Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Children of the Scorn
Following up on MTV CEO Van Toffler's broadstroke declaration that the Millennials are an uncynical, family-oriented, civic-minded bunch (which I'll assume wasn't said while trying to choke back laughter): I've done more than my fair share of generational generalizing around here, having picked on both tween culture and, of course, the Baby Boomers on more than one occasion. What's interesting, though, is that every time I beat up on either of those groups -- and let's face it, making fun of the tweens is entertaining and the Boomers, easy and these days somewhat justified -- I wait for someone to rub in my face a piece I wrote way back in April of 2007. One that took a much more measured approach to generation-bashing. (I freely admit that my level of magnanimity on a given subject can sometimes depend on the mood I'm in when I wake up in the morning.) This will be the first time this sucker's been on the main page in quite some time.
"The Kids Are Alright" (Originally Published, 4.2.07)
"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, 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 decided 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 traveling 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.
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-diverse 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: (A) 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 (B) because if you believe (A) 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.
(PostScript, 2.24.10: While I really do believe that every generation is made up of disparate elements, there's absolutely no denying that there are certain cultural touchstones which are unique to a specific generation and around which the members of that group coalesce. The internet, cell phones, social networking, YouTube, iTunes and -- really fucking unfortunately -- reality TV no doubt have had a massive impact on the way the Millennnials as a genus think and how they function in the world. I've joked recently that, ironically, I wouldn't want my daughter watching MTV no matter how much its CEO is lying his ass off to make himself and others believe he's performing a community service by airing noxious crap like Jersey Shore. But that being said, the rise of new media has created a period in history unlike any other, and it's impossible to underestimate its impact on the generation at the epicenter of it. The digitization of information on the internet, which has basically brought together all human knowledge into one place, has created the feeling that there's no past anymore. There's simply a "permanent now." I was talking to a friend of mine about this the other day -- asking him to think about the fact that when we were teenagers, the 1950s were thirty years behind us, nearly the same distance that our teenage years are from now. Yet the 50s felt thoroughly alien to any kid growing up in the 80s; they may as well have been a millennium ago. That's not the case anymore. 80s and 90s culture is now a click away for anyone coming of age in the 21st century. In other words, more than ever, we're one generation. Now please kill me before I write another line that sounds like a Pepsi commercial. Oh, the photograph above, by the way, was taken by Andrew Steiner. You can see the rest of his portfolio here.)