Issue #48, March 2000
Mass media is a grazeable prairie of deceptively unfenced pastures. The faces of the day's singers and the notes of their songs are the clover that sweeten our daily cud. Tunes we hum while shaving or in the shower are crystallizations of our tastes and preferences — and are also referents of particular moments in time and places in space. Moments of pop music and culture are the true milestones and signifiers of our lives. Next to these markers, family and lived events can seem evanescent, fugitive, and unreal, because memories of them are neither ubiquitous nor collectively shared. In the fun-house-like mass media space that we wander, only those moments verifiable in the history of commodities resonate with truth: President John F. Kennedy's death (and the even more telegenic death of Lee Harvey Oswald), Kurt Cobain's suicide note and Courtney Love's amplified whimpering to a Seattle crowd "Asshole! Asshole!" These moments mesh with the deaths of Tupac, Princess Di, and John F. Kennedy Jr. to form a publicly shared experience unlike what is felt at the death of a family member. Cobain, Di, and Tupac, et al., are images that move magazines off supermarket shelves — the faces upon which the greatest number of cameras turn and focus.
When a colleague on a political project ribbed me good-naturedly for the incessant references in my writing to Iggy and the Stooges (a band he'd cited in his own writings), he compared my championing of them to an old hippie recounting glories of Grateful Dead concerts. About a dozen years younger than I, he could have as easily called me a 1950s hipster evoking bop, or a centenarian evoking acts on the early twentieth-century vaudeville stage, for to me the Dead were dead by the time I paid attention. Yet the exchange got me thinking about the invisible boundaries of generations. And to my provocateur's broad-brush tarring of me with Deadheadhood, I reply: Sir, you simply haven't correctly identified my MicroGeneration! My MicroGeneration is shaped by the three characteristics of Oppostionism, Liminalism, and Regionalism.
Members of MicroGenerations are as sensitive to the music and artifacts belonging to other generations as to their own. A populous generation sees its subsets defining their own demographics by what they are not as much as by what they are. The distance between early boomers and the later, punk end of the generation may be as vast as between Boomers and Gen X.
"Third Agers", the first wave of the Baby Boom, are people born in the late 1940s or early '50s who are now freely spending their time and their money in empty-nest maturity. The generation coming of age in the 1960s produced the Dead, Jimi Hendrix, long hair, and bellbottom jeans. They made the most of those six years of Bob Dylan and the Beatles through the optimistic Woodstock and the disheartening Altamont. That geezer Sting — who played the grim, pub-owning father of one of the ne'er-do-well protagonists in the 1998 movie Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels — sang "Born in the Fifties" on the first Police album in 1979. As old-timey as Lord Elton John is to me, he truly can't be talking about my own mid-'50s-born MicroGeneration. Those of us of Johnny Rotten's age and girth who identify with the '70s punk era suspiciously see the Bill-and-Hillary boomers as darn near a distant a generation as do today's college students. The older Boomers were our high school teachers; okay, they were the young and unjaded hip ones, but nevertheless encoutered in positions of authority.
My own crucial teenage cultural map was that early 1970s stretch from T-Rex, Roxy Music, Lou Reed to Patti Smith. There is a gleaming strain of irony that runs through the work of all these musicians (except Patti's intense sincerity as a '60s hippie) whose self-conscious referents and pastiche distinguish them from postmodernists. When PBS ran its "History of Rock" series five years ago there was a fine episode on that era's rock spectacle, depicting the Velvets as producing the Doors who then begat the Stooges who then begat Bowie then Kiss. Rock media — especially Detroit FM radio djs and Detroit-based CREEM magazine — at one point categorized such bands as "Third Generation Rock." The First Generation progenitors Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard were followed by the Second Generation's British Invasion bands and the Woodstock flowering; following in the footsteps of the Second Generation were the innovative, knowlegeable, and witty Third Generation that included Alice Cooper, Captain Beefheart, the Stooges, and MC5.
As a college senior in the fall of 1976, I showed paternalistic contempt for a freshman fan of KISS, a band clearly lacking the gravitas of, say, the New York Dolls. Today I have not yet seen the glitter-rock themed movie "Velvet Goldmine," but my friends dismiss it as "definitely not a rock n' roll movie"; apparently it's got the make-up right but not the beat, limiting its appeal to those of a certain sexual type. The "Class of '77" punks who were inspired by the Sex Pistols' American tour (like San Francisco's Crime, Nuns, Dils, and Mutants) sprang conveniently upon the world during my undergraduate education; like a team full of school spirit, this crop could defiantly situate themselves as the new breed ready to take on the old world. And punk too must be periodically blown away to remain vital: Spice Girl Mel C.'s solo concert covered the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the UK" where she sang, "I am the Antichrist/I am the Sporty Spice..."
Members of a Microgeneration at times feel themselves betwixt and between, adrift in time or out of synch with where they truly belong. The style and anthems of bands we love come to define us, standing in as those milestone moments and/or safety-grabs during periods of uncertainty, change, and experimentation. One open secret of pop music is that we are hardwired to remember what was playing on the stereo or radio during memorable sexual encounters, especially the early ones. Music imprints experience much like biologist Konrad Lorenz's ducklings that followed him to the pond since he was the first big thing they saw upon hatching. The mating rhythms of pop are synchronic to help us find our mates, and diachronic to repeatedly stir love's old sweet song. Yet liminalism and between-ness can leave one feeling a sense of unbelonging and out of one's own time — a sense of floating out there among the Lost Generation where one feels, as Pauline Kael wrote, a yearning for what we narrowly missed by accident of birth as with those '60s kids who missed the recently-deceased Humphrey Bogart.
Another political colleague of mine, born 1968, ponders his "inexplicable nostalgia" for the cars, clothes, visual style and popular culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. "Natalostalgia" might be a name for this yearning for the culture of the time of birth and toddler-hood. This fixation isn't fixed in lived experience like that of Russian novelist Goncharov's character Oblomov longing for the uncomplicated sweetness of his youth while pettily harassing his manservant, or the wistful memoirs of Vladimir Nabokov for his own Russian boyhood before the 1917 upheaval. It's more like the anguish and anger Stendahl's generation of young Frenchmen felt in the 1820s when contemplating how they were born too late for Napoleanic glory, a place of honor and distinction in the Emperor's military campaigns, or a noble death on his battlefields.
I was born in 1955. However, apart from my attention to the technical skills of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard (and, with southern scholar Vernon Chadwick's guidance, Elvis), I have very little interest in the late 1950s. They seem rigid and conformist and creepy to me, almost as bad as the war-torn militarized 1940s — a period filled with progressive bursts of social policy that enlarged the middle class as well as activism that expanded civil rights. As a teenager I couldn't understand why the '50s revival "Grease" was popular, nor why older hippie-era musicians like Frank Zappa or Commander Cody would cover doo-wop songs to wax nostalgic on that lame era. The '50s revival began in the late '60s. A case in point: slicked-back revivalist Sha Na Na played at Woodstock. When with a friend I visited PUNK Magazine HQ in Manhattan in1976, John Holmstrom & Legs McNeil — both born in the mid-1950s — shushed us when "Happy Days" came on so they could catch every word Fonzie said. Gad. Sheesh!
As a little boy in the 60s I developed my Life magazine eyes and AM-radio ears, amidst radio-friendly fuzz guitars and whining Nuggets-vintage bands beneath bright colors of Andy Warhol, the Pop artists, and Peter Max. Yet those late-1960s seem as distant and mediated to me as they must to someone ten or fifteen years younger. Culturally, I believe the 1970s were special for the mainstream spread of what only innovative hippies and students were doing and believing in coastal capitals (Berkeley, East Village Manhattan) in the 1960s. Politically, that decade is memorable for how the desegregationist rulings of the Civil Rights movement were concretely applied around the United States, in cities large and small, when programs of school busing and affirmative action were initiated to comply with the law.
The greater generations are drawn to universality of culture. Put two people about the same age in a room together, and soon they'll talk about the network television programs they remember. A third characteristic of Microgenerations is often a rootedness in the minutae of geographic location. The line from the Tubes' "White Punks on Dope" on being born in Pacific Heights made a generation of emigrants from the midwest investigate that San Francisco neighborhood to learn it was synonomous with wealth.
Like the MC5, the aformementioned Stooges became synonymous with an era in Southeastern Michigan, and their front man Iggy has since capitalized on references to it in solo efforts like "Blah Blah Blah" (1988) and "Cold Metal" (1989) and by remixing and reissuing the Stooges' 1973 Raw Power album in the 1990s. "Troubletown" cartoonist Lloyd Dangle, still in his thirties, drew a comic about his Michigan roots that included seeing Iggy who "looked as old as my dad." My gang joke our obituary headlines will read WENT TO IGGY'S HIGHSCHOOL, DEAD AT 87.
Oppositions within regionalism crack open to judgemental youth. CREEM magazine adopted a more flippant tone under editor Lester Bangs than founder Dave Marsh. Michigan's Bob Seger appeared old, nostalgic and melancholy, while Ted Nugent was dumbed-down and made for kids. Grand Funk Railroad was mainstream and hence uninteresting. While Alice Cooper managed to become nearly as successful, he and his group maintained the saving grace of irony. Grand Funk's crime was that they truly believed their guitar-hero hype (as guitarist-songwriter Mark Farner does today his evangelistic Christianity). There are aspects of class in these preferences as well which I am neglecting to develop.
IV. Come Together
We are all branded with our generational or Microgen habits. An ad in Inter@ctive Week for IPivot Commerce Accelerators shows a band of middle-aged long-hairs rockin' away who have "tried for 23 years to 'make it' yet they won't wait 8 seconds to buy a CD online".
Microgenerational borders break down repeatedly, and are rife with contradictions. After all, Generation X was initially the name of a '70s punk band. Alice Cooper became famous first in Detroit because record producer Bob Ezrin's Canadian citizenship meant the album met Canadian-content laws and could be played on Ontario's powerful CKLW directly across the river. I feel obliged to diss the Grateful Dead, but they actually played onstage in Ann Arbor's West Park in 1968 at the invitation of the MC5 and White Panther Party to the same long-haired crowd. Within that Michigan moment the MC5 may be the last band of the 1960s, their contemporaries the problematic Stooges the first band of the 1970s. During an unpleasant high-school interlude on bad acid I admit the Dead's appearance on local television (the short-lived WABX Tubeworks on Detroit's channel 62) was somehow reassuring: Captain Trips knows what I'm going through and gamely keeps playing and smiling, so shall I.
Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, and revisionism punctures Microgenerational taboos. A couple years ago I amazed my high-school garage band friends — all still more actively and publicly playing music than I — when I praised what we used to call Doof-or Doofus-Rock, now filling contemporary Classic Rock FM stations. My populist streak emerged as I lauded ridiculous albums like "Frampton Comes Alive" (1976) — its side-long cuts padded with lead guitar noodling — when they aided me in noctural cross-country driving (later I puzzled my old dogs even more in writing some Euro Disco songs in the manner of Giorgio Moroder). This winter I rolled home in the Northern California winter evening at the wheel of my wife's muscular Pontiac Firebird, and the radio-friendly Steve Miller Band and Bad Company, in their 4/4 inanity, made perfect sense.
If the early '70s glitter bands had postmodernist cynicism and savvy citation, the spirit of late 1990s postmodernism seem to be the shelves of a big chain record store, the simultanaeity of all cultures (except truly oppositional?) readily available. Besides generational and microgenerational market segments, there are conscious efforts to market performing artists to as big a public as possible, for a hoped-for transgenerational crossover success. This particularizing and segmentation of the market, however, simply keeps the generations separated — a ruling-class strategy. Venal as the "Bob Marley: One Love" December 1999 tribute concert was, for Caribbean people watching it in the United States there was the sense of how un-American it was, remarking on the how young adults were singing on stage with their parents — not so unlike all inclusive teenage parties on the islands that included everybody, even little kids. The WTO protests in Seattle this fall generated and circulated firsthand accounts of peaceful elderly female protestors being clubbed by police, and may be an instance of boundaries breaking down and renewed transgenerationalism that fuels the best progressive politics. Twentysomethings must learn (though not necessarily follow) organizational strategies, pitfalls and war stories from older activists so they don't run out of steam re-inventing the wheel. Mid-lifers and seniors need the insights of younger people and students, unclouded by ideology, domestic cocooning and long-impacted rose-colored wish-fulfillment, to point out from street level how the world really treats the unestablished and what is going on.
This collective yearning breaks through in moments of faux-unity, like the San Francisco 49ers Super Bowl wins in the early 1980s when stockbroker and beggar could pretend they had interests — the corporately-owned home team — in common, and the streets were clogged all night with revelers giving an inkling of just how good an upheavel might feel. Yet the new century offers possibilites and hopes for new political coalitions and organization previously unimagined in the last two decades hobbled by politics of racial, occupational, regional and generational exclusivity. Until those possibilities takes shape, I can only keep analyzing and muttering in my own demographic particularity, t-talking about m-m-my MicroGeneration.