Talking 'Bout Whose Generation
Issue #9, November 1993
'I've got to stop eating. I like Cass Elliott.'
This little chestnut was delivered during last spring's Oliver Stone produced 'series-event' (as opposed to just a plain old mini-series) Wild Palms. It was not difficult to discern Stone's muddy paw prints on this program, replete, as it was, with some of his favorite themes: an almost maniacal obsession with paternal relationships, a young male protagonist torn between power and moral rectitude, overwrought plotting, and, of course, CONSPIRACIES, CONSPIRACIES, CON-SPIRACIES!! Thus it is not a little ironic that this series only helped to further expose one of our society's most insidious conspiracies, one that Stone himself is an active participant in. I speak, of course, of the Baby Boom Generation (hereafter referred to as the 'Boomers' in the most derisive sense') and its satanic attempt to maintain and solidify its hegemonic control of modern American culture.
You might be thinking, Brian, perhaps you're reading a bit much into this. Maybe you should switch to decaf? Well, let's look at the cold hard facts. The majority of the characters in Wild Palms were in their mid 30's. The series was set in the year 2007, 14 years from now. This means that these characters would currently be in their early to mid 20's. Yet nearly every single cultural reference in the show came from the 1950's or 1960's, the very early 1970's at the latest. In other words, they were Boomer references. Take for example the music the characters listened to: The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Beach Boys, The Animals — notice a pattern developing here?
And what about that Cass Elliott crack quoted at the beginning of this piece? The woman who made this statement should be about 21 or 22 years old today (assuming her character is about 35 in the series.) How many 21 or 22 year olds today can even identify Cass Elliott, let alone be prone to likening themselves to her. Wouldn't it have made far more sense for her to have compared herself to Roseanne or the 'Fat Chick in Wilson Philips', which in addition to being a person is also the name of a current 'alternative' band. (For those who still wonder, 'Mama' Cass Elliott was a member of the 60's group The Mamas and the Papas, a band responsible for the abomination 'California Dreaming' among other crimes — fellow Mama Michelle Philips is mother of one of the skinny chicks in Wilson Philips; is this merely a coincidence?
Other odd references cropped up during the show. James Belushi's character wonders if he'll have to wear a 'pink pill box hat' if he is made a member of a prospective U.S. President's Cabinet. Generationally wouldn't it have been more reasonable for him to worry about a Senate Sub-Committee questioning him about his predilection for Long Dong Silver videos?
But sense rarely finds its way into the Boomers' plans. Their operating premise seems to be that if the culture of their youth was so 'groovy', that our generation will naturally come to accept it as the only worthwhile American mass culture. Why do they believe this? One theme constantly reasserts itself in the Boomers quest for cultural hegemony: they're getting old and they're getting old fast. Once their slogan was 'don't trust anyone over 30'; now it seems to have become 'don't pay attention to anyone under 30.' If the Boomers can keep themselves eternally wrapped up in the culture of their youth, they themselves will remain eternally young. How old can I be, they reason, if I can still hear In A Gadda Da Vida on the radio every day? But to assure themselves that the hits of the 60's and 70's are not supplanted on the airwaves by Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (as one Seattle area radio station has labeled it 'the screechy stuff'), it is necessary to delegitimize any cultural development by today's youth.
Today's 20 odd year olds are being smothered beneath the elephantine bulk of the Boomers. In the job market, we stand almost no chance of moving ahead through the corporate or professional corridors, because these passageways are constipated by a huge blockage of mid-level Boomers so firmly entrenched that no economic enema will ever dislodge them. And this problem applies not only to the white collar world, but to the blue collar one as well. When plants announce lay-offs and hiring freezes, the youngest workers without seniority are those who suffer most.
The full extent of the Boomer ceiling became apparent during the Gulf War. For thousands of Boomers it was 'like instant flashback, man! Just like when we stopped the war in 'Nam.' Now while their anti-war feelings were obviously heartfelt, the way they expressed them was at times troubling. Instead of sharing their experience and wisdom with the younger generation, the Boomers often rushed in and took over peace demonstrations. Step aside kids, they said, and we'll show you how a real anti-war movement is run. Almost every platform or megaphone was the exclusive realm of a gaggle of Boomers, bent on reliving their youth. It rarely seemed to occur to them that perhaps the peers of the soldiers, most of whom were in their 20's, might have a thing or two to say about the war their generation had been handed.
Of course if the post-Boomers were able to form their own peace movement, then they might begin to develop a self-identity, a youthful identity that might begin to supplant the Boomer's youthful self-identification and force them to confront their age. For this reason, they have turned to the age old tradition of naming and thus controlling you enemies. What you cannot stop, co-opt. The wild energy of the Beats was in this way transformed by the dominant culture into those adorable, bongo-toting Beatniks, personified by the daffy Maynard G. Krebs. The Boomers, it seems, have decided that if they can hang a name on we who follow them, they can somehow control us. So we have been named to death: Generation X, the Baby Busters, 20-Somethings, the 13th Gen, etc. If they can name us, they can describe us, if they can describe us, they can understand and manipulate us.
One aspect of this manipulation is a sorry attempt to paint a happy face over our understandably sullen scowls. Culturally and economically oppressed, upset at being relegated to a life of service industry jobs? Nonsense! According to the Boomer dominated media, we're a generation of fun-loving go-getters. When U.S. News and World Report ran a cover story on us, it was not an in-depth study of the trials and tribulations of life in the service industries, but rather a study of six young achievers who are blazing their own courageous trail, founding their own non-profits and businesses. According to several regional weeklies, we love to spend our nights dancing at all night raves and breaking into corporate data bases, not drinking beer and watching TV as we prep for our next job interview by perfecting that crucial phrase, 'Would you like fries with that?'
So if Stone wanted Wild Palms to be realistic, the characters should have dropped references to the Brady Bunch (a Boomer era program we have made our own), not to Father Knows Best. Inquisitive characters looking for non-sequiturs could have archly asked 'Conjunction Junction, what's your function?', rather than mention Jackie O's fashion sense. And musically, characters should have listened to 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' or 'Blister in the Sun' when they were feeling nostalgic. I personally cannot go more than a week without spontaneously starting to hum the Banana Splits theme. (A scholarly examination of these four pagan spirits is long overdue, from the meaning of their guttural pre-verbal names, such as Fleegle and Snorky, to their messianic promises of a coming utopia immanent within their world: 'Gonna be a lot of fun, lots of fun for everyone.') These are the songs that will haunt me in 15 years, not 'Baby Love.' Ironically, Stone's cultural transposition took place in a series that aspired to a cyberpunk edge, which is most definitely a post-Boomer phenomena.
What to do? The Boomers control the bulk of disposable income in the U.S. today, and whoever controls disposable income, essentially control the culture. But although their minds may lust after some sort of eternal youth, all 70 million of those bodies which now claim to have been to Woodstock are rapidly and inexorably growing older day by day. Soon hips will be breaking and bladders failing, no matter how many radio stations are playing the Doors every hour on the hour. So say, if you can't beat 'em, profit from 'em. All these decaying bodies are soon going to be screaming for help. So I'm putting what little money I have into products with great growth potential, like Depends Undergarments, Miracle Ear and the Clapper. Hell, these fuckers might be making my youth hell, but at least they'll pay for my retirement. Which is a good thing, since they're first going to bankrupt social security.......
Brian Kassof is a PhD student in History at UC-Berkeley.