It’s a truism that the millennial generation is a whole lot more earnest than the Gen-Xers who preceded them. Certainly they don’t seem to be mired in the crippling irony that we all seemed to struggle against, and they don’t have the combination of seething anger and helpless despair that fueled the whole alternative movement.
There are two relics of the Gen-X period that to me sum up what stood out about our generation and why. The first is a line from “Smells Like Teen Spirit”: “Our little group has always been/And always will until the end.” There just aren’t a lot of us, and I think that made a difference. The boomers were marketed to relentlessly, and still are. The same is true of the millennials: movies like Look Who’s Talking and Three Men and a Baby, came out when they were born, and the music industry was creating pop stars for them when they were still tweens. But for Generation X, the marketing juggernaut never really got ginned up. I think we never fully bought into corporate America because corporate America never really bought into us. The resources weren’t invested, so we went our own way and listened to weird bands and wore weird clothes that were difficult to sell in any organized way. I’d like to imagine that the alternative scene was about something deeper, but I suspect that we felt like we had no real place in contemporary America simply because no one was trying hard enough to sell us things.
The other Gen-X artifact that I think of is the movie Slackers. Its various characters are all struggling in one way or another to gather and communicate information: the guy who collects TVs, the guy who keeps shouting about how people need to read the newspaper, the Kennedy assassination buff, the girl trying to sell Madonna’s pubes are all trapped by their inability to connect with anyone who shares their enthusiasms. And what’s remarkable about this movie is that every one of those problems is solved by the Internet. With YouTube, political blogs, social networks, eBay, you no longer need to be alone with your obsession. That devastating feeling of isolation and powerlessness that the alternative scene was meant to assuage is simply not a problem in the way that it was. Millennials have come of age knowing that they can make a difference, that they can have an impact on the wider world, whether through serious political engagement or through participation in a flashmob.
But so here’s where the whole situation with pop music starts to get interesting. For Gen-X, there were two kinds of popular music: pop that was manufactured by people who didn’t seem to understand us that well, and who were definitely not us; and alternatives to that pop, whether gangsta rap or grunge or what have you, that had to define itself musically against the slicked-up sounds of more traditional pop. To be authentic, music had to be uncomfortable, at least a little.
But for the millennials, that’s just not true anymore. They voted for their American Idols, so it’s OK to like them. And they watched Justin Timberlake grow up, so it’s OK to like him. And now, there’s the emerging and fascinating phenomenon of the ironically self-aware pop star. Lady Gaga is the obvious queen of this new phenomenon, but you see it in Lily Allen and in Timberlake, and I noticed in in Ke$ha on SNL this weekend. (Sudden thought: was it Eminem who bridged the gap between alternative rage and abrasiveness, and self-parodying pop stars?) They’re pop stars, and they know they’re pop stars, and they seem to think that the whole thing is a zany lark, akin to a YouTube video that blows up for no apparent reason. You get the sense that they genuinely realize the whole thing is a crap shoot, and that there’s nothing all that special about them as people.
It used to be alternative that was the realm of DIY, where you went to see bands that made you feel like you could be in a band just like them. You could never be a New Kid on the Block, but you and your friends could totally pull off a Beasties punk number, and any schmuck could dress that badly. But now it’s the guitar bands that seem kind of remote and obscure, while anyone with a sequencer and a webcam can make a video and maybe turn into a pop star. It’s like Toto pulled back the curtain, and the millennials decided that Oz was totally great and they wanted a turn at the levers.