Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Book Review: “X Saves the World” by Jeff Gordinier

…didn’t we have enough reasons to loathe Gen Xers already?


Well, in case I needed another excuse to detest Generation Xers and everything their utterly pointless culture values or ever believed in, I recently read this book by a guy named Jeff Gordinier called “X Saves the World.” It’s a manifesto from 2008 - you know, shortly before the worldwide recession kicked off and made damn near every argument he puts forth in the book mute, anyway - and to give you an idea of how smug this Gordinier fellow is, look no further than the tome’s subtitle - “How Generation X Got the Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking.” Per Gordinier, the baby boomers are a bunch of vapid sellouts (which they are), and a majority of the millennials are a bunch of self-absorbed, technology-addicted numbskulls (which I’m most definitely not contesting.) The part where Gordinier’s book takes a major, major nosedive is when he makes the grand proclamation that Gen X - and only Gen X - stood for something, never abandoned their ideals and ultimately had a more profound, positive influence on the world at large than the flower children or iGeneration. This, surprisingly, is a declaration I have more than a few issues with.

Let’s begin with a really arbitrary issue put forth by the book early on, and that’s drawing the lines where generational succession begins and ends. Per Gordinier, Gen X consists of everybody born from 1960 until 1977, while Generation Y entails everybody born from 1978 until 1994. As before, this is a very arbitrary method of designating one generation from another, and one that’s prone to a ton of cultural overlap. Not surprisingly, Gordinier claims the grunge rock/Silicon Valley boom of the early ‘90s as a triumph for Gen X, even though, by his own definitions, a lot of milennials were on the ground floor of many of those pop-social revolutions. Nirvana and Windows 95 may have been watershed moments for his generation, but what do you know? Those same cultural relics had just as much contemporary influence on MY generation, too. It just seems as if Gordinier spends half the book, running around stuffing names into a burlap sack and yelling “mine!” over and over again. That’s fine with me, though; if Generation X wants to keep mass media runoff like Quentin Tarantino and Beck all to themselves, I say it’s a fate you deserve, by gum.

Gordinier kicks off the book with an interesting little tidbit: that overrated Canadian pop-creation Douglas Coupland lifted the term “Gen X” from a 1983 Paul Fussell book called “Class: A Guide Through the American Status System,” which is actually a reference to a hypothetical “creative class” that Fussell considered to exist beyond the parameters of both economic stratification AND age delineations. Unfortunately, that’s about as sociological exciting as the book gets, as Gordinier spends no time at all jumping headfirst into non-sequitirs about blasting The Dead Kennedys at ice cream stands and how much Queensryche sucked after that.

The early parts of the book focus on pretty much all of the stuff you’d expect; the Velvet Revolution, the Stock Market Crash of ‘87, “Nevermind,” Richard Linklater, Michael Dell, so on and so forth. He talks about Gen X icons like Tarantino and Beck, claiming that they shared a common set of characteristics - they had encyclopedic memories of pointless things, they had no desire to change the world, and since most of them spent a good bit of their youth either jobless or working dead-end service gigs, they had all the time in the world to dream up works of art that were astoundingly devoid of political or social meaning. According to Gordinier, the fact that these works had no primary message was a sign of artistic merit. Just remember that for when we come to his tirade against millennials, will you?

And so, we come to Woodstock ‘94 (complete with a couple of outstanding lines from John Popper, he of Blues Traveler fame), and segue into the great post-modern cinema boom of 1999. With films like “Fight Club,” “The Matrix,” “American Beauty,” and “Being John Malkovich,” Gordinier claims that the Gen X “spirit” hopped from alternative rock to mainstream film, as hip-hop montages and cut-and-paste visuals became hallmarks of big-budget filmmaking. He claims that the films were all about a certain “stuckness,” that is, the inability to escape from certain environmental factors and ways of life. You know…not at all like “boomer” classics a la’ “The Graduate” or “The Last Picture Show,” or anything.

Gordinier then talks about how he spent some time in Prague, and how he listened to The Scorpions sing “Wind of Change” a million-jillion times. He ate dinner with ex-communists, and cited Gen X works like “The Good Soldier Svejk” as instrumental in the war against “totalitarian kitsch.” He then notes the irony in hindsight of wondering how people could ever place “comfort above principle.” This leads to Gordinier dropping perhaps the only truly memorable line in the entire book: “sometimes the best way to make people care about money is to give them some.”

I think you know what’s coming up here. The Dot.com boom goes off, and Gordinier talks about how many wilting Pearl Jam fans inched ever closing to fulfilling the “sum” - that is, a point of economic security where they could just slack off all day without having to worry about being evicted. He notes how the invasion of MBA capitalists forever changed how Silicon Valley operates; and just when it looks like Gordinier is going to have to open wide and swallow some crow, he decides to shift gears and instead rag the hell out of Gen Y.

He calls the millennials both a caste system where “idiots rule” and a “monoculture” of the vapid. Thanks to already-irrelevant cultural texts like the Backstreet Boys, Paris Hilton and Us Weekly, he claims that ours is a generation of narcissistic brats without any inkling of what “soul” feels like or resembles. There’s a great segment where he blasts Good Charlotte for being a band lacking any “iconoclastic purpose” - this, after he spent the first fifty pages of the book explaining how great bands like Nirvana were because their music was so apolitical and asocial. And then, there’s his tirade against “American Idol,” which culminates with the author listing shit acts like The White Stripes, Cat Power, Los Lobos and Aimee Mann as “American originals” alongside Robert Johnson and Miles goddamn Davis. No, seriously.

While the first 100 or so pages of the book are a wee bit self-fellating and prone to absurd generalizations and hypocrisy, the last 70 of the book are just painful to slog through. Gordinier talks about seeing “LOVE” in Vegas, where he mocks the baby boomers in the crowd for having the audacity to get old and sickly. He talks about how the Oct. 19, 1987 stock implosion was SUPPOSED to signal the death of the yuppie, but he then changes his tune and says that nowadays, pretty much ALL Gen X adults live like yuppies anyway. His solution to this “selling out conundrum” is utterly preposterous: we can regain our soul, kids, if we invest our creative energies in cross-country poetry reading tours, reading chapbooks, and buying up as much anachronistic technologies (vinyl, typewriters, etc.) as possible. Do you catch the irony there? That these assholes, according to the author, anyway, had SO MUCH INFLUENCE on creating today’s computerized infrastructure that, today, the only remedy to combat the over-computerization of society is to regress to the technological and social state of the baby boomers!

I’ll give Gordinier a smidge of credit, because most of his assertions are at least plausible - plausible, but not necessarily logical and almost never practical. He states that blogs are the natural progression of fanzines, and that YouTube is the end-result of college kids in the 1990s getting a hold of public-access credentials. Name checking “The Colbert Report,” “The Daily Show,” “South Park,” and “The Onion,” he asserts that modern humor is almost entirely rooted in what can be considered “traditional” Gen X irony and sarcasm. He talks about how Gen X adults have founded post-political causes, which includes “The Yes Men,” this thing called “Edible Estates” and a program called “Architecture for Humanity.” At one point, he even says some really under-developed shit about how Barack Obama and Cory Booker are fulfillment of the “Gen X”  ideology…somehow.

Of course, Gordinier concludes the book by acknowledging that his generation, through and through, has sold out. All of the kids that were into Husker Du have kids and Pinterest accounts, and to help crack through the “Gray Ceiling,” he advises fellow Gen Xers to harness “group power” and go about changing the world in “stealth mode.” Citing Henry James and James Brown, he says that inaction is his culture’s greatest obstacle, and ultimately concludes the magnum opus by wallowing in his tortured suburban existence and citing the influence of his generation’s most important anthem… “Don’t Look Back” by Boston.

Although you really don’t need me to tell you this, this book is pretty much pointless. If there’s any message to be found here, I guess it’s that Gen Xers had no small part in forging the current social climate we live in…which, according to Gordinier, still sucks. He chides baby boomers for leaving Gen Xers a shitty culture, but does the author even CONSIDER taking the blame for leaving behind a shitty culture for the Millennials? No, not one iota. He champions his cohorts for slogging and being disenchanted and refusing to “sell out to the man,”  but upon eyeing those same sensibilities in Gen Y, he thinks its corny and insincere. He has no understanding or empathy with their economic misfortunes, even though the class of 2007 faces a job market twenty times worse than that experienced by the class of 1987. He totally writes off Gen Y, because he considers their entrepreneurial spirit “lacking” and their pop culture experiences “lackluster.” But Gen X? Well, they had it right, and by golly, when you really think about it, they’re responsible for all of the really great things we have as a modern civilization today.

It’s a short-sided argument, and it’s presented in a manner that’s more irritating than enlightening. There are some decent chunks here and there, but overall, Gordinier’s book - and by extent, both his argument AND his generation - are completely empty, disconnected and beholden to a central ideology that simply has little to no weight on the world at large nowadays. There’s going to come a day where I’m a middle aged sell-out, and I’m going to see Gordinier and his kin - probably lugging around oxygen canisters - at that Cirque de Soleil interpretation of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” And when I do, I’m going to have very little qualms in mocking their nostalgic longings, even while they‘re coughing up phlegm during the trapeze performance of “Come As You Are.” After all, we DID inherit our sense of compassion from the Xers, no?

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