancing and singing along to the songs a couple of seats over.

During my lenghty stay on this earth, I've been lucky enough to see Oasis at the Viper Room in L.A., Nine Inch Nails at 1235 on Miami Beach, Jeff Buckley at a bar no larger than my living room and the Afghan Whigs at the Palace. I've gotten the crap kicked out of me at Black Flag and had Siouxsie Sioux wrap a feather boa around my neck and sing Slowdive inches from my face. I've cried during Jimmy Scott's set at Birdland; I've had Mike Patton of Faith No More steal my Lakers cap. While My Chemical Romance at the Nassau Coliseum couldn't really compare to any of these experiences, it was, for the most part, a damn good show and my wife and I left the place glad that we had made the trip.

On the train ride home, we sat not far from a couple of young girls who had managed to perfectly capture the emo aesthetic and were now milking it for all it was worth. Whether by design or necessity, their look seemed more homegrown (as if Mom had driven them to the local Goodwill) than mass-market (as if Hot Topic had vomited all over them). I sat quietly and listened to them talk about the show: which songs they loved, their favorite members of the band, whether the b-sides were better than the stuff on the actual record etc. Despite the black clothes, the ripped leggings, the faces that looked like The Crow had dragged Eric Draven back from the dead one more time simply to give them make-up tips, they were essentially just normal kids. In fact, there was something sweetly charming -- hopeful even -- in the fact that their giddy smiles belied all that gloomy camouflage.

They were just kids.

Or maybe not.

As it turned out, I was wrong in my assessment of the benign nature of my young travelling companions. Their youthful exuberance and facade of naivete was, in fact, nothing more than a clever ruse designed to trick the unsuspecting into showering them with attention -- and as far as those girls were concerned, no one deserved it more than them because no one was more important than them.

Selfish bitches.

I was informed of the folly of my snap-judgment -- the true nature of not just those two kids, but all "kids these days" -- less than a week after the MCR show; it came via every single television network and newspaper in the United States, all of which trumpeted the "startling findings" of a recently-released study authored by a lone associate professor at that most prestigious of our nation's academic institutions, San Diego State University.

The hysterically caricaturish title of the report: "Egos Inflating Over Time"

It's incontrovertible declaration: America has raised a nation of young narcissists.

The study points to modern teen outlets like MySpace and YouTube -- tools which by the very nature of the personal pronouns in their names cast the user as a demigod -- as Exhibits A & B ad infinitum in the canonization of the individual adolescent. It claims that today's teens are self-absorbed, self-obsessed, self-congratulatory and just plain selfish. No, they're not going to take care of you when you're old because they're going to be too busy thinking only of themselves. No, they won't give a damn about making the world around them a better place because as far as they're concerned they are the fucking world!

Worth mentioning at this point is that the aforementioned SDSU associate professor behind the report, Dr. Jean Twenge, is also the author of last year's tailor-made-to-garner-a-guest-slot-on-The Today Show book, Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled -- and More Miserable than Ever Before. (I swear, some day I'm going to write a book called "Alarmist Assertion: How the Clarification Always Comes After the Colon" -- or maybe just "Exclamation!: Noun Clause.") The cover of Dr. Twenge's dissertation features a photo of an attractive, anonymous female mid-riff sporting the ubiquitous navel ring -- the name of the book emblazoned across those bronzed abs in the form of a tribal tattoo. Subtle it's not.

It should surprise no one that within twenty-four-hours of the initial release of Dr. Twenge's study on February 27th, television news correspondents across the country were fanning out in an epic quest to find the most generic student-union to stand in front of with furrowed brows and parrot the ominous findings. The truly inspired ones even took it upon themselves to seek out as racially and ethnically-balanced a group of American teenagers as possible, then delve into the negative aspects of the kids' supposed self-absorption by pointing a television camera at them and asking their opinions for twenty-minutes.

The end result was that a questionable and otherwise trifling piece of pop-psychology instead became a nationally-circulated indictment not only of an entire generation, but of the generation that raised it -- the one that the study more-than-peripherally implied has enabled such a sickening sense of entitlement by spoiling its children rotten. This latter insinuation is humorous for two reasons: #1, because the older generation in question happens to be the tail end of America's beloved Baby Boomers -- a group which has itself been accused of squandering an unprecedented spirit of revolution and social-consciousness in favor of vanity and excess, and #2, because if you believe #1 to be true, then it stands to reason that any attention lavished on the Boomers' offspring was nothing more than a solipsistic endeavor in the first place.

Once again though, broad strokes tend to miss integral details.

When I was around twenty-three, there was a seemingly ceaseless flow of unmitigated crap being written about how people my age -- those rounded up and summarily tagged with the absurd "Generation X" label -- were going to lead to the eventual subversion of the American way of life followed by the inevitable rise to power of the Antichrist. We were slackers; we were too cool for our own good; we valued irony over sincerity; we listened to the Replacements. In response, a lot of us got high and questioned why our parents arrogantly believed their childhood to be so fucking spectacular that they insisted on foisting it upon the rest of us via reruns of the Brady Bunch and a somewhat disturbing fascination with an aging David Cassidy -- then we ordered a pizza and watched Clerks again.

Over time though, fresh news cycles brought fresh assumptions as to who we were and what we were about ("Gen-X Grows Up," "Gen-X Overachieves," "Gen-X Underachieves," "Gen-X Still Gets High and Watches Clerks," etc.); none of them were correct.

The reason of course is because "we" were never a we.

No one's saying that a vast number of people aren't likely to be affected in similar ways by the generalities of their collective place in history, but when you do them the service of looking a little closer, you usually find that what they really have in common is that each is unique -- more the product of his or her specific environment than anything else. Among those with whom I shared a childhood, an adolescence and an early-adulthood, there were the narcissistic and the benevolent, the arrogant and the humble, the noble and the unscrupulous, the saintly and the depraved, the industrious and the apathetic, the needy and the independent. Our parents feared for our well-being -- afraid that the evolving caprices of a new and dangerous world would swallow us whole, or at the very least corrupt us irredeemably.

It was the same fear that their parents once had for their well-being.

Last week, two stories made the rounds which caught my attention: one concerned a group of Connecticut high school students who were taking on their principal after he suppressed the performance of a school play dealing with the war in Iraq; the other profiled the rising popularity of so-called "Purity Balls," in which young girls pledge a vow of chastity to their fathers during an elaborate, if not somewhat creepy, ceremony. Whatever you think of the young people involved in these seemingly antithetical endeavors, it would be difficult to argue ego as the primary motivation behind either.

If nothing else, this should provide hope for the future -- by providing proof that this generation, like those that came before it and those that will rise in its wake, defies easy categorization.

That's because "kids these days" are, at their core, no different than kids any other days.


Emily said...

It always makes me laugh when I hear people talk about how each generation is worse than the last. But what is more disturbing is when I find myself making comments like that. Whenever a comment like that leaves my lips, I feel incredibly old.
That being said, I've always found it silly to say any generation is crazier/more selfish/worse than any other. Standards of life change each year. It is so easy to judge without looking at the bigger picture. I'm very glad to see that you are keeping an open mind about the new wave of kids.

Anonymous said...

minor comment re your interesting yet marathon for the eyes above:

"less than a week after the MCR show; it came via every single television network and newspaper in the United States, all of which trumpeted the "startling findings" of a recently-released study authored by a lone associate professor at that most prestigious of our nation's academic institutions, the University of San Diego."

Do you mean the University of California at San Diego? Because that would then make sense. USD? I cannot concur in anyway as being "prestigious" and although its a decent jesuit college it remains just a hot bunch of white boys, but their just kids to me. Great law school though. I will stand corrected after I check with my gay bartender buddy who also teaches there though.

Prophet of Ra said...

Say what you will. I respect your opinion (however erroneous it might be).

The fact is that back in my day, kids respected their elders and never smoked the marijuana leaf.

Kids these days are all alike and all cause problems. Those two girls on the train were probably distracting you only so their no good sex obsessed boyfriends could sneak in from behind and pickpocket you for a few measly dollars bound to go to the local 8th grade pot dealer down by the corner Burger King after school the next day where spitting in the teachers' coffees and writing obscenities on the bathroom stall doors next to the swastika and under the "I love Justin Timberlake" messages is commonplace.

mrmook said...

In the past, were Americans Proud, Brave and Free or have I just watched too many movies? What happened?
Your post had me nodding my graying head.
As part of aging fast "manual typewriter generation" (sometime before Gen X and way before Generation MySpace but after Hippies, remember them?) I can honestly say that I'm mostly worried about the behavior of "Adults" and rarely consider the "kids" but feel sadly in the minority with this concern.

I only hope that I was at least as violent, reckless, self-centered, drug-addicted and sex-crazed as the next generation is perpetually depicted in our sober media........... and I have a very good feeling I was.
Thanks again Chez and am eagerly awaiting the "Alarmist Assertion" volume with your subsequent talk show rounds.

Harris said...

Kids are no different now than they every were. The little fuckers have always been evil and they will always be evil. I have no doubt that my now 2-year-old daughter will at some point in the next 20 years beat me dead with my own left arm in an alcohol-and-meth fueled rage. So long as she does the same thing to Joe Francis and stays out of the porn industry, I'll be satisfied as a father.

Deiskrad said...

Excellent. It is of no surprise, of course, that a newsman wrote a book called "The Greatest Generation" thereby determining by fiat in the minds of many, that everything else to come could only hope to be second-best.
I really appreciated the slight sidetrack regarding the Hackish titling of non-fiction. "Idiots: Why publishers insist on non-creative titles for suckers who buy political/social publications"
Psuedo-intellectualism can at times be worse than anti-intellectualism.

Manny said...

As a parent I worry about the same things my parents did: are my kids going to do drugs? are they going to have sex too early? too late?

The rules are still the same only the field has changed: do your best to educate your children, teach them self respect, humilty, and hope that they make the best possible decisions.

Studies like the one you cited are simply inflamatory self promotional tripe peddled by men/women obsessed with their own success.

I'm gonna go get a pizza. I want my copy of Clerks back, by the way.

Emily Blake said...

I taught high school for for years in rural North Carolina. Now I teach the same age group in South Central Los Angeles. People always gasp and want to know the gory details of culture shock and how horrible it must be to teach such aweful little illegal aliens.

I shrug. "Kids are all kind of the same," I always say. They stutter and can't believe it.

But how can I maintain discipline in a room with thirty gang members?

Only two of them are usually gang members and I'd venture to say that they are also the same.

Honesty is the answer. When you tell kids the truth - and they can tell if it's the truth - they immediately respect you. And that never changes.

And say one word to my kids about that immigration bill and you can see how involved they are in politics.

Anonymous said...

"During my lenghty stay on this earth, I've been lucky enough to see Oasis at the Viper Room in L.A., Nine Inch Nails at 1235 on Miami Beach, Jeff Buckley at a bar no larger than my living room and the Afghan Whigs at the Palace. I've gotten the crap kicked out of me at Black Flag and had Siouxsie Sioux wrap a feather boa around my neck and sing Slowdive inches from my face. I've cried during Jimmy Scott's set at Birdland; I've had Mike Patton of Faith No More steal my Lakers cap. "

So aside from Jimmy Scott and Black Flag, have you ever seen any GOOD music? No wonder you got the crap kicked out of you. Oasis? Nine Inch Nails? Jeff Buckley? My Chemical Romance? How douchey.

Chez said...

I'm sure I could come up with something clever to say in response, but I'm too busy laughing at you.

I love it when the sheer idiocy of somebody's own words mocks that person better than I could ever hope to.

Chez said...

Oh, and Tom -- thanks for the heads-up. I wanted to get to bed and didn't really bother proofing this thing the way I usually do.

Anonymous said...

that's the difference between u and me. You're a writer, who finds a need to proof. I am a frmr NYer with no interest in proofing.

Schwa said...

and had Siouxsie Sioux wrap a feather boa around my neck and sing Slowdive inches from my face.

My jealousy knows no bounds.

sparksinner said...

Whatever else is going on, I think a part of the problem is parents telling their kids they're "special" in a quest to build self esteem.

Bullshit, they're just like everyone else. Not everyone can be special. Some of us have to be below average.

Drill "you're special and unique" into a kid's skull long enough and they're going to believe it. From there it's a short road to narcissism and total lack of respect for others. "My mommy says I'm special, so I don't have to listen to you."

I'm not worried about my 2 kids (2.5 years and 2 months). It's other parents that worry me. Actually, it's how I'll deal with other parents and their dipshit kids.

My blood is coming to a boil just thinking about this so I best stop.

choenbone said...

being a new father i hope to instill some fear and sense of responsibility into my son as he grows, something many parents ( at least in my own personal observations) have neglected. Of course how can you teach responsibility when many of the parents claim no responsibility of their own?

and yes my son is special, special to me and the fuck with what anybody has to say. im not gonna coddle him into false security by telling him he's better or worse off than anyone else, thats a "life lesson" hes gonna learn the hard way.

I am, however, going to teach him the value of differing perspectives, a skill i firmly believe will inable him to take over the world and set it all on fire.
kids are great, little wind up toys that if you wind em right can stirr the pot in all kinds of ways, good and bad.
now i gotta put the lil bugger to bed...have you seen his fire proof jammies?

Ann Marie said...

Thanks for standing up for the younger generation. I'm 20 years old and a junior in college, and it makes me sick when the media categorizes us as "the me generation" or whatever the hell else they want to call us. Yeah, young people are selfish, but so are older people. PEOPLE are selfish, egocentric, etc. It's not about being young or old, it's about being human. I defy you to find one person with reasonable self-esteem who doesn't think (at least to some extent), that the world revolves around him.

Anonymous said...

Im 20 years old and I loooove the Replacements!

gilly_62 said...

argh, way late to the party, but I must put in my two cents! I spent 20 years in the navy. 25 years ago, had a young e-1 or -2 said to a senior petty officer "you'd better show me my respect" or (my personal favorite) "just because you're the e-6 doesn't mean I have to do what you tell me to do" s/he'd be fetching his/her teeth from out behind the quonset hut; of course that never happened, because 25 years ago it would have never occurred to them to say that. they'd have been to, frankly, scared.
sadly, the same cannot be said today, from junior personnel declining shipboard firefighting drills due to lack of respect to admin personnel swearing at their senior p.o.'s.

just sayin'.