Songs for the Struggling Artist


Generation X: Stuck in the Middle With You

While visiting a small town, I found myself at a local restaurant, where a band was playing their Saturday night gig. The band’s leader sang about being a kid in 1992 which helped me place him as a member of the Millennial generation. The audience was mostly represented by the Baby Boomer Generation, with a handful of the band’s Millennial friends in the mix. When the band played a cover of a hit song from the Baby Boomer’s youth, they filled the room with exuberant dance. And the Millennial men in the audience turned red from containing their laughter.

There was an atmosphere of these two generations trying to communicate with one another and find some kind of balance between them. There were pleading songs of a young man to an older one. A white haired man came up onstage while the band played to adjust their levels. These two generations were simultaneously at odds and in cahoots. And, as far as I know, I was the lone representative of my generation, Generation X. In fact, I realized then that I had spent my entire week in this small town as the lone Gen X representative. Where was the rest of Gen X in this town? Were they all home with their kids or had the town been vacated by Gen X years ago? If this party was for Boomers and Millennials, where was the Gen X party? And nationwide, maybe even worldwide, where IS the Gen X party? Where is Gen X hanging out? And why wasn’t I invited?

Until this moment in the restaurant/bar, I had not given my generation much thought. In fact, like 59% of Gen X, I didn’t really identify with the category at the time. But that has changed in recent years, ever since I started to read articles like “Why Generation X Are Just the Coolest“, “Generation X: America’s Neglected Middle Child”and excerpts of a book called X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking and I found myself suddenly feeling an incredible kinship with my Generation. I’d read these things and think, “Yeah! I AM like that! Yes we WILL save the world! Why DO people underestimate us?!”

Like the atmosphere in the small town bar, the big generational stories in the press tend to be about the more populous generations – the Boomers and the Millennials. The thrust of the Gen X narrative boils down to “What about us?” The underlying soundtrack to every Gen X article is the Simple Minds’ song from The Breakfast Club soundtrack “Don’t You Forget About Me.”

Simultaneously, the comments on all of these stories tended to boil down to decrying making generational distinctions as bullshit. Gen X-ers would appear to call bullshit the most. But Gen X calling bullshit may be the epitome of Gen X-ness. (Contradiction? Yes. But wrestling with contradictions is apparently also a Gen X trait.) Generations (generally) are probably bullshit. But they are somehow meaningful bullshit.

When we were kids, magazines used to write about us too. We were pretty fascinating when we were the subjects of teen movies and post college romances. The older generations worried about us and the lyrics of our music. (What was this new rap music all about? You call it hip hop? What is this stuff? Grunge? What is wrong with these kids today?) We were worried over, got called slackers and malcontents. Time magazine’s cover story in 1990 wondered if we were “Laid back, Late Blooming or Just Lost?”

But decades later, as a generation, the press don’t much talk about us anymore. We have to talk about ourselves.  And while we may not have embraced the label of Gen X at the time (it was 1991 before we had a label, coined by a guy who was born in ’61 and therefore not even Gen X by most measurements) but in this moment it is a convenience. Would we be more recognized if some of our other names had stuck? What if we were still called The Baby Busters? Or The Latchkey Generation? Or the Video Generation? Gen X is pretty neutral as nicknames go and accepting our Gen X identity seems to make us our more visible.

But we are technically middle aged now. Perhaps middle-aged people are always invisible? Maybe the Silent Generation turned forty and thought, “Hey what about us?”

The other sticky bit is that “middle-aged” is generally used as a pejorative. Say “middle-aged” and I picture a paunchy guy in clashing plaids sitting on a couch. It strikes me that maybe we don’t really know what 40 and 50 looks like. I saw a comment about the amazing Michaela Watkins (Gen X) in Casual. The comment said something like, “This character is turning 40? She looks like she’s 60!” And I realized how few 40 year old women this person has probably seen. The commenter had no sense of what 40 might look like, or, for that matter, what 60 might look like. Some Gen X-ers look like the generation behind us and some look like the generation ahead. I was recently mistaken for a college student. At the gig that kicked off this whole Gen X exploration, I got carded. A couple of years ago, I was asked for my hall pass at a high school. Meanwhile, Michaela Watkins who is 2 years older than me somehow looks like she’s twenty years older? We stand in this very odd middle space.

I now feel about Gen X the way David Rackoff discusses being Canadian in that This American Life story – you know the one – where whenever someone mentions a famous Canadian, a Canadian feels compelled to chime in to say, “You know they’re Canadian.” I feel like I do that for Gen X now. Tina Fey? She’s Gen X. Amy Poehler? Gen X. Ava Duvernay? Gen X. Tupac Shakur? Gen X. Melissa McCarthy? Gen X. Samantha Bee? Gen X. Jennifer Lopez? Gen X. Kurt Cobain, David Foster Wallace and the Brat Pack are maybe more closely identified with Gen X but Gen X is everywhere. Ever since I started researching Gen X, I have found myself compulsively looking up people’s birthdays to check their Gen X status.

I may have resisted the blanket identification before but as I watch my generation ignored, treated like the “middle child” and generally dismissed – I feel a responsibility, particularly as a woman (at an age when women start to become invisible) to be vocal and highly visible and to be unapologetically Gen X.

End of Part 1
Coming in future installments: Gen X lenses on sexism, technology, conformity, group-think, music and more.

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