These days, with a recession on the way, housing prices tanking, the Dow out of control and an unpopular war that won’t seem to end, a lot of Americans are feeling uneasy and confused. Recent surveys show a majority think the nation is on what pollsters call “the wrong track.”
For Jeff Gordinier, the author of the new book “X Saves the World” and an editor at large for Details magazine, it’s actually kind of reassuring.
“I find a strange degree of comfort in it,” the writer said serenely at Pasadena’s Pie ‘n’ Burger, a legendary diner near his hometown of San Marino. His Generation X origins, he said, make it hard for him to trust the good times.
“The busts make me feel happy in a way. Like yecch, we knew it would happen -- we knew we’d get suckered again. I knew it would collapse. It’s strangely liberating.”
The writer looks fairly angst-free: With his tousled blond hair and T-shirt from an old-school seaside tavern in Pescadero, the youthful-seeming 41-year-old could be the percussionist for the Gen-X indie band Pavement.
Gordinier has become the latest laureate of the underdog generation born between 1960 and 1977, whose aimlessness was lamented by a 1990 Time magazine cover story, whose best minds graduated into a recession and spent their post-college years flipping burgers or teaching English in Prague for subsistence wages. He’s trying to reinvigorate not only generational identity -- which took a hit when even Pied Pipers such as Douglas Coupland, author of the 1991 book “Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture,” disavowed the term -- but reignite his cohorts’ long-cooled battle with the triumphant, self-obsessed baby boomers.
“This is a manifesto,” Gordinier writes, “for a generation that never had much use for manifestoes.” Though he sometimes slips into an ironic voice, Gordinier is a wound-up, passionate guy who shares some of his book’s good-natured, ranty tone. The book has been praised by Nick Hornby and Neal Pollack.
The new battle, Gordinier makes clear, is with the boomers’ kids: The credulous, slavishly obedient Britney worshipers who have, with their larger numbers and burgeoning consumer power, leapfrogged the Xers and begun to reshape the world in their image.
“That’s right,” he says in his book. “The boomers bred, and their solipsistic progeny have arrived just in time to serve Generation X a second helping of anxiety.”
Retail run amok
Gordinier was driving through Pasadena after lunch, blasting Nick Cave and the Replacements on the stereo of his rental car, pointing out a stretch around Raymond Avenue that was once “the slacker wonderland of all time,” the alley where he used to hang at the Espresso Bar, the spots where he hunted through racks of thrift store clothes, the shops where he scored great obscure used books.
But don’t look now: “It’s a . . . Hooters!?” It’s like he’s just found a rat while cleaning his kitchen. “That’s embarrassing! I’m ashamed -- I’m horrified! That’s when you know a real soul death has crept in . . . This is what the Gen-Y people grow up with -- an epidemic of chains.”
Gordinier’s thesis, such as it is, is that for much of the late ‘80s and most of the ‘90s, the environment -- especially bohemian quarters in cities and college towns -- helped shape a generation, one that evolved into what he calls “our reticent, dark-horse demographic,” not unlike the cute but “deep” wallflower Molly Ringwald played on “Sixteen Candles.”
That environment could exert a lot of force.
“I grew up among Republicans,” Gordinier said of his childhood in the moneyed suburban haven of San Marino.
“But people like the Sex Pistols blasted my brain in new directions. Going to used bookstores, going to used record stores, going to coffee shops -- it’s a cliche, but it’s true -- it introduced me to different ways of thinking, different ways of writing. I’m not kidding, I probably would have been a suicidal corporate lawyer by now if I hadn’t been exposed to that stuff.”
It didn’t matter that, like a lot of Xer rituals, the coffee-shop bohemianism he experienced was already “vintage,” inherited from the Beats and lived through a thin layer of self-consciousness. “In its raw form, counterculture is something that helps open you up -- helps you see things you might not have grown up with.”
But what happens when you grow up with nothing but malls and franchises? “It’s a completely different mind-set,” he said. “There are kids growing up now who’ve never known anything besides chain stores.”
According to Neil Howe, a demographer and historian, generations typically define themselves against the one that came before, “trying to solve the problems of the previous generation.” As for Gen-X, he has called it “the most under-parented generation in history.”
So it’s no coincidence that each generation looks misguided to members of another.
“If you want to have Xers get their hackles up,” Howe said, “force them to watch ‘High School Musical.’ It’s so happy, so team-oriented, so achieving, their parents care so much about them . . . .”
As Gordinier sees it, everything changed -- as abruptly as the appearance of Hooters on a street of used bookstores -- with the arrival of Britney Spears in 1999: The Xers’ groovy, college-radio-and-thrift-store heyday was out; consumer hell was in.
“As soon as Britney broke, a change took place. It was a rebellion against what I’d call rock ‘n’ roll values, in favor of blunt corporate values.”
He cringed as he recalled the early, clean-cut Spears: “Miss Teen USA, an obedient child, more conservative than her predecessors. . . . In a way she’s still obedient -- obedient to the tabloids -- doing what fame demands.”
He sees a parallel change in hip-hop, from the melodic ingenuity of Tribe Called Quest and the political courage of N.W.A to the hedonistic, bling-obsessed world that followed. And a few years later, the “totalitarian kitsch” of “American Idol” crossed the Atlantic and things got even worse.
He noticed the fault line watching the evolution of the interns at Details: No longer was he talking to the new crop about cult writer Joseph Mitchell and the art of nonfiction. “A new breed started coming in, and our conversations were all about, ‘How do I become an editor in chief?’ ‘How much do you make?’ ”
Of course, Gordinier’s generalizations are not rock solid: The Xer (born 1968) Celine Dion is hardly a disc-digging, integrity-obsessed hipster; with his lefty politics, thrift-store duds and literary pretensions, Conor Oberst of the band Bright Eyes seems like a classic Xer -- except for his 1980 birthday.
Gordinier concedes that demographics don’t have to be destiny: “Doug Coupland was right when he said that X is really more of a sensibility than a generation.”
But some of these age-based generalizations remain pretty solid, said Kate Torgovnick, the 27-year-old author of the college cheerleading chronicle “Cheer!” who will debate Gordinier at an event in New York in April.
“I think he’s right that my generation has been told we’re very important,” she said, conceding that her peers tend to be personally ambitious, use cellphones and IM incessantly, and read US Weekly.
Her fellow Millenials, she said, are less likely to give in to sarcasm. “You’ll hear us use the word ‘awesome’ a lot.”
Xer irony and sarcasm are honestly earned, said Howe.
“They started coming of age with the Reagan revolution and deregulation and the consciousness revolution. Kids were expected to be free agents and take care of themselves too. There are so many images of cultural hostility to children during this period,” including the popularity of the birth control pill, which led to record lows in fertility, and “child-as-devil movies.”
“When Xers were kids,” Howe said, “they were told, ‘Trust no one, don’t count on the institutions, make deals and then move on.’ ” This led to an entrepreneurial flair and individualism, and wariness. “When it comes to community and civic activism, this generation represents a historic void, and Millenials are going to rush in to fill it.”
Short time in the sun
Over its brief heyday in the early ‘90s, Generation X and its plight served as the impetus for movies (“Slacker”), rock albums (Nirvana’s “Nevermind”), developments in fashion (remember flannel?) and a whole slew of books. Some of them were pop-sociological, such as Coupland’s, which took its “X” from Billy Idol’s old group and a category in Paul Fussell’s “Class: A Guide Through the American Status System.”
Others were soberly demographic (William Strauss and Howe’s “Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069"), still others were political, such as the several books blaming the boomers for an upcoming Social Security meltdown. Despite the gloomy 1990 Time cover story -- “While the baby boomers had a placid childhood in the 1950s, which helped inspire them to start their revolution, today’s twenty-something generation grew up in a time of drugs, divorce and economic strain . . . " -- some of these were funny, ironic, angry, or all three.
“I didn’t intend to write a perfect book,” Gordinier said. “When I was coming up, a lot of the books that inspired me were by Norman Mailer or Henry Miller or Hunter Thompson -- books that were these mad gobs of prose.”
Gordinier’s tome is an energetic, often vivid, hastily argued and compulsively overwritten document -- one penned, he said, “in a kind of lunatic trance.”
In fact, it originated in the hazy, sleep-deprived weeks in which its author and his wife (who live in the suburbs north of New York City) recovered from the 2006 birth of their son. When his editor at the magazine called to check in, Gordinier -- still a bit dazed -- hung up the phone with an assignment to “take on Generation X.”
The ensuing article, “Has Generation X Already Peaked?,” which Gordinier said was written mostly around 4 a.m. on a series of consecutive mornings, became popular and controversial, catching fire online and in the press.
“X Saves the World” which sprang from that article, has the energy of a barroom conversation, along with the digressions, long-windedness and specious reasoning those sessions sometimes include. Gordinier’s editors, not wanting to scare off mainstream readers, trimmed a 4,000-word song-by-song deconstruction of the Replacements “Let It Be” album.
“Sometimes,” said Gordinier, finishing his fries back at Pie ‘n’ Burger, “I think authors ought to think less and sort of react.”