Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Cobain and GenX Ideology

Justin Katz has responded to my earlier post on Kurt Cobain with some very good points, many of which have forced me to reexamine my stance on Cobain, but mostly have caused me to delve deeper into the evolution of the ideology of my generation, GenX.

Justin does agree with me that Pearl Jam was simply a better band (though I imagine that we both realize this is a subjective assertion), but he did a good job of explaining what made Nirvana so attractive, something I didn't even attempt to do. According to Justin, while Nirvana were less "musicians" than others:
The added element, which Nirvana personified, might be as simply characterized as having to do with confusion. That's why it was such a big deal — a "cool" thing — that nobody could understand what Cobain was saying. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" centered around unintelligible vocals expressing indecipherable lyrics, over chords distorted beyond recognition. Even Cobain's hair, granting mere glimpses of his face, was part of the message.

So, certainly, both those who "got it" and those who didn't are justified in suggesting that the generational experience to which grunge was the soundtrack was frustration at having nothing to be angry about — adolescent energy without anything on which to focus. That analysis is justified, yes, but I'm not so sure it's accurate. Marc, for example, in listing some issues from which Gen X was free, overlooks the entire range of society from whence derived the angst...
The issues to which Justin refers are incapsulated in this excerpt from my previous post:
I think Cobain's death was reminiscent of the "Lady Di phenomenom," whereby people wanted to be part of the story. This is especially because Cobain's fan base was mostly comprised of a generation that had nothing to REALLY get upset over (like in the past with "The Bomb" and "Vietnam" or now with "Terrorism") so they focused on those aspects of Pop culture that made them feel like part of a larger "movement." The cynicism and "reality" espoused by Cobain, et al spoke to a generation that really didn't have much to b-i-t-c-h about. The Berlin Wall had fallen down, Communism was kaput, Clinton was president and believed in a place called "Hope," etc. Self-righteous angst influenced by postmodern relativism became the new "it" thing.
In retrospect, Justin may be correct in his belief that I shortchanged the genuine feelings of loss felt by many of the GenXers when confronted with Cobain's suicide.  This is supported by Justin accurately pointing out the many social issues that faced GenX during our formative years.
My generation was the first to grow up in a culture in the process of dismantling itself. Divorce, abortion, an ever-increasing emphasis on sex coupled with an epidemic of a mysterious and deadly disease, relativism, ingrained opposition to organized religion and other sources of moral ballast, among many others across the spectrum of daily life. And yet, we were not offered the opportunity to be angry about the sources of our pain and confusion, because they continued to be promoted as good things. There was nowhere to turn for rebellion, because it was rebellion that ailed us, although we did not see it then, and many still do not see it now.
Justin has a very strong point here. I may have been looking at the issue from too much of a world event, big picture or political, and not enough of a social, angle. According to Justin, and I agree with him on this, GenX was confronted by a sort of cognative dissonance whereby much of what we intuitively felt to be wrong was being portrayed as being virtuous or "open-minded." We tried to look for a set of core principles and were, as Justin points out, confused.

Justin's theory as to why Nirvana's "Teen Spirit" was so attractive and, in a sense, groundbreaking, also seems solid. I, too, was bowled over by "Teen Spirit" and felt that something about it was special, or at the very least attractive. There was something more to it than just the memorable guitar riff and the driving beat behind the confused lyrics, not to mention the intriguing imagery of the video. I think that, above all, I delighted in the irony of it all. And that is what many in our generation came to embrace, irony. Pithy comments, wit and irony, not real discourse, were the central characteristics of our dialogue. (In this, GenX really shouldn't be set apart as being unique, there are plenty from other generations that seem to place wit over wisdom, despite their protestations to the contrary.)

Justin believes that Cobain's death pre-empted "the reclamation of those priorities that had been sold to his generation as inconsequential choices. He married young for a superstar. He had a daughter. Would the man who wrote 'I wanted a father, but all I got was a dad' have failed to live up to his responsibilities? His suicide — the ultimate parental failure — provided one answer, cutting through the jumble of drives and desires in a final rejection of them all." Here, I think Justin, despite his obvious recognition of the failures of Cobain, still gives Cobain too much credit. Perhaps through marriage and fatherhood Cobain was on his way to such a reclamation of priorities, and perhaps he failed because he was already in too deep, or, to quote Justin, "He was spent — too much the personification of the zeitgeist to redefine himself." Nonetheless, we cannot parse out his willingness to be a good father and husband and not recognize his ultimate failure to do so. I think Justin may be too willing to credit his attempt and not harsh enough in condemning him for his failure. 

Yet,  perhaps, it was his self-inflicted death, ocurring when it seemed he had much to live for in the person of his own child, that showed a generation that there were some things that one shouldn't be so confused about. Angst may be all right, even cool, but it shouldn't cloud ones judgement and take priority over responsibility, be it parental, matrimonial or social.  However, this message was lost, overwhelmed, by the loss of a "great talent." His death became an event that would become viewed as a tragedy that was seemingly inflicted by some unseen force, rather than the suicide of a confused and somewhat selfish and self-indulgent individual. In the end, the portrayal of the Cobain's death became that of the sacrifice of a troubled and poetic soul to his own confusion, and not the selfish act of a disturbed, sometimes talented, individual who committed the ultimate act of self-indulgence.

In my previous post, I explained my belief that the sense of shared, generational tragedy over the death of Cobain was the result of "a generation desperate to find something with which to identify themselves. Cobain was the man of the moment, and his tragic death was a perverse ending, and ironic justification, of the postmodern, media imposed "Gen X" ideology." When I say postmodern, I refer primarily to moral relativism, the philosophy that ascribes no objective quality to morality and yet another primary contributor to the confusion of GenX.

Why did we, GenX, embrace this confusion? Was it simply because we were young, hadn't found our voice and the confused lyrics and attitude proferred by Cobain spoke to our own? I would have to say this is probably true. His gravelly voice was that of GenX because he was a reflection of our confusion over what it was we were supposed to really care about. His songs and attitude justified and legitimized our confusion and provided the seeds for an initial GenX ideology. In this fog of confusion, many in GenX looked around and concluded that, with nothing morally concrete to stand on, what we were best able to care about was, simply, nothing. Tragically, this became the GenX ideology, undefinable angst drove us to ironic indifference.

As we grew older, though, we moved on, at least some of us, and wrote off our earlier angst to typical youthful rebellion, much like our parents had experienced in the 60's or 70's.  But our confusion over what was important was helped by world events that had "conspired" to remove any BIG problem that needed to be confronted, fretted over or solved.  Lacking a BIG problem, we focused on those that were less large, though were also important. Most of these were in the social realm to which Justin has alluded. 

There were plenty of social problems to worry over, and we tackled them individually, in different ways. There was no overriding generational cause. Some turned to the culture wars, others to such "causes" as environmentalism or the anti-smoking crusade.  We all recognized the problems, and, luckily, it seems many of us had lost some of our confusion.  We may not have had any BIG problems, but through maturity, we found there were things that were important enough to care about.  Most importantly, we started to reject the moral relativism that had been foisted upon us and caused us so much confusion.  Why?  We started working for ourselves, getting married, and having kids.  It's OK to be indifferent about your own life, but things change when others depend upon you.  This is something that we came to realize: something that Kurt Cobain apparently never did.

This process was hastened by the events of September 11, 2001.  Justin was correct in inferring that I believe that 9/11 was a generational turning point for us GenXers. He is also correct in that I believe, generally speaking, that now our ideology is less defined by our taste in music and pop culture than by our reaction and analysis of current events. We have grown up, and this does not make us particularly noteworthy or different from the Boomers or the Greatest Generation.

Every generation, when they're young, is defined by their culture, and by extension, their music. When they mature, they become defined by the times in which they live. Kurt Cobain's music reflected our generational confusion. In retrospect, his music was an accurate depiction of the problems experienced by our Generation. My conclusion, however, is that this is no longer the case. We are no longer a confused, undefinabely angst-ridden, indifferent generation. We are now a generation immersed in historical events, whether we recognize this or not. We would do well to remember that while he may have spoken for us in the past, Kurt Cobain is no longer the voice of Generation X.  We now have our own voices, and we know how to use them.  We have finally grown up.  Kurt Cobain never did.

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