In the beginning, I was not Generation X. I thought perhaps I wanted to be, because they all seemed to have seen The Replacements play live, but my birthdate but me outside the range agreed upon by the authorities on the topic—journalists, Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland, advertising executives, Billy Idol.
Time Magazine and Coupland put the Gen X cut-off birthdate at around 1972. Of the two, I suspected Coupland was more credible, even if his novel, Generation X was printed in a weirdly oversized, impossible-to-shelve paperback format with a a cover screaming hey, edgy young person, this book is a lamestain-free zone for cool cats only. It was one of those obvious zeitgeist-y things that I knew I wanted to read so I could have an opinion about it. Still, I waited to buy a copy until I was sure no one would see me with it, so shameless was the cover art.
I finally bought the book in Charlotte, on a day when I had to spend ten hours stuck at SouthPark Mall (long story) with exactly $34 and a pack of Camel Lights. I read the whole thing on park bench between Sears and the parking lot, periodically getting up and doing a purposeful lap around the mezzanine level so the Security Guards wouldn’t harass me.
I admit to being surprised by the content. Once you got past the vintage typography, the slang glossary in the margins and the coffeeshop bathroom stall chapter titles (e.g. Adventure Without Risk Is Disneyland), the book was about a bunch of comfortable, underemployed thirty-ish yuppies languishing in the California desert through a very low-stakes quarter/third- life crisis. They weren’t particularly relatable, but far too milquetoast to be enjoyable terrible. They were the kind of people you imagined might wear khakis by choice and do the sniff thing with supermarket wine. The kind of people who would go to a bar and get excited about live music without being at all interested in the music itself. The kind of people who might ruffle your self-consciously disheveled hair and tell you you’ll grow out of it before waxing poetic about how much better it was when they were kids.
You know, like, parents.
Using that as evidence, it seemed reasonable that I wasn’t part of that cohort, no matter my feelings about shoegaze and Sub Pop records. Only problem was that Time Magazine suggested that the Gen X follow-up– Generation Y – didn’t start 1977 or 78.
I puzzled over this for days. I wondered if it was possible that I just didn’t belong to any generation. Was I just a born free agent or somehow evidence of a cosmic anomaly? I decided to derail a Gulliver’s Travel’s discussion and ask my English class about it, as we were all roughly the same age. “Is it possible that the mid-seventies no longer exist in this dimension? That they just disappeared into a wormhole or something or I maybe come in from some other timeline.”
Physics dude, who’d recently graduated to School Crush following a legendary Grunge Hamlet performance, didn’t have an answer, though he did suggest that it might be a drug thing. Didn’t everyone do a lot of drugs in the mid-1970s? Or maybe a collective trauma thing. “I mean, like, Nixon and Vietnam. When was the fall of Saigon? 1975?” he asked, though he definitely knew. We’d all made 5s on our US History AP the year before. “Maybe they just took a few years off. Forgot things happened. That would explain Reagan. But like, has anyone ever heard anyone talk about Gerald Ford? It’s like he didn’t happen.”
These kinds of conversations were common to AP English 4 that year. We were all of us seniors, mostly charged with doing well on standardized tests, getting into college and completing the year-long, school-required senior projects that were like mini-theses for overachievers. Our teacher, a particular favorite, was inclined to let the twelve of us explore the text in whatever way we saw fit. Hence, the unit on John Milton’s Paradise Lost covered (among other things) masturbation (girls do it too), whether “Push, Push in the Bush” deserved a place in the Disco Pantheon (obviously), and if being hot for Miltonian Satan was morally equivalent to being attracted to Nazi Ralph Fiennes in “Schindler’s List” (complicated).
“Gerald Ford was hardly memorable enough to be Swiftian,” said the teacher, in a half-hearted attempt to make our digression relevant. “Chevy Chase playing Gerald Ford, however . . .”
I’d hoped to steer conversation back toward the fact that our age cohort had been collectively forgotten, but the kid from the Bahamas seized the moment to discuss Betty Ford and somehow the rest of the hour was lost to a debate about which President (FDR) and which first Lady (Jackie Kennedy) we had the hardest time imagining in the bathroom.
Still puzzling it out, I decided to write about Generation X and generation x in my college essay. My advisor gave me the side eye when I told him. “You sure you don’t want to write about what you learned doing a service project or a mission trip or something.” I told him that the only service program I’d effectively carried out was corralling a bunch of theatre kids and choir nerds to carol for old people at nursing homes. As it turned out, they were less enthusiastic about the renaissance motets and selections from “Les Misérables,” and my fellow students seemed a teense aggrieved about singing “White Christmas.” It was not an abject failure, but if I learned anything from the experience it wasthat sixteen-year-old actors are pretty confident in their future success and cranky 90-year-olds have nothing to lose by telling them they’re destined to fail, “so stop pouting and sing the Bing Crosby again!”
As far as mission trips, I’d never been on one. I was a heathen. The whole endeavor sounded both blatantly imperialist and soul-crushingly boring. I’d probably heard a half-dozen of my fellow classmates (all white people) stand in front of the student body for a ten-minute talk required of them to graduate, and drone on about how singing U2 songs with their youth group while getting hair braids in Haiti had endowed them with the courage and resilience they’d need to survive Rush Week at Dartmouth. I figured whoever handled the slush pile at the Ivy-caliber Admissions Offices had read thousands of them. It sounded like pure torture.
Why not make those sad sacks’ days less miserable. So I skipped any transparent attempts to come off like a better person and kicked off by writing about reading Coupland novel at a mall in Charlotte and trying to avoid getting hassled by security guards. I talked about both my aversion to flannel (hot, doesn’t pair well with skirts, seems more needlessly complicated than just putting on a sweater), despite otherwise having a fondness for tartan, and how most of what constituted “Grunge” was dull as a mudpuddle. I threw in a section about how “Pump Up the Volume” was in every way more relevant and meaningful than “Singles,” and concluded with a bit about on how weird it was that David Silver, no one’s favorite “Beverly Hills, 90210” character, was the only teenager on television introduced as being specifically my age. I asked the Admissions Officers to consider how that made me feel: unwanted, unloved, adrift in a world that couldn’t even be bothered to make empty generalizations about me because of my birth year.
Clearly, this point impressed the Admissions officers, because four out of six wrote back to offer me a place, which made me feel validated. “See? No one wants to be David Silver,” I said to my father, as I triumphantly waved an acceptance letter. He looked confused, then slightly nervous, then said something about it being a real honor that I got in even though, by the way, funny story, there was zero cash on hand for tuition.
I probably responded with some kind of sarcastic comment. Sarcasm was a thing that Generation X was supposed to be good at, and by then the National Media had banished Coupland’s melancholy thirty-year-olds back to Baby Boom and all of us in mid-late 1970s were officially invited to try out an OK Soda and sit with the cool older kids.
That was in early April of 1994. A few weeks later, Kurt Cobain died. I heard about it when I was at a hotel in Baltimore with my family, part way through the sad, follow-up college trip, in which we toured the only two schools that had offered a scholarship as well as an acceptance, neither of which I wanted to go to. The Kurt news hit me weird, maybe because I was teetering on the edge of some a personal sadness I had no idea how to qualify. I remember running down to the bank of payphones in the lobby to collect call my friend Ivy League, because I didn’t have a phone card and she was a big Nirvana fan, or more accurate a big Kurt fan. She was a mess, didn’t even flinch at accepting the charges. I listened to her grieve and wondered what all of this meant about the space of time I inhabited. I owned all the Nirvana records and liked them, but it was 1994, a pinnacle year for suspicion of anything popular. Was it appropriate for me to be upset about a rock star death? Was it acceptable for me to be upset about that rock star death? And, totally selfishly, what did the end of the Nirvana era mean for my me and my friends—a bunch of otherwise nerdy teenagers with extremely niche musical interests and thrift-shopping habits, who’d spent much of the last academic year being mistaken for cool because we already owned old man cardigans.
I spent an evening eating shellfish with my mother, twelve-year old sister, and future stepfather, trying to explain who Courtney Love was, and why she was taking up airtime. It was frustrating and disappointing, but not as frustrating and disappointing as my future looked. At least I’d long since known that , despite my parents being reasonably hip, I would be incapable of convincing them that the things I liked were, in any sense, worthy of their attention unless they hit in the narrow heart of our shared experience . I didn’t think I could distill the noise about one of the biggest bands in the world into a compelling narrative, and ideally one that didn’t just end up being another gateway for my stepdad to discuss Santana, let alone explain why it even mattered to me. But I also didn’t think I would do anything by yelling about my own life being a total crock of shit, except for souring everyone else’s crab legs experience. So I ended up getting weirdly emotional about Cobain, wiping tears away with a butter-soaked napkin as a I hopelessly contemplated the moon rise over the Chesapeake Bay.
It’s not at all accurate to say that the greater Cultural Relevance of Generation X dissipated at that moment exactly. There were still more original recipe Lollapaloozas to come. “Alternative” as catchall genre was not yet the sole province of ball-capped suburban white dudes in wallet chain-bedecked khaki cargo shorts. Dave Matthews Band fans were still easily avoidable. Biggie and Tupac were still alive. No one had been to a party where the host just played the “Pulp Fiction” sound track over and over and over again yet. I’ll take 1994. Even the absurd and shitty parts—”Natural Born Killers,” the OJ White Bronco chase, Madonna’s “I’ll Remember,” big pants. Even Hootie. Something did, however, change for me, and in that way that the personal informs your view of culture, there’s a twinge that comes in around 1995 that has expanded into some kind of doom vortex by 98 or 99. Which, to be fair, also describes the trajectory of my life in those same years.
I spent the last few months of quarantine building this ginormous self-indulgent (and frankly ginormous) 90s playlist, and I can’t deny the fact that things start to get ugly, like really ugly, around 97/98s. I’ve forced to confront some hard truths about myself: like, I might have been a healthier person in 1999 if I’d just straight up admitted to liking Britney Spears more than, say, Don Caballero.
By then though, people had long since stopped talking about Generation X. The used bookstores were no longer buying back Coupland novels and the thrift stores once again full of old man cardigans and discarded flannels. The advertisers and media commentariat had turned their attention to Millennials—my little sister and her cohort–who maybe have been more doomed than we were but also younger, more ambitious and memorable. I was, to paraphrase one of Douglas Coupland’s stupid chapter titles, no longer a target market.
This was, as are so many things in life, both a relief and a peculiar disappointment.
(Picture: Dorm closet, 1994)