Generation X was a Band
Before it was the designation of people born from 1965 to 1980, Generation X was a book. Published in 1964, Jane Deverson and Charles Hamblett is full of interviews that highlight the disparities between the dead-end attitude of British youth of the era with the “the cozy images projected by the advertisers and moralizers, packages of false glamor and journalistic optimism.” The existence of this artifact suggests that the Generation marked with an X started earlier than is generally accepted. Bass player Tony James found a copy of the book under soon-to-be pop icon Billy Idol’s bed in 1976 and decided that it was to be the name of their band. The band Generation X was appropriately short-lived and had minimal impact outside of the London punk scene. When Idol went solo in the early 1980s, James went on to form Sigue Sigue Sputnik.
If you were looking to get Cliff's Notes for the 1980s in musical form, you'd be hard pressed to find a better exemplar than Sigue Sigue Sputnik's 1986 debut, Flaunt It! Tony James described them as "hi-tech sex, designer violence and the fifth generation of rock and roll." A product of punk in the same way that Big Audio Dynamite and Devo were, their techno-pop sound was laced with samples from movies and media. Even after all of the work Trevor Horn had done defining a new sound for the decade, Sigue Sigue Sputnik was still exciting. At the time, for better or worse, they sounded like the future.
In a move of unfortunate prescience, the band sold brief advertisements that played between the songs on the record. Ones for i-D magazine and Studio Line from L’Oréal share space with fake ones for The Sputnik Corporation and a Sputnik video game that never materialized. James touted the spots as commercial honesty, adding, "our records sounded like adverts anyway." Where the punk that preceded them railed against the dominant culture, Sputnik was out to to mirror it, to consume it, to corrode it from the inside. To interpolate an old Pat Cadigan story, the former was trying to kill it, the latter to eat it alive.
It would take Billy Idol a decade to embrace technology in the cyberpunk fashion that Sigue Sigue Sputnik had done in the 1980s. The reaction to Idol's 1993 concept record, titled simply Cyberpunk, is perhaps the best example of competing gen-X attitudes. The Information Superhighway, as it was often called at the time, was just making inroads into homes around the world, and its technology-based, cyberpunk, D.I.Y. influence was also creeping into the culture at large. In his 1996 book Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, Mark Dery describes Idol's Cyberpunk as "a bald-faced appropriation of every cyberpunk cliché that wasn't nailed down" (p. 76). In contrast, our friends and O.G. cyberpunks themselves Gareth Branwyn and Mark Frauenfelder consulted Idol and were involved in various aspects of the record's release.
One of the unspoken yet central tensions among members of generation X is this idea of cultural ownership. It's the old battle of the underground versus the mainstream, but it's also the desire to introduce one to the other, to be the one who shepherds something from subcultural obscurity to mainstream success. We might be the last generation to feel these contradictions of capitalism. We might be the last generation for whom the concepts of underground and mainstream have any real meaning. The terms are still in use, but they don't denote the divisions of marketshare they once did.
In another example of this cultural shift, LL Cool J came to fame in the mid 1980s with the Rick Rubin-produced records Radio in 1985 and Bigger and Deffer in 1987. The scrappy rawness of the young Cool J's raps over Rubin's reductive production proved irresistible to both the streets and the charts. By the time he released Walking with a Panther in 1989, Cool J was rich. Though the record sold well, it also suffered a backlash. The gen-X led hip-hop community was nonplussed by the overt materialism. Ten years later, during the Big Willie era, conspicuous consumption was one of the prevailing modes of hip-hop culture. From Nas to Biggie to Jay-Z, the contradictions of capitalism were on display, and only the underground was complaining (As I wrote previously, this same shift happened in skateboarding as it grew bigger than ever before during the 1990s).
We rebelled against our parents like every generation does, but the unified nature of that rebellion is a thing of the past. The 1980s were the mainstream's last stand. With the 24-hour news cycle and the spread of the internet, any sort of monolithic pop culture began splintering irrevocably in the 1990s. Sigue Sigue Sputnik's slogan was "fleece the world," and while they railed against it all in 1976, the their punk predecessors the Sex Pistols reunited twenty years later, citing "your money" as the sole reason. These ideas were still somewhat shocking at the respective times, but now they seem downright quaint.
YOU GUESSED IT!
This is another brief excerpt from my book-in-progress, The Medium Picture. It's up on the book's website without all of this stuff under it, if you'd like to share it. :)
DIFFERENT WAVES, DIFFERENT DEPTHS:
Quick announcement: I have just signed a contract with Uncle B. Publications to publish a collection of my short stories called Different Waves, Different Depths to be released in December. I am really excited! I've been wanting to put one of these together for a long time, and I finally have the stories and a home for them. I'm working on securing the cover art and laying out a few of the stories myself. Many thanks to Alec Cizak for believing in these stories and apologies to The Little One, Michelle Andino, from whom I stole the title.
Updates to follow!
MORE INTERVIEWS WITH FRIENDS AND HEROES:
My interview anthology, Follow for Now, Vol. 2 picks up and pushes beyond the first volume with a more diverse set of interviewees and interviews. The intent of the first collection was to bring together voices from across disciplines, to cross-pollinate ideas. At the time, social media wasn’t crisscrossing all of the lines and categories held a bit more sway. Volume 2 aims not only to pick up where Follow for Now left off but also to tighten its approach with deeper subjects and more timely interviews. This one is a bit more focused and goes a bit deeper than the last. It includes several firsts, a few lasts, and is fully illustrated with portraits of every interviewee.
“Relentlessly stimulating and insight-packed, Follow for Now is the kind of book I’d like to see published every decade, and devoured every subsequent decade, from now until the end of humanity.” — Maria Popova, Brain Pickings
The interviewees include Carla Nappi, Kristen Gallerneaux, Dominic Pettman, Rita Raley, Jodi Dean (by Alfie Bowne), Gareth Branwyn, Ian Bogost, Mark Dery, Brian Eno (by Steven Johnson), Zizi Papacharissi, Douglas Rushkoff, danah boyd, Dave Allen, Juice Aleem, Labtekwon, M. Sayyid from Antipop Consortium, Ish Butler from Shabazz Palaces, dälek, Matthew Shipp, Tyler, The Creator (by Timothy Baker), Tricia Rose, Sean Price, Rammellzee (by Chuck Galli), Cadence Weapon, El-P of Run the Jewels, Sadat X, Ytasha L. Womack, Bob Stephenson, Pat Cadigan, Mish Barber-Way, Chris Kraus, Simon Critchley (by Alfie Bown), Clay Tarver, Nick Harkaway, Simon Reynolds (with Alex Burns), Malcolm Gladwell, and William Gibson (by Kodwo Eshun).
Thirty-seven interviews deep, Follow for Now, Vol. 2 is a hefty collection of ideas and inspiration from some of the most important writers, artists, and thinkers of our time. It includes the first ever interview with Tyler, The Creator, one of the last with Rammellzee, and a lengthy discussion between William Gibson and Kodwo Eshun caps it all off.
Get yourself a pretty paperback or an open-access .pdf from punctum books!
Thank you for your time and attention, and for reading, responding, and sharing. You are appreciated.