September 5, 2004

Dispatch: Generation Zip

By: Judah Pollack

It was 1999. Downtown Seattle had just been ravaged by WTO protesters. They smashed the windows at Starbucks, tore down advertisements, and suffered tear gas and plastic handcuffs. A respectable riot, if not a spectacular one. In San Francisco, a young reporter for an alternative magazine was lounging on a couch in an inexpensive part of town, telling me what he saw.

“There was this guy dressed all in black stomping on a Nike poster he had pulled down from a bus stop. But he was stomping on it in his pair of Nikes.” The young reporter laughed. He tried to say something else, but he just kept laughing.

Three months earlier, in August, the thirtieth anniversary of Woodstock (tickets: $135) had degenerated into a melee of fights, fires, and general criminality. A handful of people died at the concert, a handful of rapes were reported, and several incidents of vandalism were caught on videotape. Generation X seemed to be a lost cause.

Now, there may still be hope for American youth, just not for the slackers who turned Woodstock II and the battle in Seattle into carnivals of tabloid decadence. Generation X’s attempts to mirror the now-classic rebellion of their Baby Boomer parents dissolved into mayhem for a simple reason. Every generation needs a wall to bang itself against, an edge to sharpen its focus, characters to read their lines with. The Vietnam War, the draft, civil rights, and parents who just didn’t get it, the Baby Boomers had legitimate bulwarks to push against. Poor Generation X did not have what it takes. The economy was better than anyone could remember, the good guys had won the Cold War, freedom was spreading, and their parents behaved more like their friends than their superiors. The Boomers had genuine 3-piece suit-ers like LBJ and Tricky Dick to revile. The X-ers got a smiley, draft-dodging horndog for president.

Meanwhile in history classes across the country, youngsters watched videos of sit-ins, marches, and clashes with police. Infused with the desire, even the duty, to rebel, Generation X sought in vain for a yoke. Thus they came to riot at a concert for peace, and attack symbols of corporate greed while they wore those same symbols on their feet and sleeves.

Forced rebellion is such a sad, amorphous thing. No one writes a song or makes a movie about the World Trade Organization. It’s got no zing, no sing, no bada bing. I doubt many a girl has given it up for a guy just because he’s passionate about Third World debt.

Prospects improved mildly with the 2000 election, but didn’t really get better until 9/11, with the Patriot Act, the occupation of Iraq, and even whispers of a draft. Now, Generation Y is awaking to find itself in the middle of a complicated war. It’s not exactly cold but more of a lukewarm war, since it could boil over at any moment, or it could just keep simmering. As with the Cold War, the War on Terror is a battle against an idea as much as a specific enemy. It is global and creates strange bedfellows (see Pakistan). And it subverts other principles we take seriously. As we once supported freedom-hating dictators if they seemed sufficiently anti-Communist, now we embrace questionable characters like Pervez Musharraf and Muammar Qaddafi because they promise to help us root out terrorists.

These compromises of our dignity will be seized upon by the young. How long before Generation Y starts puffing up with certainty and rage, following in the pacifist and isolationist footsteps of their protesting predecessors? “By supporting dictators, we are making terror-ists,” they’ll say. Or: “The United States is the only country in the world that acts like it’s the only country in the world. Here’s another, from Michael Franti and Spearhead: “We can bomb the world to pieces, but we can’t bomb it into peace.” (It’s a catchy tune.)

These slogans, whatever their merits, have zing. Which is why this generation might turn political. They have a wall they can legitimately bang against. This could be the beginning of a cultural renaissance for Generation Y.

I can hear you scoffing. This, the generation reared on Britney, Justin, and the Olsen twins? The generation that made Titanic a box office monster? One should not write these kids off because they love pop stars and reality television. Let us not forget it was the Baby Boomers who made Annette Funicello a star and put The Monkees at the top of the charts. Even the venerated Beatles began life as no more than a boy band. They were the witty, British version of *NSync when they first came to America. Which means that within five years Justin Timberlake could release his very own “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Bush, Cheney, and Ashcroft are certainly a wonderful set of villains for a generation to define itself against. Even if Kerry gets elected, he’ll have to stay in Iraq, becoming the long-faced, New England version of Lyndon Johnson. Which is a good thing, from an artistic point of view, because the rebellion will continue and the arts will flourish.

Some of it will be absurd. I envision Lindsay Lohan starring as an idealistic public defender, just out of law school, who takes up the case of a Muslim man wrongfully accused. Her battle will expose the abuses of the Patriot Act, while she falls in love with the tender-hearted young defendant. The studios will be afraid to release it, so Miramax will take up the cause and the movie will be a hit. Political topics will be in vogue. Miss Lohan will be seen sporting a stylized burqua in the neo-hippie trend which David Brooks will document in a new book. After giving a speech at Berkeley in which she calls on Americans to love their fellow man, she will be dubbed Baghdad Lindsay. Her next movie will be about a spy who discovers Iran’s nuclear program really is just try-ing to make energy.

Christina Aguilera, spotting the political trend, will release an album titled “Bombshell,” a double entendre, in which she appears on the cover fully clothed, in another stylized burqua, beside a bomb with a pinched waist. The album will comprise a series of antiwar songs with a few ballads thrown in. Embracing her Latin roots, she will campaign in Venezuela for Hugo Chavez, calling him a hero. Her album sales will soar. The FBI will open a file on her.

A wise young marketer, who sees the War on Terror as a serious money-maker, will put together a new Woodstock. Held in Woodstock, Vermont, Howard Dean will be the honored guest of the three-day event where there really will be peace and love. The Strokes will play a rousing, subversive version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The whole event will be broadcast live online, including the announcement to beware of the bad ecstasy going around.

Kirsten Dunst will appear in a one-woman play written by a hip, angry Muslim chick who will exude brooding sexuality when she scowls in the pages of Esquire. Dunst will play the widow of a terrorist-bombing victim. Through her grief, she’ll come to forgive the terrorists. Rave reviews will follow. Dunst will carry on about theater being the only place to really do acting. Then she will go to Hollywood to film the movie version.

Judah Pollack lives in Manchester and writes for the Hippo Press.