It was 1991 when everything changed. Before that, music sucked, TV sucked, movies sucked. Anything of merit that had grown out of the late ’70s and early ’80s, like punk or new wave or Blade Runner, had been subsumed by the Reagan/Bush years and Boomer greed. By the early ’90s, it was all Color Me Badd, in some permutation or another.
There was one bastion of dirty, weird hope, though: MTV’s “120 Minutes.” And it was on this show, which for two hours every week would play the likes of the Dead Kennedys, The Pixies, and Echo & the Bunnymen, that Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” first aired, coalescing the feelings and fears of an entire generation into an orgasmic mosh pit of pissed-off, ennui-filled, flannel-clad anarchy.
At least, that’s what Jeff Gordinier thinks, and he spends a fair amount of X Saves the World talking about the import of this moment, what he calls a “Cooler King moment,” based off of Steve McQueen’s character “Cooler King” Hilts in The Great Escape; Hilts’ attempts to escape may be futile, but they’re badass and inspiring nonetheless.
And Nirvana was inspiring. For Generation X (who Gordinier defines as being born between 1960 and 1977), it felt like the veil had been lifted. That veil was the tyranny of the Boomer aesthetic: the Eagles, The Big Chill, the constant carping about having “changed the world.” From the Xers’ point of view, the fact that the Boomers’ wholehearted idealism had given way so completely to financial whoredom made genuine sentiment seem like, well, bullshit. Thus, Gen X irony.
By ’93, the Boomers had noticed. Newsweek ran a cover profile on the Slackers: the iconoclastic, sarcastic ne’er-do-wells who didn’t seem to believe in anything, not the way Boomers had, anyway. Generation X was rebelling against the hard work and passion of the Baby Boomers. Kids these days.
But it wasn’t about rebellion, rather boredom—boredom with an American culture that was shiny and busy and full of crap. So the slackers got busy, too, and made their subculture part of mainstream culture. And then in just a few short years, by 2000, Gordinier says, it all went to hell, and Britney Spears played Virgil on our collective trip through the inferno.
Hell, X Saves the World argues, is populated by the spawn of the Boomers: the Millennials, who are texting and OMG-ing their way over the world Xers worked so hard to un-lame. Gordinier again blames the Boomers for this, for it was their “I’m good enough even though I never had enough love” attitude toward themselves that led to a “my child is a special rainbow that the world needs to celebrate” style of parenting. A tiny generation (about 46 million) sandwiched between two behemoths (80 million each), Generation X was pushed aside, its day in the spotlight passed.
And that, the book claims, is OK. If the Boomers are busy constantly talking about their feelings and Millennials are consumed by posting more pictures of themselves doing Jello shots on the Internet, Xers are just fine, thank you very much. And while the Me Generation and the Me, Too Generation are making a bunch of noise about their needs, it’s those of us in our 30s and 40s that have kept the world from sucking completely.
Gordinier provides as evidence the movies of the late ’90s, which indicated a giant shift in perception. Requiem for a Dream, Being John Malkovich, Magnolia: all Gen-X creations. They looked at being lost as a simple given; that missions and movements are all empty if you don’t know who you are. Films like these pushed “indie” cinema into everyone’s consciousness, changing the ways that people thought not only about movies but about the lives those movies seek to represent.
And the list goes on. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart: Xers and Cooler Kings. Colbert and Stewart have taken Generation X’s defining characteristic, irony, and elevated it beyond art, beyond politics; irony has become an essential way of telling the truth.
But maybe that’s what was always misunderstood about our generation. Our ironic detachment was never about not caring but in a way was about a kind of hope, holding out on commitment for something real. And it seems to have happened. In a 2007 speech, Barack Obama proclaimed “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Obama, born in 1961, a member of Generation X. Hope wasn’t going to be handed down from the children of love-ins but was going to have to be nurtured out of disappointment, a specialty of X.
If you are not also a member of Generation X, there is absolutely no reason to read this book. Boomers look like jerks and Millennials like naive dilettantes who use the tools of the previous generation, such as ironic T-shirts, without an appreciation of their intent. Gordinier isn’t making a case to anyone else about the relevance of his generation but is speaking to the self-effacing Xers themselves. Though there are few of us, he says, and American Idol won’t fucking go off of the air already, we must keep busy with the work of green architecture, slow food and good music with no backup dancers.
I don’t know that he fully makes his case, but he’s funny and strikes a chord with anyone who wore Doc Martens and moved to Prague (yes, me). And for men and women juggling families, attempts at cultural currency and going to a job where the Boomers ahead of you will never retire—and when they do you’ll be overqualified and old so the gig will go to a Millennial—it’s nice to be told that the only reason America isn’t a giant gaping hole of suckitude is because of people like you. It’s too bad you can’t totally buy it, though, since you’re fairly certain the author is being ironic.