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.
In 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.
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.