I am one of those inveterate generation x’ers. We are the stealth generation, best known for saying ‘fuck it’ to our silent generation parents who stifled us, and forced their progeny to throw themselves into a lazy rebellion. We are the identity-less latch key kids of the 90s. The nihilist generation who threw it all away every weekend in some field or beach or warehouse party, dropping e’s and whizz, pacifier in our gurning mouths, trying to stop grinding our teeth down with the speed induced lockjaw, and driven by a chemical imperative to hold onto total strangers and tell ’em we loved them. And we did. Just for that perfect rave moment. I was not particularly into that scene. Any drug that made me want to hug a stranger didn’t really appeal to be frank, and I was never much of a dancer.
However it would be wrong to try and paint the 90s as purely Nirvana grunge, Pearl Jam growl and Chilli Pepper funk years. After all, who dropped e and danced their tits off to Kurt yowling into the mic? That was reserved for a particular kind of appreciative moshing, a ‘let’s end it all’ devotion to smack, ugly oversized striped sweaters and Doc Marten boots, whilst vibing with the anger and the sardonic desire to write off life as mostly meaningless. I think we all suspected the world was going to end in 1999. Those numbers felt like a threat, the future seemed up open up its gaping maw, ready to swallow us whole before we had even had a chance to be cool.
Nirvana was nihilism made into glorious sound. There is a time and place for that, but Gen X in their youth (and later into true adulthood I suspect, in the case of a lot of us who remained devoted to the buzz) also loved to party. My enduring memories of those halcyon days, only appearing in my memory, I suspect, as salad days due to my youth, energy and lack of responsibilities, are partially wrapped up in music I never tend to listen to for enjoyment.
My youth was spent on a carousel of grunge and dirty hair, striped knitted sweaters and Kurt Cobain worship, getting freaky with the Smashing Pumpkins, quietly hitting the lesbian bars, sharking alone for casual sex and pretty companionship. It was spent losing my friends in some field or some gig or party and having to make it home in a candy flipping haze of speedy e’s and lsd. All the while the beep and drive of house was inescapable, even if I did not love it, paid it no attention, and let it fade into the background of a way of life that I never thought would end before I did.
We can be partially defined and understood by our music and the fashion of our younger years. Sloppy, grungy, sullen and creative, hardworking but not loud about it: the ignored middle children. Like a good slacker and sometime exile, from the outside looking in at the conventional lives of my peers, gen x’ers seem to play hard, work hard, the more successful of us are doing quite well running up their millions in tech jobs and socially responsible business models.
The more revolutionary end I suspect hold onto the playing hard ethos and still – like me – fire up whatever passes for something we play music on, and try and forget the fact we are heading into middle age with a vengeance. Sometimes I blast out the quintessential slacker track, Loser, by Beck and blink at the screen wondering how I got so old and tired. “I’m a loser baby, why don’t you kill me?” I raise a single finger salute to Beck, and smile in the quiet knowledge that I made it through so far, and have no intention of dying, even if I suspect I will remain forever a loser even if I would love to be on the winning side for once.
I would never dream of listening to techno, electronica, house or any other kind of beep and buzz repetitive nonsense for pleasure. For me that music is to the 90s what a Pink Floyd UFO light show was to the 60s – scene setting, background atmosphere, agents of pharmaceutical enhancement. The 60s scene was kinda pretty, with men peacocking in their dedicated follower of fashion finery, and all those pale lipsticked dolly girls who gave way to the earthy ‘natural woman’ hippies of the late 60s and 70s.
The 90s scene was anti-beauty. Clothes were armor not adornment. Hood up, sweater on, beanie hiding hair, hair hiding face, iconic slacker fashion, made not to stand out, but to disappear. I often wonder what alienated my generation. Was it the highest divorce rate in history amongst our parents? Was it the fact that our mothers and fathers were both working, but society had not caught up, leaving gen x as the original latchkey kids, beneficiaries of benign neglect, microwave meals, freedom and lack of supervision. Gen X hauled itself up by its bootstraps. Perhaps we were reacting against the mullet and macho rock of the 80s. Perhaps we experienced a collective fit of shyness and geekdom.
Generation X are unseen, unlauded, quieter than their parents. I suspect we never really grew up. Gen X are eternal latchkey kids, who mostly had each other for company and influence, and were both ignored by our parents with the highest divorce rate in history.
We are not loud millenials with their extravagant needy snowflake fragility. We are not as fun and surreal as the zoomers – our children. We are not as pompous or full of ourselves or terminally uncool as the boomers. We get ignored in lists, dismissed in our influence and generally ignored, and you know what, I think my generation prefer it that way. We are the stealth generation, born slippy, ignored with mostly benign intent by our parents.
The 90s felt like a bridge decade between the outlandishness of the idea that the year 2000 could ever exist and the ridiculousness of living in the final days of the 20th century. It honestly felt as if the world could end in 1999. I remember eating pistachios and walking down the street on new year’s eve with a friend. The Y2K debacle made for some paranoid urges. Were planes gonna fall out of the sky? Was the world going to cease to work? The calendar flipped over into the 21st century, in some sci fi made real moment….and nothing much happened. I was supremely disappointed.
Pulp had a song called Disco 2000. Jarvis sneering “Let’s all meet up in the year 2000. Won’t it be strange when we’re all fully grown?” was a defining moment of my college daze. It seemed impossible that life would ever shift out of that first gear. That is the folly of youth, I suppose. Even Neil Young sang that song that went “Old man take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you were” back in 1972. Young people never seem to think they are going to get very old. I certainly didn’t. When I heard Born Slippy come on at random on my youtube radio mix I was immediately transported back to some dingy club where the floors were sticky, the bathrooms full of ecstasy casualties dangerously drinking too much water from the faucet, and nothing really mattered much because there was so much time left on the clock, and besides….who cared about time anyway?
Electronica is like tuneful trap music, it makes just about as much sense to me. Born Slippy is a kind of electronic dance gig, compared to Radiohead’s more intelligent electronica infused offerings. Dylan started the push towards stream of consciousness lyrics, with his ‘jewels and binoculars’ hanging from the heads of random mules who stand next to nonsensical fishtrucks loading up while Johanna appears in drug fuelled visions. Of course, I am not saying Born Slippy’s chorus ‘Lager! Lager! Lager!’ is in the same league, but is almost Joyce-ian in its use of language to immerse the intended audience in the particular time and place within the psyche of the protagonist. Stephen Dedalus grows as Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, from the opening salvo seen through his infant eyes, expressed in his infant speech – “this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo” to the ending statement of intent for his adult life:
“I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.“
Generation X’s statement of intent for their future at the time did not seem to go much beyond the “How am I at having fun?” of Born Slippy. “Lager! Lager! Lager!” was as much of a war cry as anything. A call out for the oblivi-END. Such as it was for a generation that was going to straddle the millennial dateline. Underworld produced a stream of consciousness anthem for a disaffected generation. Our ‘nicens little boy(s)’ were ‘Drive boy dive boy/Dirty numb angel boy/In the doorway boy(s)’, born slippy, born sliding into the abyss of the dying days of the 20th century and still coasting along fuelled by lager, chemicals, young lust and the knowledge that it was all hopeless anyway. As Underworld put it:
Babes and babes and babes and babes and babes And remembering nothing boy You like my tear hole boy It gets Wet like an angel Derailed
But more than that, Born Slippy was music to dance to. Music to marvel to that the drug culture and the boggy suffering of addiction had made it into the mainstream, and that people were munching on popcorn while watching overdoses and putting posters of Begbie and Renton on their walls. Heroin chic ruled for a short while. Models walked the catwalk looking as if their next stop was going to have to be the methadone clinic. All of it was blatantly ridiculous, romanticizing junk, while hating those who actually used it. Those models did not earn their dark circles, they painted them on with kohl and purple eyeshadow. Playing at not being the mainstream whilst engulfing the lucrative counter culture and counting the profit, not the cost. Then Kurt Cobain died and everything changed. They had got their pound of junkie flesh, and prepared to make him yet another dead rockstar icon. Counterculture always did need a hero, an image, an icon to stare at while wondering if this was going to be the generation that changed it all, and it is rarely a good thing for the poor fool that gets chosen as the sacrificial lamb. Marilyn Monroe. John Lennon. In his suicide note Kurt wrote ‘It is ‘better to burn out than to fade away.’ Is it though? Is it really? I don’t think so.
We can all preach change, and put it up on a pedestal, except we never do change it all, at least not for the better. Trainspotting, like other drug culture movies, The Basketball Diaries, and the almost unwatchable claustrophobic Requiem for a Dream concerns itself with survival and escape. I think that is what the world likes to see, a story of triumph. We like to know that there is a way out, no matter how hard the situation, no matter how dire, no matter how intractable it seems. War movies, drug movies, damn romantic comedies….all of them preach escape and survival and happy ever bloody after..and so does Underworld and their high octane beep and buzzed tunes for a slacker generation.
I have been so tied up in my own survival that I forgot for a while that I used to be young. I used to have fun. I used to be free and dream of a future that was not this, not even in my wildest nightmares. For a moment I got lost, I slipped away, I found some long forgotten remnant of the young woman I used to be. After all, we are all born slippy, it is just that sometimes we let it all slide for so long that we die inside, tinder-dry, even if we are still breathing.
There is nothing else for it except….’lager lager lager….mega mega mega’, and let’s get another round in before it is closing time for us all. You know it was not just Beck who was trying to outrun the ‘forces of evil in a bozo nightmare,’ Gen X were continually on the run from the death 20th century and the 21st century that kept slipping through our fingers.
just reading this and letting out a long, satisfied sigh. thanks for writing it. i’d like to share this with you in return: https://jasonpreu.com/2016/05/16/comeover-comeover-she-smiled/
Hello! I am just going to read your piece. Nice to meet you! https://youtu.be/XxhuZj25TKU