In the 1990's, few rock and roll stars rode this pinnacle higher than Nirvana's Kurt Cobain. His suicide on April 9, 1994, in which he laid a shotgun barrel on his chest, pointed it at his head and pulled the trigger, brought crashing to a halt -- at least momentarily -- the anguished musical gyrations of the 15 to 30 year olders known as Generation X. Generation X revered Cobain as their poet emeritus, but now he's the Richard Cory of his times, joining the inglorious ranks of Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Keith Moon and Elvis as the white guy who seemingly had it all, yet threw it away. Paradoxically, like so many other rockers, Kurt Cobain became a success by the standards of the establishment he railed against. When he killed himself at the age of 27, he abandoned his young fans who had come to rely on his furious lyrics, his primal scream singing, and his power chord slams to alert that establishment about their alienation.
Generation X has a lot to be alienated about: few good jobs, declining prospects, drive-by shootings, unprecedented levels of teen violence and suicide; Prozac-happy therapy, the haunting specter of AIDS where an act of love can become an act of death; an increasing intolerance in certain sectors toward the poor and homeless, Beavis and Butthead mean-spiritedness sufficing as social commentary, absentee parents trying to make it in the two-income economy. Generation X is the one that will suffer most from present governmental policies of free trade, and 14 years of Reagan-Bush-Clinton economics. Kurt Cobain wailed, thumped and slammed his guitar against these walls of a decaying society closing in around him, and his generation tuned in because they too can feel the noose getting tighter. Who can't? But in the end Cobain couldn't escape ("No one here gets out alive" sneered Jim Morrison, twenty five years ago), and so he took the easy way out -- or the difficult one depending on how you look at it.
But what of Generation X? Will they bail out as well? Has anyone told them how much the world needs them?
I was one of thousands who gathered on April 10, the day after the official announcement of Cobain's death, for a hastily-arranged memorial at the flag pavilion of the Seattle Center. The mood of the crowd was initially quiet and somber -- never have I seen so many stand so quietly at the usually-festive Seattle Center -- as every face seemed to be wrestling with the question "Why?" Cobain's wife and mother of their daughter, Courtney Love, read via a taped message sections of Cobain's suicide note, in which he complained of, among other things, the demands of being a rock star. "Then why didn't you just fuckin' quit doing it then, you asshole?" Love burst out, in a voice quaking with love, torment and anger. Between sobs of anguish, Love exhorted the crowd to shout at Cobain, in unison, "Asshoooolllee!", a request which the crowd dutifully complied with. It was a touching moment, filled with a mocking Cobainesque humor, trying to cope with the pain of so final a separation. Love's taped sobs were joined by many in the crowd, holding aloft lit candles.
I could share Love's frustration, sadness and anger, but on a different level. For it occurred to me at that moment how much Cobain exemplified the dire lack of substance which rock n' rollers generally offer to their fans. Rock stars get great big houses and fancy cars in the exchange; Cobain's artist's garret was a palatial spread overlooking the sparkling blue waters of Lake Washington. Fans hung out at the bottom of his long driveway, or at Tower Records where he sometimes shopped, hoping to catch a bit of his glow. After all, we live in a competitive society, and there's winners and losers, and if we can't succeed ourselves we can at least stand close to those who have, imagining that some of their shine might rub off. As often as rock stars promise their youthful audiences the illusions of freedom and hipness, the rocker either ends up dead, burnt out, or eventually waltzes off into the sunset with their millions. Meanwhile, their working class audiences put their noses to the grindstone of the free market, having to content themselves with their rock n' roll memories. In fact, rock and roll has never been able to deliver what it promises to its listeners.
What Generation X needs is an understanding of why they have declining prospects and bleak futures. They need to understand about the export of their jobs overseas, about the free trade policies of their government that are ruining the hopes for their future, merely to enrich the usual Fortune 500 profiteers and a handful of professionals and technocrats. Is there any labor curriculum for these youth in their high schools and colleges, so that they can truly understand who they are -- that is, a part of the international working class, about to become fodder for the multinational corporations who are busy devising schemes to drive up their profits by pitting the workers and environment of one country against another? One of Cobain's lyrics hinted at this reality: "You can't fire me because I quit, throw me in the fire, and I won't throw a fit." The latter part of this lyric is exactly what the multinational corporations have in mind -- the workers of the world are slotted to fulfill a role as the internationally disposable worker, the carbon copy unit good for tossing on the fire to stoke the profit machines. The workers of the world are uniting, whether we want to or not, in the unemployment lines.
Generation X seems to have little understanding of such matters. MTV (which is owned by communications industry giant Viacom, which also owns Nickelodeon and Showtime and recently acquired Paramount Communications/Studios for a hefty $10 billion) isn't about to tell them, and neither did Kurt Cobain tell them, at least not very much. Cobain's relentlessly self-probing and self-effacing lyrics were about being lost, a loner, a misfit; they were long on angst and alienation, but short on direction or even naming the problem. In Cobain's lyrical world, the perpetrator is everywhere and everything at once, and no one in particular, like a naked newborn ejected from the womb, exposed like a raw nerve and screaming at the bright lights, the chilly air, and the big strange faces staring into his face. To hear Cobain sing of it, the fault may even lie, not with a decaying society, but within himself and by extension his youthful fans: "And maybe I'm to blame for all I've heard, I'm not sure," grimaced Cobain in his hit song Lithium from Nirvana's Nevermind album, which sold over 10 million copies. By and large, Cobain was a rebel without a clue, part jester and part pariah, and that quality gave his music a certain sweetness and wit rolled up inside its fury. But when the song ends, and the primal screaming stops, the competitive economy and free trade pacts pump on as before. And the noose around Generation X, indeed all of us, is just a little bit tighter.
But let's not be too hard on Kurt Cobain, perhaps I'm asking too much of a rock star. At least he was a rebel, and not a yuppie (at least not yet), and he gave his young audience a pillow to cry on and to primal scream into. In fact, to Nirvana's credit, they were one of a handful of bands to revive the rock and roll tradition of music that aspired to be honest and straightforward, and they were fairly generous in playing benefits for deserving social causes.
Cobain's gone, but his generation is not. Has anyone told Generation X how much the world needs them? Let's hope Generation X finds a better solution than he did. Generation X deserves more substance than the symbol Cobain offered them; they need poets and rockers who can point them in the right direction, rebelling against a multinational corporate structure preparing to auction them off on the trading block as fodder for their international profits. They needs good jobs, health care, respect from adult leaders, an economy based on cooperation, dignity and respect for its workers. Generation X needs a society of people that cares for each other and the global community, not rampant international competition.
Generation X's embracing of Cobain's solipsistic brand of rebellion, and its retreat from very much analysis or activism, is a disturbing sign. For as bad as the conditions are now, they can and most likely will get a whole lot worse. The future of this generation is headed for one like that of the illegal brazos at the end of the film El Norte, fighting each other for decrepit jobs pleading "Take me! Take me!" to the callous foreman. There are disturbing signs of a Bladerunner future in the making. Already the wealthy elites are beginning to congregate in exclusive neighborhoods, surrounded by high walls and patrolled by their own private security forces, trying to shut out the riff-raff who work in their factories and businesses and make them rich. The elites have become experts at working the system to privatize their gains and socialize their losses.
After Cobain's memorial, the thousands of Generation Xers gathered at the mammoth fountain in the middle of Seattle Center, playing innocently in the jet streams of the fountain. There was mostly a lot of smiles and playfulness, a few leftover tears, and they shouted "Asshole!" to the sky. They threw rolls of toilet paper in the air, they sang Nirvana songs in wet t-shirts. It was a party, and there seemed to be almost a fatalism in the air, a sort of "Oh well, he's gone, whaddya gonna do?" attitude. Fittingly, they sang Cobain's Generation X anthem, Smells Like Teen Spirit, "I found it hard, it was hard to find, oh well, whatever, nevermind." Sing, sing, sing it all away, sing away the declining prospects, the drive-bys, AIDS, their hero's suicide. We can think about that tomorrow, or the next day, or...whenever, nevermind.
Cobain's suicide note stated: "It's better to burn out than to fade away." But Generation X has another option -- it's called 'fighting back.' It's not as easy as laughing and singing Nirvana songs, and throwing toilet paper into the air; or as sexy as orgasms and getting high. And it may require more effort than rolling over and playing dead. But the collective shotgun is pointed at the head of the Generation X. Will they pull the trigger, or will they decide they are going to struggle, and fight back, against the economic and social forces closing in around them?
The world needs you, Generation X. We're in a fight for our lives. Don't pull a Kurt Cobain.
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