Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Meh with Grups

"I used to be with it, but then they changed what 'it' was. Now, what I'm with isn't it, and what's 'it' seems weird and scary to me. It'll happen to you." - Abe Simpson

New York magazine's cover story from last week is one of the least essential things I've ever read. For summary, it basically says that a new breed of hipster Gen Xers is growing up without actually growing up. They're passionate, they wear $400 jeans instead of $1000 suits, they play the Yeah Yeah Yeahs for their kids, they want to be Spike Jonze, and they have a hard time believing they won't always be hip. It's a trend piece (which New York magazine does too many of), and even in that windy genre, this is a particularly overblown one. Like all trend pieces, it has myriad problems, but this one can't even pick a decent word to indicate the group it's attempting to define. The author chooses (from a Star Trek episode, he says) the word "grups." Yuppies, hippies, yippies, bobos, Gen X, Gen Y, boomers, and the beat generation have all been coined and stuck with at least some success, but grups? It's an ugly word (and not in the elegantly abrasive way that yuppies is), and it seems to call to mind more the awkward fumbling of teenagers at the movies than anything hip. Or cool. Or powerful. (Another problem is that the author seems to swing from thinking grups are cool to thinking they're kind of pathetic. Is it both? Or is the pathetic vibe just another bit of hipper-than-thou posturing?).

The author, Adam Sternbergh, mentions a couple other (far better sounding) terms for the group: yupsters, yindies, alterna-yuppies (At rock shows, I usually just call them, "Guys even older than me." That was mean. Sorry, alterna-whatevers). He rejects these terms without giving a good reason, but I'll tell you why he does. He rejects them because yupster makes it perfectly clear that one is dealing with a small group, the people on the connecting fringes of yuppie-dom and hipster-osity. And this article doesn't want to be small. It wants to make sweeping generalizations about the big changes that are afoot. And it wants to do this without ever giving us any numbers.

It doesn't even have the fakey kind of numbers you find in METH EPIDEMIC scare pieces (You know the type: "In a recent completely self-selecting poll of poor rural hospitals, attending physicians are pretty sure that there are more meth-related admissions than there were before meth existed. Maybe. Here's a picture of 'meth mouth.'"). Here's the only place where a poll is mentioned in this article, "In a recent Money magazine poll about bosses, 54 percent of the respondents said they wouldn’t want their boss’s job no matter how much money you paid them. Fifty-four percent." At first, there's something intriguing about it. It seems to support the notion that grups cherish their freedom, love life, kick it old school to the extreme, etc. Then you realize that there are no ages attached to the poll. Who answered the question in the negative and who in the affirmative? Grups? Boomers? Bobos? Some other made up group? Was it the same reaction from age group to age group? You have no idea. The poll is a red herring. It sounds helpful, but - unless some pertinent information was edited out - it is utterly without meaning or relevance.

And so the article makes it sound like grups are numerous without any data to back it up. Instead of data, it has vague suspicions, generalizations, and Neal Pollack (more on him later). The article starts with a long (it gets up to the letter q!) and tedious list of "gruppy" things, "When did it become normal for your average 35-year-old New Yorker to (a) walk around with an iPod plugged into his ears at all times, listening to the latest from Bloc Party[...]" I don't know, when? A couple years ago, maybe? The just-barely-unspoken point of this is that 50-year-olds don't listen to iPods. Or maybe it's that 35-year-olds didn't listen to iPods 20 years ago. I'm not sure which. Well, 50-year-olds do listen to their iPods, and while iPods didn't exist 20 years ago, 35-year-olds were certainly wrapping the headphones of their walkmans around their heads. The fact is that mentioning an iPod as some kind of indication of youthfulness is deeply silly - no matter what hipster act you name check at the end of the sentence. The list continues on like this: one vague, dubious pronouncement after another about a group that may or may not exist and may or may not be large enough to merit a 6000-word cover article. What the article needs is a good, clean definition and thesis right up front. Instead all you get is a game where the only prize is a sore back from picking up all the names the author dropped.

But most upsetting to me is the use of the words "normal" and "average." I know that in New York Magazine World (tm), everyone lives in Manhattan or the fashionable parts of Brooklyn, is white, has an expense account, and is "so over The Strokes," but the reality is quite different. Open your eyes on the subway, and you may notice plenty of people who are wearing jeans that are worn out because they get worn a lot and not because they were "artfully shredded." You may also notice 35-year-olds in suits. Or, gasp, the uniform for their job. Or, even worse: khakis. It's true: Not everyone is super hip and awesomely cool. Or rich. Or white. And certainly, you'll see a number of people who couldn't possibly care less about The Strokes.

"This is an obituary for the generation gap."

The article then goes on to talk about grup parents. Actually, I think that might be redundant, because grups are by definition parents: "See, Grups aren’t afraid of parenting. Grups don’t avoid having kids. Grups love kids." (The article is most definitely not about single hipsters or yuppies or whatevers who are afraid of settling down, though I'd imagine that's a larger NY group than grups.) So, grups have their kids (aged 0-6) listening to bands that they, the parents, like. Shocking! Amazing! Same as it ever was! The first concert I went to was Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the tender age of 5 (with Mom and Dad, natch). Growing up, I listened to The Rolling Stones, Cream, Neil Young, Billy Joel, and The Big Chill Soundtrack (What can I say? I grew up in Westchester.). The first concert I went to on my own was The Allman Brothers. I was at least as upset when Jerry Garcia died as when Kurt Cobain died. Clearly, from all this information we can assume that there was no generation gap in my household. Wait: there was. When I hit my pre-teens, I started listening to rap, sad-sack music like The Smiths, and Guns 'n Roses, all of which my parents hated.

It's not coincidental (and the article, to its benefit, does mention this) that the children of grups are currently under the age of ten. The article says that grup parents can't imagine not being hip. Do you think my parents figured they'd stop "getting it"? Does anyone ever really think that they'll stop being cool? And yet, by and large, generation to generation, it happens. Additionally, is liking Wolf Parade and Sufjan Stevens actually cool? Is that really what the cool kids - real kids, not college kids who read pitchfork - are listening to? Someone's buying the latest release from Bo Bice, dammit. This is another very serious problem with the article: it takes it for granted that grups (if they exist) are more "with it" than other parents. I'm not so sure about that. Part of me thinks they might be more severely cut off from mainstream ideas of cool than parents who yell, "Turn down that noise," because those parents at least know that "that noise" exists.

But there is a real (and interesting) question about whether the term "generation gap" has been meaningful since, say, Vietnam. There's a continuity in music (and culture) from the Classic Rock era to the present, and one could argue that it wasn't there in 1962. What I'm saying is: it's a bigger jump from Glen Miller to The Who, than it is from The Who to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Hell, even the punk acts of yesteryear were themselves throwbacks to earlier genres. It's unsurprising that Phil Spector produced a Ramones album, or that Elvis Costello is hanging out with Burt Bacharach. It's not, therefore, unreasonable for there to be at least some overlap in taste between parents and kids (even teenaged kids). But this didn't start happening yesterday, as the author insists. He even references "grunge" as being evidence of an earlier generation gap that has since disappeared. Wait? Grunge? You mean all those bands who loved Zeppelin, The Who, and Neil Young.

So, he overstates the generation gap in the past, but he also overstates the notion of continuity in the present: "[H]ow can their parents hate Interpol when they sound exactly like Joy Division?...'All of the really good music right now has absolutely precise parallels to the best music of the eighties, from Franz Ferdinand to Interpol to Death Cab—anything you can name.'" Anything I can name? What band in the 80s was recording twee sea chanteys like the Decemberists (who are mentioned in the article). How many folk-Broadwayish-Christian indie rockers were there in the 80s like Sufjan Stevens (also mentioned)? In the 80s, did I miss the artificial animated band started by a lead singer in a proper rock band that mixes pop, rock, and rap like Gorillaz? The article just makes overstatement after overstatement (I'll simply reference the near classic "101 Things to compare Interpol to other than Joy Division" to take care of that Interpol sounds "exactly like Joy Division" meme.) Who is the Kanye West of 1985? Sure, one can point out parallels between bands (that's called "tradition") but parallels do not mean "the same." I once drunkenly proclaimed that Radiohead was a quarter the Pixies, a quarter the Smiths, a quarter Brian Eno, and a quarter Pink Floyd. It's totally true, just think about it. Actually, don't think about it, because it was drunken nonsense. This article is full of that kind of observation. Namely: the meaningless kind.

And then there's Neal Pollack, a writer who piles irony on top of irony (so much so that I have a "turtles all the way down" feeling when reading him). He's put forward as some kind of emblem of a growing movement, rather than an exceptional personality who is simply not representative of most (many?) thirty year olds. I guess if grups exist, Neal Pollack would be their Sun King, but I think it's more likely that Neal Pollack and the other people mentioned in the article are not representative of anything other than themselves. Reading it, I'm not even sure the irony-laden prose of Neal Pollack is actually representative of Neal Pollack (that's kind of why it's enjoyable). It's another in a long line of "someone's doin' this, therefore everyone's doin' this" moments in the piece. If you want me to believe that there are enough McSweeney's authors and tattered jeans designers in New York City to constitute a trend, however nascent, you've got a lot of backing up to do. Is it possible this is a "growing trend?" Yeah, sure I guess, but the article never comes close to making the jump from "possible" to "probable." In only talking to (a few) producers of grup culture (if such a thing exists) and never to the (presumably, far larger) number of consumers who partake in it, the article never makes grupness seem like more than the case of a few talented people who choose to live beyond social norms and not a large and easily definable group.

One of the few straightforwardly articulated hypotheses for an element of grupness that the article gives is this: These people got their first real jobs in the dot-com era when everyone dressed casual, and so they still do it. Okay, but why? Why would you enshrine the fashion of an era better known for the bust than the boom? And, more importantly, does wearing $400 jeans make you childish? I find this notion a little reductive, and a lot off topic (My dad wears jeans all the time, does that make him a hipster?). Is taking on the vaguest trappings of youth, but pumping them up to the point where they are kind of unrecognizable from it, the same as refusing to grow up? Are these people actually living beyond social norms. If having kids, starting a successful business, and living in an "envy-inducing loft" is living on the bleeding edge of social norms, well, then...wait, that's pretty much the American dream. With, admittedly, a later "sell-by" date. I guess "Why Are People Successfully Raising Families a Little Later in Life and are Still Kind of Cool Maybe?" is just not sexy enough for a cover story.

If the biggest flaw of the article is its lack of evidence for its assertions, the biggest issue I have with it is what I just alluded to: it doesn't ever answer the question it raises. Basically, if a large group of people are in fact turning into grups, and if grup is actually a meaningful idea - those are two big ifs - then why? And why now? Well, as I don't really believe in grups, I'm not going to answer that. But I will give a shot at answering the question posed by the cover. Here’s my guess for why people are acting younger, longer (which is, I think both more succinct, more accurate, and more meaningful than the specific nonsense of "grups"). It is simple and totally unsexy: People live longer, use contraceptives, and have the option of having abortions, and so they can spend more money on fancy jeans and unpopular rock bands for a longer period of time. Mystery solved. No silly terms coined, no pretending that tiny, ultra-specific groups are representative of an entire heterogeneous generation. It may not be sexy, but isn't it satisfying? Satisfying in the way that shopping at Old Navy or H&M can be? Anyway, you can call me when Generation X hits 45, and the teenager at home is blasting the unpalatable music of some as yet uninvented genre. Actually, wait just a little longer until he tells his grup parents that he thinks the Arcade Fire is lame. A pitchfork review, no matter how glowing, won't be an adequate comeback to the criticism of someone who is actually young.

[Oh, by the way, it's nice to see that Gen X is going to be as self-obsessed as the boomers in constantly defining, redefining, and - above all - worrying about itself. It's gonna be a rough (and boring) 50 years if this keeps going.]

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