American Culture

Generation X, whatever, nevermind: reflecting on Kurt Cobain

No one could possibly be THE voice of Gen X, but Cobain was certainly A voice of my generation.

SRHonors_Kurt CobainIn their seminal 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?, published in 1993, Neil Howe and William Strauss argued that the only thing Generation Xers really agreed on was that there was no such thing as Generation X. Given the inherent irony and collective self-denial bound up in any examination of the cohort born from 1961 to 1980, then, maybe Kurt Cobain was the Voice of His Generation.

Whatever. Nevermind.

Yeah, I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek here, but not as much as you might think. Gen X is a subject I have studied deeply through the years, and if trying to characterize any demographic that’s 50 million people wide is a tricky enterprise, it’s doubly so with m-m-my generation because we’re so goddamned contrary. We’re not instinctively given to joining. We’re suspicious of institutions and large groups. We’re more lone wolf than herd animal. We don’t always play well with others, at least not compared to the generational cohorts that came before and after us.

We’re just next to feral, when you get right down to it. Given all this, it’s inconceivable that anyone could be described as the voice of the generation with any degree of … completeness.

It’s certainly fair to say that Kurt Cobain was a voice of his generation, though, and few Xers have ever raged louder in expressing the alienation, the uncertainties and insecurities, the angst and anomie that define our collective personality.

That Howe & Strauss book changed my life. Literally. Up until I found it I felt utterly lost. It seemed to me that there was a rulebook for life and that everyone had a copy except me. But Howe & Strauss explained that I wasn’t alone. The inability to access the economic and social institutions that sustained the Baby Boomers who came before, the pervasive sense that I simply wasn’t wanted – at least in an abstract, philosophical sense – I was one of millions.

When I was through with 13th Gen it was clear that what I was facing was systemic. This didn’t pay the rent, but it was at least comforting in a way to know that it wasn’t just me.

We Xers were the unwanted generation. Children of the Me Generation. The most aborted generation in history. The latchkey generation. The you’re-on-your-own generation.

The Whatever Generation, although that was purely self-defense.

Kurt Cobain got it. I don’t know that he ever read a word about the plight of Generation X, but his music was one prolonged scream from the outcast soul of X.

Where I grew up, men didn’t cry. Crying was a sign of weakness. No matter how bad it hurt, it was shameful to shed tears. I’m a lot more enlightened now and I understand, intellectually, the ways in which certain kinds of emotional repression can inflict lasting damage. But that early conditioning is powerful stuff, and I can count the number of times I’ve shed tears in the last 30 year on one hand. With fingers to spare.

But on April 5, 1994, Kurt Cobain took his own life. I remember where I was when I found out.

And I cried.

These days I don’t listen to much of Nirvana’s music. I just can’t.

Whatever. Nevermind.

17 replies »

  1. To me Nirvana’s music was ugly. It sounded ugly, like the product of corrupt souls and dirty hearts. I have always resented the notion that Cobain and his music spoke for my so-called generation. I don’t even know what in the hell Generation X is, as if I’m supposed to have something in common with people who were born 16 years after I was in 1964. To me, the younger people born at the tail end of the artificial Generation X window will always be children, foolish children who are largely responsible for elevating Cobain and his ugly music and ugly death to a higher level of emotional and cultural significance than I think they deserve.

    • THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!! I fully agree with everything you just said Dan and I just wish other people would realize that when they insist on jamming those of us born during the mid to late sixties together with those born in the late seventies and early eighties they are trying to mash two distinctly dissimilar groups together and then call them generation X. Personally I believe this does a disservice to both groups.

      • As Howe and Strauss observed, nothing defines X quite like Xers’ insistence that it doesn’t exist.

        Look, we’re talking about macro segments here. Saying that a generation is typified by a particular characteristic doesn’t mean that everyone in the age range has that trait. It means that this particular group is maybe 10% more that way than another group. So let’s not freak out because somebody is saying that we’re all the same.

        And of course early X is different in some ways from late X. I really recommend that book. I don’t have the time to explain it all here, but I promise you that if you’ll read it you’ll find them talking about a lot of things that seem pretty familiar to you.

        And Dan, yeah, Nirvana’s music could be ugly. I personally find most grunge to be that way and I’ve never been able to warm up to much of it for just that reason. The thing is, that ugliness wasn’t gratuitous. It was a reflection of a certain mode of alienation that a lot of Xers felt. And, frankly, still do. It was honest, if nothing else, but I understand why a lot of people didn’t like it or respond to it.

        Kurt wasn’t Everyman and his music wasn’t for everybody. In fact, it made no real attempt to reach out. I respect the hell out of what KC did, but for fun, go back to my post earlier in the week about the music I have listened to the most. Good luck finding Nirvana on it.

        • It’s all good, Sam. I don’t deny that Generation X exists, I just question the validity of certain aspects of it. When I can be bothered. Whatever. To me, Generation X was never the same after Billy Idol left the band.

          Mostly I’m just glad my comment has yet to bring a shit storm of vitriol and disdain down upon me. But that’s probably just me assuming, yet again, that what I say is more important than people actually think it is. Nevermind.

  2. Wait- you’re saying I’M GenX? 1961? ??? I’ve angrily bemoaned being a tail-end baby boomer my whole life, and you declare I’m re-identified by- whom, exactly? If you’re gojng to mention Howe and Stauss, whom I don’t know and have immediate dislike, you’re going to have to woo me with some resemblance I have to someone born in 1979 when “Born To Be Alive” was the number one hit in the nation. Sam, you look rather young (which is wonderful). But I doubt you have much in common with me, other than “The inability to access the economic and social institutions”….OF THOSE AT BORN AT THE BEGINNING OF THE BABY BOOM. I have far more in common with those people 15 years older than me than 19 years younger, other than that access. I saw men land on the moon. I was sung folk songs as a kid. We had air raid drills. School milk was 3 cents. Banks closed on the weekend. My car had manual steering and a push-button transmission. We had 8 TV channels and five of them sucked. I was in college when cable and MTV started. We played pinball; video games were lame. Disco was as relevant as Rock. Computer science wasn’t taught in High School until I was there. Intifada hadn’t happened. Cobain wasn’t in puberty when I graduated high school, and he mythologized musicians whom I knew as derivative- and then to my ear made the same noise ten years later. I barely understand the interest with 80’s bands, much less 90’s. If they weren’t my age or older, I tended to feel I knew better. As does every generation. Meaning you and I aren’t in the same one. Plus, in the 80’s and after, I was too busy working my butt off to find much relevance in music.Or I was dancing to acid jazz and salsa.

    And no offense to you and others who’ve defined the voices of their times through rock musicians; I love rock, but it’s at moments like this when I question my Caucasianness.

    • Mike: As noted in my previous comment, generations are not unitary things, and the borders between one and another are hardly solid, bold lines. There are people younger than me who are much more like Boomers and people older than me who are Xish. Me, particularly – well, I was born on Feb. 2, 1961, and have always felt like the first Xer. Which is to say, all the problems the generation has faced, but with NONE of the fellowship or blueprints.

      Read that Howe and Strauss book. No one has ever done better work on the history and character of America’s generations and while it may not convince you that you personally are an an Xer, it will tell you a great deal about the cohort in general.

      • Argh. So you’re my age. But you won’t give me a taste of the book. So it’s a sales pitch. Challenging my pride, my fat ego, and my identity is a pretty effective sales technique when you’re not selling yourself…….I’ll get back to you.

  3. I tried suicide once, tentatively as if reading an apartment for rent ad and thinking, “Hmmm, wonder what that part of town is like?” OK so I drove over and took a peek through the door but it was way too drab and dreary and permanent for my tastes and the wispy little sawtooth scars on my wrists hardly ever show unless it’s cold out or I look hard.

    Now taking a humpback Browning 12 gauge and sticking it under your chin, man that’s signing an eternal non-cancelable non-refundable lease and moving straight in. Maybe his friend Boddah helped him pull the trigger. A lot of people use their big toe because that long barrel makes for a helluva reach down to the trigger guard. Heroin and ecstasy made it a lot easier I imagine, Sober suicides are the serious ones, drunk and drugged is more playful misadventure.

    So generation and subgenerations, we’re grains of sand on the edge of the sea and every tide brings new in and carries old out and between lows and highs, a few hours, a day maybe, we’re different and special. Things get dropped, a pebble a bottle a dead fish a Kurt a Jimmy a JFK and we’ll swarm around it in lapping water and leave a backwash where we clustered. Hey! That’s us, look, we’re special!

    And you see the little lines of demarcation where the flotsam trash and jetsam treasure of our generation reached its fullest….and then a storm comes as storms always come and everything gets washed clean and reset fresh. Enjoy our moment, it’s the only one we get. That’s all I have to say.

  4. There’s no cool or brief way to ease into this (and I tried for 15min to find an e-mail address to ask first), but I made a movie precisely because of a corollary sentiment to graph 1 of this post: you can call us “Generation X,” but whatever we are, we aren’t about fetishizing Big Gulps or “being unengaged” or rallying behind one “voice” or flannel or grunge or anything else on the cover of Time magazine.

    So we (Sea Shanty Films) made a “Grunge Fable” as a commentary on what it was all supposed to be about – and what it might actually be about. It’s called “X-GEN.” It’s not about Kurt – it takes place in a parallel noir-ish world – but he (or is it an idea of him?) haunts the main character, the (original) music, and the attitude of the whole film.

    We track perfectly with your observation, Sam, that Gen X is “suspicious of institutions and large groups…more lone wolf than herd animal…just next to feral.” And we agree that “it’s inconceivable that anyone could be described as the voice of the generation with any degree of … completeness.” So we tried to make a movie that showed the impossibility of letting categories do your thinking for you, especially when things are changing – including whatever it is “your generation” is supposed to be about.

    We showed it in festivals and other screenings back in 2006-7, and we’ve sat on it since then…but for almost 8 years now, we’ve continued to see the same dilemmas, problems, contradictions, etc., that we built into the layers of this film.

    So we started distributing the film – streaming it for free – last week amidst the flood of articles, blogs, and musical retrospectives about Cobain. It’s very, very guerilla-indie and off kilter, but did our best to make it feel bigger, and I think that you (Sam) and anyone who resonates with this blog or most of the others I’ve seen in the last week – EVEN if it’s because you can’t stand seeing Cobain framed as “a voice” or you hate the idea of “Gen X” meaning anything at all – will enjoy this movie.

    We’d love for more people who *get it* to see this and react to it (hence the free distribution). Even if it just gives you more to argue about.

    Links to the teaser, the trailer, and the feature here:
    Jump straight to the feature here:
    And we’re linking to this blog post and others on a Facebook page here:

  5. I read “Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069” by Strauss and Howe first, and yeah, it was eye opening. I think I was in my 20s before I heard anyone identify my generation (born 1966). Before that it was all Boomers all the time. I’ve read a few others, “Baby Busters: The Disillusioned Generation” by pollster George Barna who somewhat doesn’t know how to interpret his data, but the data was fascinating. Perhaps it was too soon as grunge hadn’t taken hold yet. One interesting point he made was that 70% of Gen X was self-IDd as cynical. Seventy percent! BTW, I HATE that book name, Baby Busters.

    I never thought Cobain spoke for me, he had way more pain than I did. But, I did feel adrift somewhat. But not too deep, like if I used my toes I could get myself going back in the direction I wanted. Not easy, and not quick, but with effort I could keep from going out too deep.

    • “Adrift” is how I’d describe a good day, I think. As I say in the piece, I was way the hell out at the front and I was in my late 20s/early 30s before I think I ever heard the term “Generation X.” Maybe it’s like the socio-economic version of being the first guy to have a disease, and it’s years before they find a cure. It’s not so bad for the people who come along later, but if you’re out front it’s awfully lonely.

  6. People who are deeply engaged with generational theory argue over where the line between Boom and X lies. Demographically, the boom itself ended abruptly in 1964. But culturally, the shift came a few years ahead of that.

    I was born in 1958, the peak year of the Boom — but also one of the last years. My husband is exactly three months younger than Sam (and also exactly three months older than POTUS), also born in 1961. We are absolutely clear that wherever the line between Boom and X runs, it’s somewhere between the dates we were born. Our generational references really are that different. That gap also separated me from my younger brother (1962), who seemed far more distant from me socially than our elder brother (1952).

    Rules of thumb: If you watched Howdy Doody growing up, you’re a first-wave Boomer. If you watched Captain Kangaroo, you’re a late Boomer. If you grew up on Sesame Street, you’re X.

    Alternatively: If you can remember where you were where JFK was shot — one of the unifying experiences of the Boom generation — you’re a Boomer. If not, you’re not.

    • I think part of the alienation I feel sometimes is that not only has my life been very much like a prototypical X case study, but I was so far out in front – as I said, born in the early days of 1961 – so I didn’t even have a tribe of fellow outcasts to belong to. I was raised in a very conventional environment and also we didn’t have the media – I did watch Captain Kangaroo because it’s all that was on at that point in time.

      So I guess this means that the front edge of the cusp can be a tough spot to get lost in.

      • 1961 seems to be the pivotal year, so yeah — you’re right on the bleeding edge of X, just as I’ve always felt that I was being dragged along on the trailing edge of the Boom (as one might be dragged along behind, say, a VW minibus). I am definitely a Boomer at heart — all that idealism is in there, along with rich and solid memories of America Before The Fall — but I’m much too young to have had any first-hand engagement with the defining experiences of that generation. We were children during the Summer of Love and Woodstock. (I remember them well; I saw them on TV.) Vietnam ended when I was 15; the last class of boys to go were the seniors when I was a freshman. Those events shaped us mightily, but they weren’t really ours. (Instead, we were Almost Famous, and Dazed and Confused — the generation most susceptible to Saturday Night Fever.) On the upside: when I’m among my own Boomer tribe, I’ll always and forever be the Sweet Young Thing. ; )

        Given that I’ve always worked in Gen X-dominated fields — computer games and blogging, the two cardinal art forms of that generation — and have married two Xer men, I’ve always felt this gap pretty acutely. I’ve spent my adult life largely in the company of X, but am not of them. You are different: harder-edged, more pragmatic, less self-indulgent. You believe in personal standards, not high-flown ideals. You don’t suffer fools gladly (a trait that’s increasing with time, as you find your voice and power — and this is very typical of Nomad generations in middle age, which is historically their finest hour). I’ve found these traits to be extremely restful in my Xer friends and lovers over the years, a welcome break from so many of the worst traits of my own generation (and they are legion, as you know).

        But I also think that being on that cusp — as well as someone who’s made the life transition from rural to urban, and from trailer-park poor to the upper classes — has had a lot to do with why I ended up as a futurist. It’s a job that requires a lot of wandering in borderlands, which is something I’ve been doing all my life. Living out my life on the temporal border between Boom and X has, quite possibly, been the most influential border of all of these.

        Sam: I have an article in the can on How Gen X Will Save The World. (It was, in fact, one of the two pieces that ended my career at Alternet: my Boomer boss found it so offensive that he sent me the worst nastygram I’ve ever gotten from an editor.) Would you like to run it at S&R?