Monday, October 17, 2011

Blabbing 'bout my generation

Posted By on 10.17.11 at 03:09 PM

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The cover story of this week’s New York magazine — written by Noreen Malone — entitled “The Kids Are Actually Sort of Alright,” aims to provide some sort of framework for today’s twentysomethings, who “Gchat, a million tiny windows blinking orange with hopes and dreams and YouTube links, with five-year plans and lunch plans,” whatever that means. The article has a photo slideshow of various defiant and brooding New York City twentysomethings with marker-scrawled masking tape fastened across their chests, bearing statements like “BRIGHT BUT UNCERTAIN,” “YOU HAVE NO IDEA,” and, my personal favorite, “LEAVE SOME FOR US.”

Every five years or so, New York does some sort of diagnostic article about “young people” and how they “are.” Look no further than this 2006 article by Adam Sternbergh about “grups,” or people who are some sort of amalgamation of yuppies and hipsters. That article’s tone was more sardonic than this one, which is more nuanced and sensitive, mostly due to the fact that it focuses to some degree on the employment and economic prospects that inform Occupy Everything.

“The Kids Are Actually Sort of Alright,” grapples with the notion that today’s twentysomethings are confused, debt-saddled, distrusting people who postpone marriage and begrudge their parents’ generation, unsure of their careers and their future. A big problem with the people interviewed for the article — a problem addressed in the photo slideshow, with a statement reading, “The young persons in these slides reflect an extremely random sample of twentysomethings affected by affected by the economy, skewed heavily toward college attendees and acquaintances of New York staffers” — is the article does little to account for its subjects’ background: Where they’re from, what their family situation was like, what kind of education they had, or their ethnicity. Like the subjects in the photo slideshow, they’re cardboard cutouts of young, fashionable people that supposedly represent everyone. Like their parents' generation before them (ta-da), the twentysomething is little more than a marketing term.

Is there anything more absurd than an article that tries to "define a generation," as if generations are so categorical? And can anything exacerbate that absurdity more than narrowing down "twentysomethings" — a broad range of people to begin with, if it's based on the assumption that the article is describing all people between the ages of 20 and 29 — into a cross section of well-educated young adults?

Nowhere is the article more hilariously narcissistic than when Malone projects her musical taste onto a collective message for her generation. To wit:

I spent the summer listening to Helplessness Blues, an album by Fleet Foxes. It is sweet and comforting and hated by a certain kind of music snob, and it was unexpectedly popular. The band, fronted by a 25-year-old, owes much to the sounds of groups like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, but if such a thing is possible, Fleet Foxes makes those older acts sound hard-edged. The folk music of the sixties was protest music, but there is nothing remotely political about this. Instead, the preoccupations are inward-turning, the title track serving as a gentle generational anthem: “I was raised up believing / I was somehow unique / Like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes / Unique in each way you can see,” it begins. “But, now, after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be / A functioning cog in some great machinery / Serving something beyond me.” It’s not just the bearded dudes in flannel; some of our angry-sounding musicians, it turns out, are just seeking affirmation. On the song “Radicals,” rapper Tyler, the Creator snarls, “I’m not saying just to go out and do some stupid shit, commit crimes. What I’m trying to tell you is, do what the fuck you want, stand for what the fuck you believe in and don’t let nobody tell you you can’t do what the fuck you want.” Then the kicker: “I’m a fucking unicorn, and fuck anybody who say I’m not.” Today’s fucking unicorn is yesterday’s “Fuck tha Police.”

Well, that’s the “kicker”: I'm just a unicorn who looks to aggressively beige, sentimental folk-rock for inspiration. You got me, New York.

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