The Time I (Almost) Defined a Generation

I REMEMBER BEING alerted a couple years back, by former colleague and current Rolling Stone etc. writer Rob Sheffield, that all the back issues of Spin magazine—for which I once served as Senior Editor and Senior Writer during a particularly eventful time in music history best known as the early- to mid- 90s—had been made available online by Google Books. My first reaction: sheer horror. My second reaction: panic. I couldn’t bring myself to look back at the stuff I had hastily dashed off at three in the morning on deadline and out of my mind on that drug Bradley Cooper takes in Limitless, or vodka, one of the two. I had thought those unstrung pearls of idiocy were buried in the trash heap of pop culture history. Magazine articles, especially the kind of magazine articles I used to write, were meant to be disposable. You read them, you forgot them, you moved on. It’s like they never existed. I was amazed that I got paid to write anything at all, and even more amazed that people kept paying me and did not throw me out ass-over-heels when they read my ignorant scribbling. I assumed that nobody (at least nobody in a position of power at the magazine) read anything I wrote. I knew that nobody read what I wrote outside of the people who worked at the magazine. Our financial struggles when I started working there in what might have been the last days of 1989 were no secret: we had one working lightbulb, and all eleven staff members had to share one desk and a very old computer that had a coin meter attached.

By contrast, our publisher, Bob Guccione, Jr., had an office carpeted in two-inch thick fluorescent red shag that took up a full third of the available space on the 11th Floor at 6 W. 18th Street. His zebra print leather furniture, Plexiglas desk in the shape of Helen of Troy (as rendered by Giacometti, if Giacometti had ever worked in Plexiglas), and walls covered in original paintings by John “Cougar” Mellencamp were a wonder to behold, except we never got to behold any of it, because we weren’t allowed to step on the carpet unless we were called on the carpet. On the eve of the publication of the very issue we are going to discuss, I was called on the fluorescent carpet for allowing Scott Paulson-Bryant, a very fine critic, to write a less-than-glowing review of U2’s Achtung Baby. Bob was friends with U2’s manager, Leprechaun McGee, and found a host of imaginary problems with Scott’s review. He insisted that in my capacity as Reviews Editor I had unconscionably let this obviously biased, inaccurate, and badly-written review pass muster (the review in fact was none of these things—while not glowing, it was objective, accurate, and well-written). He directed me to write a review myself, confident that I had gotten the message, so to speak.

John Cougar Mellencamp is actually a pretty good painter.

I’m not good with authority. I took home the cassette and proceeded to write a review even more negative than Scott’s, just because I could. Even my mom could have predicted that that’s what I would do, given the situation. But my mom didn’t know Bob, or anything about music, so she was in no position to warn him. Similarly, Bob was in no position to spike my review, as we were about to go to print, and he had openly declared his absolute faith in my critical acumen and writing ability. So he pretended to be pleased with my effort. For myself, I was indifferent, because I was absolutely convinced that no one would read my review and that if anyone did, he or she wouldn’t care, and if anyone did, that he or she would forget about the review within a matter of hours.

My point being that when I wrote the article I hope is successfully embedded above, which was published in December 1991 and thus must have been written in September/October 1991 or thereabouts, I had neither expectation nor desire that anyone would actually read it. But a few days ago, when thinking about all the great stuff I’ve done in my life, it occurred to me that I might have invented “Generation X.” I mean, the application of that phrase (taken from Douglas Coupland’s book of the same name) to the generation then coming into young adulthood. So I did a cursory Google Books search, and came up with… an interview with Perry Farrell, whom someone had elected Artist of the Year for 1991. We talked about Lollapalooza, mostly, and I asked him if he’d seen the movie Slacker, or read the book Generation X, and whether he thought these cultural markers, in conjunction with the success of Farrell’s Lollapalooza, were in any sense defining moments for our generation.

Actually, what I wrote is this:

 “While Lollapalooza may indeed turn out to be some sort of watershed event for this country’s twentysomething generation, it’s not the most significant thing Farrell’s done to date. By breaking up Jane’s Addiction because it was becoming too successful, Farrell has put into action one of the most intriguing of those flitting currents referred to earlier: something touched upon in recent books like Generation X and movies like Slacker. It’s a philosophy of rejection, a kind of non-violent opposition to the system of values transmitted to us through popular culture in the ’80s. We just don’t want to participate anymore in the culture that’s been handed to us. We’ve figured out better things to do.”

There are so many things wrong with the reasoning in that paragraph I don’t even know where to begin. The naïvété with which I accepted Farrell’s reason for breaking up Jane’s Addiction (right, it had nothing to do with drug abuse or ego, obviously), the idea that Lollapalooza was a watershed moment for anything but maybe watersheds, the non-violent opposition to…what, exactly, CD players?… the mind reels.  I go on to declare alternative music dead (this was before Nirvana released Nevermind, understand, and alternative culture became just… culture, for better and for worse, and Spin overnight doubled its circulation, and we bought another lightbulb, but the point: once again I was spectacularly wrong). But: “figured out better things to do?” Better things than what? Better things like what?

The level of cluelessness in that one paragraph is probably unsurpassable, but more important than my own sophomoric sociology is that I forgot to call it something. I laid it all out, the whole Generation X morphology, and then I forgot to call it Generation X.

So I can’t claim to have invented that term. The following year I think I wrote an essay declaring the death of indie rock just as Pavement released Slanted and Enchanted. At least I was consistent.

About James Greer

James Greer is the author of the novels Artificial Light(LHotB/Akashic 2006) and The Failure (Akashic 2010), and the non-fiction book Guided By Voices: A Brief History, a biography of a band for which he played bass guitar. He’s written or co-written movies for Lindsay Lohan, Jackie Chan, and Steven Soderbergh, among others. He is a Contributing Editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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One Response to The Time I (Almost) Defined a Generation

  1. Hank says:

    I used to write you letters from college explaining the mysticism of Yo! MTV Raps.

    Thanks for making that happen. By the way, Yo! MTV Raps isn’t anymore mystical than Perry Farrell’s reasoning for breaking up Jane’s Addiction.

    Fluorescent red shag. Wasn’t that Kim Brown’s nickname?

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