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Talking About My Generation

5 minute read
James Poniewozik

We were different. We were cooler. We were better. Those of us who were alternative-rock fans in the ’80s would tell you we listened to the music because we cared about songwriting and authenticity, were turned off by the staleness of overblown arena rock–true enough, but let’s fess up. When you bought a Housemartins single or a Husker Du album in the ’80s, you bought entry into a club. Our music was hard to find: you had to know the right radio stations, the right clubs, the right record stores. It did not make Casey Kasem’s countdown. It did not pack thousands of screaming guys with cigarette lighters and mullets into football stadiums. Above all, it did not, in those pre-Jackass days of MTV, have videos in heavy rotation.

Turn on the TV today, though, and you’ll find videos for our music everywhere. We call them commercials. The Smiths’ melancholy anthem How Soon Is Now? sells Nissan sedans; the Buzz-cocks’ acid What Do I Get? shills Toyotas; Devo’s arch Beautiful World pitches for Target. Mercedes even uses the Violent Femmes’ ultra-obscure It’s Gonna Rain in a spot for a convertible, though more people may have bought DeLoreans than listened to this song in its first life.

Better people than I have decried the ad world for plundering rock’s past. Not I; if a luxury carmaker wants to kowtow to my tastes to move product–and tosses a few shekels to a great band–I say, Let it. What’s more interesting, and a little disquieting, is what this new kind of hipster marketing says about my generation: not how the market has reshaped us but how we reshaped the market.

The ’80s changed rock music by changing rock audiences. The generations before us listened to rock ‘n’ roll to show that they were better–freer, wilder–than their parents. We listened to our music to show that we were better–worldlier, smarter–than our peers. Sure, the ’60s had cult bands like the Velvet Underground, but G.I.s in the Mekong Delta and grad students with deferments all listened to the Doors. When Madison Avenue later tried to reach them, it did so with songs like the Beatles’ Revolution that were part of everybody’s pop-culture patrimony. Only by the ’80s could there be a thing called “college rock”: music defined not just by its sound but also by its audience’s social stratum, aspirations and, not accidentally, future earnings potential.

In other words, it was music defined by class. In the corner of southeastern Michigan where I grew up, the music you listened to had everything to do with class–in a new way that transcended the old English sense, which had to do only with how you were born, and the old American sense, which had to do only with how much money you had. Sure, if you lived in tony Grosse Pointe, you were more likely to listen to Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark than, say, Foghat. But even we alternateens with blue-collar parents saw ourselves as separate from our classmates with Camaros, Judas Priest albums and plans to work in the Ford plant after graduation. In my hometown, where driving a foreign car was just shy of flying the hammer and sickle on your lawn, I listened to the Femmes while riding in my best friend Dan’s beat-up VW squareback. (Is it just coincidence that by and large, the car companies now borrowing our beloved music are imports?)

We were different, cooler, better, even if the tough guys and cheerleaders didn’t know it. We cheered at the scene in Broadcast News where the young nerd (to become the grownup played by Albert Brooks) tells the lunkheaded bullies who beat him up at school that they’ll never make more than $19,000 a year. We went to movies with names like Revenge of the Nerds–which even if no one knew it then were about exactly this new class division–then had our real-life nerds’ revenge in the roaring ’90s.

Seen from the 2000s, our musical secession was just another facet of the secession of an entire group of Americans that declares itself a nation–different, cooler, better–through its brands: Maglite, Volvo, Apple. Alternative consumption, if you will. Is it any surprise that this market includes people who, as teenagers, were combing record bins for 12-in., imported Depeche Mode singles–pricey, sure, for just a few minutes of music, but of such higher quality!

We like to believe that advertising does things to us, that some impersonal, omnipotent force–“the market,” “big business”–divides us to conquer, slicing us into targeted subsets. But if we’re to be honest, we did much of this job ourselves. We divided, we conquered. Who, after all, are the faceless Madison Avenue suits stealing our music for ads? They’re us. The battle of high school is over, and we won. The rest of the world now has to watch our videos, even if they’re 30 seconds long and end with blurbs about 2.9% APR financing. Should we care that in the process we lost the sense of unity with our peers that generations before us had, that our niche music happened to mesh perfectly with niche marketing? After all these years, it turns out we are different. We are cooler. We are better. Just ask Mercedes.

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