Nostalgia for Other People’s Nostalgia: A Gen X Disease

Through a glass darkly: Gregg Allman, Gen X icon
Through a glass darkly: Gregg Allman, Gen X icon

Boomer nostalgia is currently defining our reality. Trump is in office largely because a lot of aged white voters heard one of their own rhapsodize about turning back the clock to the America of their Eisenhower-era childhoods and lost their minds. The power of that nostalgia was first unleashed in all of its awful glory in the 1980s.

The massive Boomer generation came of age in the days of Woodstock and Vietnam, but it came of middle age in the Reagan years. As I am now painfully aware, once you cross the equator of age 40 you find yourself less open to what’s new, and clinging tighter to the comfortable things of the past. Because there are so damn many Boomers their nostalgia saturated popular culture around the same time they started wearing “relaxed fit” jeans.

Recently I went to the park with my kids, and the other Gen X dads and I were talking about how Roger Waters was back on tour. That got me thinking about how so many of my fellow Gen Xers have a tremendous knowledge of and connection to music made before we were even born. When Gregg Allman died we were sad, when David Bowie passed we were distressed. When recently I heard Neil Young was playing shows with Crazy Horse again, my heart swelled. In a very strange way, my friends and I have nostalgia for other people’s nostalgia. How did this happen?

The answer lies in the fact that Generation X’s coming of age overlapped with the Baby Boom generation’s coming of middle age. Crucially, both happened in the late 1980s, the absolute nadir of American popular culture. By that time everything independent and spontaneous had been banished to the underground and in those pre-internet days accessing the underground was really hard, especially if you didn’t live in or near a major city. Around 1986 or 1987, the dayglo pod people of the Reagan years fully had their grubby mitts on the whole cultural edifice. John Carpenter’s paranoid sci-fi classic They Live perfectly encapsulated the intense disgust some felt, but even that great film was relegated to the bottom shelf of the video store rather than playing the multiplexes.

By the 1987 the old hardcore punk scene had burnt out. Rap music was still below the surface and only emerged above it in novelty form. R&B was so tepid and overproduced that Public Enemy wrote a song (“Who Stole The Soul”) about it. Mainstream rock was a vast wasteland of hairspray and reheated Zeppelin riffs. To be young in this age was to be dogged by the fact that you were living in completely uninteresting times.

There were constant reminders that a more interesting time had fractured the world not so long ago: the fabled “Sixties.” Cinemas burst forth with Vietnam films, from Platoon to Full Metal Jacket to Casualties of War, and Tour of Duty and China Beach were on TV. Even Dirty Dancing, that film loved by just about every girl in my class, referenced Vietnam and was drenched in Sixties nostalgia. When counterculture milestones like the Summer of Love, Sgt Pepper, or Woodstock hit their 20th anniversaries, the print and television media dutifully gave Boomers an avalanche of archival footage and full page spreads for their consumption. Gen Xers like me were watching, too. The Human Be-In sure looked a lot more interesting and meaningful than my generation’s youth gatherings at the mall.

The thing that initially hooked me and many others had nothing to do with Vietnam and little to do with the counterculture: The Monkees. In the dreary depths of a February Sunday in 1986 MTV ran a Monkees marathon. No longer relegated to Saturday morning rerun filler, they now had the endorsement of the hairspray decade’s greatest youth culture taste-maker. In retrospect it is strange and weird that MTV, hip purveyor of 1980s youth culture, was the pied piper of Boomer nostalgia for kids my age. What even drew us to the show and the band? Was it interesting for being so different, or were we under some kind of Boomer mind-control? Or was the regular popular culture of the time that lame by comparison?

That marathon created a veritable Monkee mania, with the band shooting back into the charts and arenas, perhaps more popular than in the Sixties. I, for one, religiously watched Monkees reruns on MTV after school, and my music fiend older cousin dubbed copies of her many Monkees tapes for me. Beyond the pop hooks written by top songwriters of the day I was also intrigued by the cultural critique in songs like “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “DW Washburn.”

Soon after that we graduated from the Monkees to the Beatles, who also experienced a nostalgia-ssaince in that crucial time period. Not only were their albums being re-released on the new CD format, their music was being commodified in new ways tailor-made for the Reagan years. In 1987 Nike used the song “Revolution” to advertise its new air sole shoes. The Beatles had famously lost the publishing rights to their music, and Madison Avenue was foaming at the mouth to monetize Boomer nostalgia via the most potent, mop-topped means. Kids like me did not know anything about the song’s late-Sixties political context, I just thought it was an amazing rocker and much more energizing than what was on the radio. Soon enough that song was back on the airwaves and suddenly digging the Beatles was cool, not just retro. The fact that a song about revolution had been altered to sell corporate product just made it that much more relevant to the 1980s ethos.

Ironically, the Monkees — the “Pre-Fab Four” — had opened the way for the genuine article’s nostalgic revival. To top it off, George Harrison hit number one in early 1988 with “Got My Mind Set On You,” a simple poppy rocker in the mid-Sixties Beatles vein. It became so popular that “Weird Al Yankovic” spoofed it, the ultimate sign of 1980s relevance.

What could possibly be cooler than a bunch of woolly millionaire dads in mom jeans, whining?

That same year Harrison cut a Grammy-winning album with the Traveling Wilburys, a supergroup of aging rockers including Bob “voice of his generation” Dylan. The Wilburys won critical accolades and garnered huge record sales. This perfect storm of nostalgia and profit only grew stronger in 1989 when The Who and Jefferson Airplane reunited and the Rolling Stones embarked on their massively profitable Steel Wheels tour. Wags called it the “steel wheelchairs” tour, but many more Stones tours would follow, even if the new albums purportedly propping them up were not much to shake your hips about.

The same went for other artists like David Bowie, whose godawful Never Let Me Down album couldn’t stop his “Glass Spider” tour from making a bajillion dollars. (When I was obsessed with Bowie in the 90s and trolling the used CD bins for his albums Tonight could reliably be found in the used section of every single record store.) Pink Floyd hit a bonanza with the Momentary Lapse of Reason tour and album despite the absence of Roger Waters or, for that matter, the lack of compelling songs.

For these tours to be successful, they could not only draw in the Boomers. They were bolstered by waves of Gen Xers watching a nostalgia act for a time before their time. They certainly weren’t bringing in people aching to hear The Division Bell in its entirety.

Feeding all this was the simultaneous explosion of CDs. Classic albums were brought into the new format, only to be remastered and reissued in a process that still shows no sign of stopping. This put the old Sixties and early-1970s warhorses in binary code and back on the shelves of record stores, often in prominent locations. It was the prehistoric, pre-internet version of the “long tail.”

Simultaneously, the “classic rock” radio format set itself in formidable stone. The FM stations that used to play rock music in the 1970s went to mostly just playing what they played in that era. The format officially began in 1985, and it boomed along with the nostalgia explosion. This set up a pretty easy equation for a lot of serious rock fans of my generation: would you rather listen to Led Zeppelin, or listen to Whitesnake fart out a crappy Zep retread? Not much of a contest.

Over three decades later the classic rock radio dinosaur shows no signs of extinction. In order to capture the nostalgia of people my age, it has both expanded and contracted the elements of what is considered “classic rock.” When I have the classic rock station on in my car as a kind of default I don’t hear much of the Beatles or classic Stones, but Poison and Pearl Jam instead. It is especially strange to hear Nirvana — a band with a punk ethos defining itself against rock orthodoxy — played alongside the Steve Miller Band. In late 1991 “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was like a bomb going off in my head every time I heard it, and I could never have imagined it getting played on a station that spins Bad Company’s “Feel Like Making Love.”

The continuing ubiquity of Boomer nostalgia makes me sad about my generation. Our once galvanizing rallying cries have been muted and buried under bloated nostalgia. We hear people talk endlessly about Millenials and Boomers, but Xers are typically an afterthought. The products of a baby bust, there are a lot less of us. We had to develop in the long cultural shadow of the prior generation, and didn’t get enough sunlight.

Even my own coming of age was refracted through the lens of Boomer nostalgia. I was exactly the same age as the main character Kevin on “The Wonder Years,” and so probably identified with him more than any other character on TV. After the John Hughes boom petered out there wasn’t as much entertainment geared towards the dwindling number of young people, and what existed was about the impossibly rich (Beverly Hills 90210) or really fantasy stuff geared towards younger kids (don’t even get me started on Saved By The Bell). So when many of us feel nostalgia for a TV show about growing up, it’s for a show the dramatized a different generation’s experiences.

The boomer music I grew up on is still a part of my life. I’ll put on Dark Side of the Moon or Revolver because they’re great albums, but now I feel a disconnect. It’s not as if my parents spent a lot of time listening to and reading about Benny Goodman and Count Basie. They did not obsess over details in memoirs written by the likes of Rudy Vallee the way I did with Keith Richards’s Life.

Will we ever escape the shadow of the Boomers? The current occupant of the White House is in his seventies, as was his opponent in the 2016 election. Many of the potential challengers are at least as old, including one (Bernie Sanders) who is too old even to be a Boomer. Sadly, there’s a real chance that there will never be a Gen X president. At the same time, we Xers are busting our humps to pay for Medicare and Social Security for elders who vote for politicians wanting to take our retirements away. We still toil to pay off the student loans they never had to borrow. Maybe my generation’s nostalgia for Boomer nostalgia made us far too lenient.

We now middle-aged Gen Xers, reaching the point in our lives when the Boomers were dumping their nostalgia on us, are realizing that we are the OK Soda of generations. Like Jane’s Addiction and the Spin Doctors, we were relevant for a very short period in the early to mid-1990s before being tossed aside. Or maybe we could take a more obscure page from the 1960s songbook and challenge the unwanted gift of what Canadian Boomer rockers the Guess Who called a “Hand Me Down World.”

We certainly got one already.