“I wanna publish ‘zines and rage against machines…”
Toward the end of 1990, you couldn’t get away from Simpsons merchandise- from posters, to pajama sets, to pencil toppers- mostly featuring Generation-X’s very first mainstream media icon, Bart Simpson. You see, before The Simpsons (1989) became fixated on Homer’s gradual decline into retardation, the show’s initial protagonist was skateboarding prankster Bart- the country’s first take on their next generation.
And those savvy Simpsons writers seemed to have nailed it. While Bart’s driving characteristic was apathy, it was a kind of self-aware apathy. Bart wasn’t stupid, he was an “underachiever”- he was capable of more but consciously chose less. This hyper-aware apathy would become the generation’s defining trait. The following year Kurt Cobain was hailed as the “voice of Generation-X,” releasing Nirvana’s seminal Nevermind (1991) record. The stand out single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” served to define the generation with the very same self-conscious apathy: “I feel stupid and contagious; here we are now, entertain us.”
Generation-X was most proud of their ability to know they were disappointing. Not only did they believe this understanding negated the negative implications of being so disappointing- if you know you’re a loser, you’re not really a loser- but it was also the foundation of their identity. Generation-X was too cool for their own good.
And even if that line in Teen Spirit seemed to sum up the zeitgeist of the generation quite nicely, it turned out Cobain wasn’t actually their spokesman after all. You wouldn’t know it if you didn’t live through it, but Nirvana took on a mythology after Cobain’s suicide in the middle of 1994. This was understandable- as grim as it may be, is there anything more authentic than suicide? And authenticity was the holy grail for the detail-obsessed, Holden Caulfield-like Gen-Xer; Cobain offing himself put Nirvana miles ahead of their peers, and gave their music an added dimension of reality. But the truth is that Nirvana had already begun to fall apart in the months leading to the suicide. Their third studio album, In Utero (1993), was met with a disappointing reception- partially by design. Cobain had become obsessed with the type of person who would buy a Nirvana record. Never before had audience been a consideration for a rock star, who typically only cares about pushing enough records to sell out suburban hockey arenas. No one stops to consider who’s actually buying the records, because, who fucking cares?
This type of anxiety was unique to Generation-X; success wasn’t enough, it had to be the right kind of success- just as unconscious apathy may be losery, but self-aware apathy takes on a sheen of hip irony. Since Cobain wasn’t selling records to the right kind of Nirvana fan- something he had already cried about in the liner notes to Incesticide (1992)– Cobain would consciously write a difficult, off-putting record with vocals infamously “low in the mix” in order to whittle the band’s audience down to a personality type that Cobain was more comfortable with.
Maybe Cobain earned Nirvana’s place in the rock-and-roll pantheon by sheer will- he was authentically obsessed with authenticity. It was around this time that old man Axl Rose tried to compete with this edgy- albeit neurotic- conception of cool by performing a Charles Manson song on his band’s rather terrible cover album, The Spaghetti Incident? (1993). Poor Boomer Axl was out of his depth, although it’s tough to compete with someone who has nothing to lose… as if you’d want to. Kurt Cobain was too cool for his own good.
Green Day will go down as the historically less regarded alternative rock Cinderella story. Emerging from the shadow of Cobain’s suicide, Green Day shot to stardom over the summer of 1994 and by the end of the year were selling out their own suburban hockey arenas. So popular were the Berkeley trio that they single-handedly resurrected punk rock, transformed it into something commercially viable, and gave an entire generation of misfit teenagers their first job at Hot Topic. Even old Johnny Rotten owes a debt to Green Day- in the wake of punk rock’s anything-but-chaotic return, the Sex Pistols cashed in on a glitzy, establishment-approved, MTV-promoted reunion tour. God save the Queen indeed, only this time they really meant it.
Green Day had a lot in common with Nirvana. Both were fascinated with nihilism, melancholy, and angst- a hallmark of the generation. However, unlike Cobain who felt a sense of betrayal when confronting what he considered the meaninglessness of modernity, Green Day reveled in disaster. Imagining them both as teenagers at a house party- Nirvana is sulking alone, smoking cigarettes and Green Day is taking hits of canned air and giggling. So suicide wasn’t in the cards, an idea that must have thrilled their record label. However, it wasn’t all giggles and huffing; despite signing a corporate record deal, filming music videos for MTV, and booking an arena tour- surprise, surprise- like Cobain, Green Day suddenly had a problem with the kind of person buying Green Day records. On their first arena tour, to punish the presumed jocks and frat boys in attendance, the band booked an aggressively homosexual “queercore” group in the form of Pansy Division to open for them and taunt the audience with songs like “The Butt Fuckers of Rock and Roll,” and “Smells Like Queer Spirit.”
Like the bratty teenager who didn’t get the right kind of Corvette for their Super Sweet Sixteen (2007) despite their quick and easy ascendance to the top of the alt-rock mountain, it wasn’t the right kind of success. And just like Nirvana, Green Day penned their very own audience shedding record. Released a year after Dookie (1994), Insomniac (1995) did its job rather well- it was good but not great, didn’t have a hit single, and ultimately turned their audience against them.
Despite all the nihilistic posturing, it’s important to remember that Generation-X wasn’t the one with all the school shootings. The murky attitude was as shallow as the cuts on their wrists- it was a fashion accessory, it was an act, it was total bullshit. Even if they didn’t become noteworthy go-getters, Gen-X eventually had to grow up into lame adults. A few years after Green Day did everything they could to torture their audience, they had a song featured on the finale of Seinfeld (1998) which was viewed by over seventy million people. If selling out is inevitable, you may as well cut the best deal you can and get on with it. Just like Gen-X, Green Day were growing up into lame adults- turns out they weren’t very cool after all.
Green Day continued to be the voice of their generation as they all hurdled toward taking center stage as the world’s grown-ups. When Generation-X thought making fun of Fox News was the height of woke political awareness, Green Day released American Idiot (2004). Gen-X was still bent on thinking they were the coolest people in the room, only now with a new definition of cool to keep up with.
Generation-X became the first generation to treat identity as a consumer product; to be carefully considered, procured and groomed. Whether they wanted to be perceived as self-aware, ironic losers or woke political analysts, thinking they were the right kind of cool was a chief priority. And if aging Gen-X wanted to see a gaudy Broadway musical, as lame adults inevitably do, Green Day was there for them again- American Idiot (2010) was transformed into a Broadway show for the Gen-Xer who thought they were too cool for Guys and Dolls (2009).
There will never be a Gen-X president. They weren’t a generation interested in changing the world- as long as they have the right emoji reaction to this week’s tragedy on their Facebook profile, that’s good enough for them. Generation-X is neither the hero nor the villain of the story; they didn’t do as much damage as their big-brother the Boomer, nor are they on the front line of the culture war like their sister, the Millennial- and besides, they’re much too cool for all of that, anyway.