Gen X Nostalgia, Ready Player One, and Baby Boomers’ Unrelenting Stranglehold on Our Culture
I am 43 years old. I was born in 1974, right in the middle of the generation commonly known as Generation X, and as such have spent my entire life in a culture dominated by, if not suffocated by, the influence of the older generation, the Baby Boomers. From the time they hit adolescence and advertisers and marketers realized there was money to be made with this large and previously untapped demographic, Baby Boomers have been the dominant force in our culture.
In the 80s, right when I started listening to the radio and getting into pop music, young artists of the day had to fight for airtime with aging Boomer artists from the 60s who refused to give up their market share. Paul McCartney and George Harrison were still making hit albums, as were the Rolling Stones. The Moody Blues scored a top ten hit, as did the Grateful Dead (their first and only). Starship, the remnants of the Dead’s Haight Ashbury buddies Jefferson Airplane, had a whole string of hits in the 80s, including one of the most insufferable pieces of self-congratulatory Boomer schlock ever created, We Built this City. Even MTV, perhaps the defining institution of Generation X, had a distinct Boomer influence. It was largely MTV’s influence, for instance, that allowed the Monkees to make a comeback in 1986. You didn’t even have to still be alive to be a 60s artist dominating the charts. The Doors’ Greatest Hits, released in 1980, went triple Platinum. And the Beatles, 11 years after their breakup, helped Dutch novelty act, Stars on 45, score a number one hit in 1981 with a medley of Beatles songs.1
Fast forward to the present day and are there any 80s or 90s artists dominating the charts? Sure, Livin’ on a Prayer and Don’t Stop Believin’ are both guaranteed to make any room full of white people completely lose their shit, but neither Bon Jovi nor Journey have put out any new music of significance in decades. Pearl Jam continues to tour and release the occasional album, but how many people can name three songs they’ve released since 1995? Same with REM. Same with Smashing Pumpkins. Same with Sting. Same with Guns n Roses. Same with Prince and Michael (before their untimely deaths.) Same with Madonna. Same with any number of artists who enjoyed their heyday in the 80s or 90s.2
Instead of Gen X bands holding onto a piece of cultural significance the way the Boomers did in the 80s, Millennials, at least in terms of music, now rule the day. Our artists are not edging out younger ones for radio time. Radio programmers have not created new formats for Gen X’s aging tastes the way they did for Boomers in the 70s when they concocted the Soft Rock format. The radio belongs solely to Millennials. But there’s a very good reason for this, I suppose. A friend who shares the same birth year as I recently pointed out that 1974 represented the absolute low point in post-WWII American births. I looked it up and he’s right. As you can see in the chart below, the birthrate bottomed out between 1972 and 1975 and then rose over the following decades to levels rivaling the Baby Boom.3
It makes sense that a culture would cater to the groups that have the most people, so I guess it also makes sense that Generation X continually gets the shaft. We are the Jan Brady generation, always in the shadow of our prettier, smarter older sister, and resentful of the attention paid to our cute younger sister.4 It therefore thrilled me to learn that Ernest Cline’s novel, Ready Player One, was being made into a movie.
Released in 2011, Ready Player One is a dystopian sci-fi novel set in the year 2044. Most of the action in the book takes place in The Oasis, a virtual world developed by a guy named James Halliday, something of a Steve Jobs/Bill Gates-type figure. Halliday, like Cline, was born in 1972, and, also apparently like Cline, has a strong longing for the popular culture of his youth. Halliday has populated The Oasis, and Cline his book, with countless cultural references from the late 70s and 80s: Atari, Intellivision, Commodore 64, Dungeons and Dragons, the video game Joust, John Hughes, Ghostbusters, Family Ties, School House Rock!, REM, Rush, the Police…I could go on and on. The references in the book are so numerous, and so often heavy-handed, that they actually detract from the book; often it reads more like an episode of I Love the 80s than anything else. Despite the book’s flaws, the era it romanticizes is so specific to my own experience that I couldn’t help but love every page. 6Ready Player One is the ultimate Gen X nostalgia kick, evidence that not everyone in our popular culture is ignoring our experience.
While Gen X nostalgia has been shortchanged, Boomer nostalgia has loomed large over the past few decades. The rest of us have had to play along while the postwar generation repeatedly looks back fondly on their coming of age. Nowhere is this nostalgia more oppressive than on the silver screen. How many masturbatory Boomer nostalgia movies have we had to endure over the years? Forrest Gump, The Big Chill, American Graffiti, three-fourths of Oliver Stone’s filmography… And as I edge further into middle age I’m ready for my generation’s masturbatory nostalgia movie. I want a movie that allows me the same self-indulgent experience of watching a romanticized version of my past on the movie screen as Boomers have had over and over again. And Ready Player One seemed like the perfect source material for such a movie. We deserve this, damn it!
So when I heard Ready Player One was going to be made into a movie I was understandably very excited. We will be Jan Brady no more! Our generation’s collective nostalgia will finally get the attention we’re entitled! And when I heard Steven Spielberg was slated to direct I was even more excited. Although a Boomer himself, Spielberg has mostly avoided the generational solipsism of many other Boomer directors. Instead he is either paying his respects to his parents’ generation with movies like Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List, or blessing the generation after him with some of the touchstones of their youth. With perhaps the exception of John Hughes, no director is more beloved by Generation X than Spielberg. Fellow Xers, imagine your youth without ET or Indiana Jones. It’s hard to do. And who among you didn’t at least once hesitate getting into the ocean out of fear that Jaws would rip you to shreds?
Well I finally saw Spielberg’s Ready Player One last week. I enjoyed it. It’s riveting, it’s exciting, it’s action packed, it’s faithful enough to its source material while standing on its own, forging its own path when needed. And of course it packs plenty of nostalgia for Gen Xers like me. But nonetheless there was something about this movie that bugged me. Specifically there were two things that bugged me: The Shining and The Iron Giant.
Both Stanley Kubrick’s 1979 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, The Shining, and the 1999 animated kids movie, The Iron Giant serve as prominent plot points in Spielberg’s film. Neither plays a prominent role in the book. Spielberg’s film strays from the novel in a number of ways, which is in and of itself perfectly fine. That is not my criticism. I’ve always felt that an adapted screenplay that stays 100% true to its source is completely unnecessary. Changes can and should be made or the movie is redundant. My criticism instead is that neither The Shining nor Iron Giant are Gen X properties. They don’t belong to us the way Atari and John Hughes and Thriller do.
I know, plenty of Gen Xers love the Shining. It’s a great movie and Kubrick was a master. But unless we had grossly irresponsible parents, none of us saw that movie when it came out. It wasn’t until high school or college that we discovered this film, and when we did watch it we weren’t having a generational experience but rather catching up on something the previous generation experienced when we were too young to join in. Likewise, Iron Giant may have been a lovely movie. I can’t say for sure because I haven’t seen it. But I can say with certainty that not many Gen Xers went to see Iron Giant when it came out. We were well beyond the age of having any interest in animated children’s movies and we had for the most part not had kids yet.
So if The Shining and Iron Giant aren’t properties of Generation X, what are they doing in a movie ostensibly about Generation X nostalgia? I think the answer is pretty clear and it pisses me off. To attract a wider audience the makers of the Ready Player One movie added something for Baby Boomers (The Shining) and something for Millennials (Iron Giant).
But this was supposed to be OUR film! This was to be our Forrest Gump. This was to finally give us that movie that celebrates and romanticizes our youth and our youth only, and they stole that from us. Forrest Gump didn’t have to listen to Frank Sinatra or go to college on the GI Bill, and he certainly didn’t have to watch MTV or participate in Hands Across America. He was allowed to portray solely the Boomer experience and the rest of us had to go along for the ride. Doesn’t Generation X deserve the same thing? Ready Player One was to be Jan’s time to shine, but Marsha and Cindy had to step in and hog the spotlight.7
1. The Beatles’ dominance of course continues to this day. Their compilation album 1s remains the top selling album released in the 21st century.↩
2. The one exception to this trend would be Dr Dre, whose 2015 album, Compton, was a critical and commercial success. LL Cool J and Snoop Dog too have retained some cultural cache into the 21st century, but not as musicians but mostly as a host of awards shows and a celebrity pothead, respectively. Among rock acts only U2 seem to have managed any type of commercial longevity, but even they have struggled with cultural insignificance in recent years, pissing everyone off by placing their album on everyone’s iPhones and then trading on nostalgia with a Joshua Tree 30th anniversary tour. And I suppose a case could be made for Green Day, but I mostly try to pretend they don’t exist.↩
3. Although the number of births has reached Baby Boom levels, since the population of the United States is much larger than it was 50 years ago the cultural impact of the generation born in the past 30 years pales compared to that of the generation born in the 15 years following WWII.↩
5. Please don’t take my cell phone jab as an attack on Millennials. They get unfairly crapped on enough as it is and I am fairly certain that they are going to save us all one day. To listen to some older people you’d think the participation trophies these kids were given have caused the downfall of western civilization. But in truth the criticisms of Millennials are the same criticisms made 30 years ago about Generation X (see this 1990 Time Magazine cover story on Twentysomethings) and the same criticisms made 60 years ago about those pampered, spoiled Baby Boomers raised in the most affluent society the world had ever seen. So no sir, I will not crap on Millennials here. Crapping on Baby Boomers, however, is perfectly acceptable by my guide rules.↩
6. It also helps that Cline and Halliday are both from southern Ohio where I spent the first 13 years of my life.↩
7. I summarized this blog post to my 13 year-old son and he said, “But what about Stranger Things?” Yeah, good point. Thanks for ruining my entire thesis, kid.↩