Music

Generation X

The forgotten generation? Impossible; just check out the music.

“Can you describe the ruckus, sir?” — Photo may be subject to copyright

Today there is a lot of focus on Baby Boomers, Millenials, and Generation Z. In looking at the numbers, it’s easy to see why:

2019 Generational Labels, by the numbers:

  • Baby Boomers (1946 — 1964)— 69.5 million
  • Generation X (1965 — 1980) — 65 million
  • Millennials (1981 — 1996) —72 million
  • Generation Z (1997 — 2012) — 67 million

Now, the Boomers have The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, Millennials have Taylor Swift and Boy Bands of the aughts, Generation Z has anything by Max Martin (which is everything), and K-Pop.

Generation X? We got everything else.

The label, Generation X, is largely attributed to writer Douglas Coupland, originating from his debut novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. The novel's incisive and ironic tone coupled with its pop-culture allusions helped give rise to a new era of transgressive fiction — but that’s a story for another time.

But why did Coupland label it, Generation X? It’s tough to say, really; he’s been a bit dodgy about it. At various times Coupland has attributed the Generation X origin story this way:

  • In a 1989 interview, he said Generation X was a nod to Billy Idol’s first band, Generation X.
  • In 1994, Coupland said: “This is going to sound heretical coming from me, but I don’t think there is a Generation X. What I think a lot of people mistake for this thing that might be Generation X is just the acknowledgment that there exists some other group of people whatever, whoever they might be, younger than, say, Jane Fonda’s baby boom.”
  • In 1995, he said, it came from cultural and literary historian Paul Fussell, who used the term “category X” in his 1983 book Class. Coupland explained: “In his final chapter, Fussell named an ‘X’ category of people who wanted to hop off the merry-go-round of status, money, and social climbing that so often frames modern existence.”

If the alleged progenitor isn’t sure of its origin, who can say? However, with that said, we can confirm three things:

  1. The label Generation X stuck.
  2. In a lot of circles (marketing, financial, etc.), the generation is overlooked.
  3. We did get the best music.

As always, these sorts of labels like “best” or “good” or “bad” are wildly subjective. Some will read this and call it “bullshit,” and others will say, “yea, that’s about right.” And many will object to the inclusion of some songs and the exclusion of others on the playlist below.

No matter what you call those of us born between 1965 and 1980, you can’t deny that music was an incredibly fertile and fluid landscape from the early 1980s up until about 2000. Generation X had:

  • The MTV Generation
  • The birth of “college radio”
  • The explosion and crossover of rap and hip-hop (and all of its sub-genres) to white suburbia
  • Punk, punk-pop
  • And the generation-defining Grunge

Of course, we could argue time frames, bands, and genre’s ad infinitum, but that’s best done over a pint …or three.

So, let's just look at the music.

Tales From the X Generation — A Mix Tape

SIDE ONE

“She Sells Sanctuary” — The Cult
After sorting through different variations, Death Cult, The Southern Death Cult, and then finally The Cult, the band got a deal with Beggars Banquet Records and released Love in 1985. The overall sound of the album swings for big arenas and scores nominally (they would eventually find arena rock fame in the late 80s). But here, Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy just crush this song. It sounds as good today as it did in 1985 when it was released. And it will sound just as good in another 35 years.

“Porch” — Pearl Jam
Off of their debut album, Ten, “Porch” always hits me right in the gut. Still. What has always interested me about Pearl Jam, particularly the first two albums, is that the songwriting is unique. It’s not verse, chorus, verse, bridge, verse. It’s a little more chaotic, and that chaos shines brightly on “Porch.” It would become a notable live highlight on their first tour, and it remains so today.

“Killing in the Name” — Rage Against the Machine
From their self-titled 1991 debut album (the one with Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation), this protest song was inspired by the Rodney King case. Here we are 30 years on, in the throes of the Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis, and the intro of “Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses” connects the dots between the police and the KKK. It still resonates, which begs the question, “why?”

And Zach De La Rocha’s battle cry of “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” was certainly one of the most important lyrics then. And if you’re a black person in America, it still is, again begging the question, “why?”

I was late to the party on Rage Against the Machine, but they are unquestionably one of the most “important” (I know, I know) bands of Generation X.

“Burn Hollywood Burn” — Public Enemy
Off 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet, the song isn’t just an indictment on Hollywood; it’s a harbinger of what would follow after the Rodney King verdict in 1992.

But this song is about the stereotypes of black men and women in movies. Both Ice Cube and Big Daddy Kane make an appearance and help give the song its power, particularly Kane’s verse. In 30 years, you’d think we would’ve made some progress, and to some extent, creatively, we have. But as Spike Lee (who is name-checked in the song) pointed out in 2015, “It’s easier for a black man to be president than to be the head of a studio.”

“Can I Kick It” — A Tribe Called Quest
They can. And did.

“TV Party” — Black Flag
From a 1981 ep, the song is a satire of boredom, drinking, and America’s obsession with television. Not much has changed in 40 years …and if you catch the reference to the show Vegas, you’re definitely a Gen X’er.

“Would I Lie to You” — Eurythmics
Over the years, Annie Lennox has received her recognition. Deservedly so. But I’m not so sure Dave A. Stewart ever gets the props he deserves, both as a guitar player and a producer. From 1985’s Be Yourself Tonight, it began with Stewart trying to write an R&B-styled riff. And by the time he brought it to Lennox and they recorded it, they fused their own sound with a hybrid Stax Records sound.

[Fun Fact: there is the UK show Urban Myths and it highlights the time Bob Dylan went to England to look for Dave Stewart. By sheer coincidence, he ended up at the home of a plumber named Dave Stewart, who was also a huge Dylan fan. It’s great.]

“Ah Leah!” — Donnie Iris
I know, “who”? Music nerds will know. Iris was a member of Wild Cherry who had a hit with “Play The Funky Music” in the 70s but decided to go solo. This song became a Billboard Top 40 hit (peaking at #29), primarily because it’s catchy AF.

“This Beat Goes On” — The Kings
Again, I know, “who”? The Kings are Canadian, and by pure chance, famed producer Bob Ezrin (also Canadian) was visiting the studio where The Kings were recording. He liked them, so he produced The Kings Are Here, which contains “This Beat Goes On” and “Switching to Glide.” It was a modest hit, but this song was ubiquitous if you listened to FM radio in 1980. In particular, in the states that bordered Canada.

When this extended single is played, it's pure pop heaven. And it’s true: “Nothin’ matters but the weekend, from a Tuesday point of view.”

“The Turnpike Down” — The Lemonheads
This is from 1992’s It’s A Shame About Ray. On an album loaded with catchy tunes, this one always stood out for me. After the release of this album, Evan Dando stood poised to take over the Alternative Nation, but something happened. Whether he became a drug casualty or it was a mental illness, the Dando train derailed.

But in 1992, his band The Lemonheads (which in this incarnation included Alternative Nation cool chick Juliana Hatfield) released 30:00 minutes of unadulterated bliss (including a far superior version of “Mrs. Robinson”— used to promote the VHS release of The Graduate.)

[Fun Fact: Steely Dan member and Doobie Brother Jeff “Skunk” Baxter plays guitar on this album. An even more fun fact is that “Skunk” has worked as a defense consultant and chaired a Congressional Advisory Board on missile defense.]

“Litany (Life Goes On)” — Guadalcanal Diary
After the growing success of R.E.M., A&R reps from all the record labels descended on Georgia like that scene from The Birds when the birds attack Tippie Hedren. Guadalcanal Diary, from Atlanta suburb Marietta, was quickly signed to Electra Records and marketed as “From Athens” — R.E.M. and The B-52’s home base.

This is a simple and fun example of the jangle-pop that got a little notoriety in the mid-80s.

AND SPEAKING OF R.E.M.

SIDE TWO

“Disturbance at the Heron House” — R.E.M.
And speaking of R.E.M. — this is from their fifth album, Document, which became their breakthrough album. It would see them find the on-ramp from the back roads of college radio to the rock and roll superhighway.

Produced by Scott Litt (who would go on to produce six of their albums …and re-mix Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies” off In Utero after the big Steve Albini hullaballoo — if you remember that, you’re not just a Gen X’er, you’re a fellow big ol’ music nerd.)

The only song I don’t like on this album is the one that was the hit, “The One I Love.”

[Fun Fact: The live album Live at the Olympia was recorded over seven days in 2007 at The Olympia Theater in Dublin and is a working rehearsal of the band, complete with false starts. It’s a fun listen.]

“Head Like A Hole” — Nine Inch Nails
Come on. How could this not be here?

“Freak Scene” — Dinosaur Jr.
This is the song that music journalist Everett True said: “invented the slacker generation” — another name Gen X got attached to them. Not sure I completely agree but no denying the song's influence.

Judging by the four bands from Boston on this playlist (The Lemonheads, Buffalo Tom, Mission of Burma, and Dinosaur Jr.) and the ones that aren’t, it could be argued that Boston was a Gen X musical hot spot …just as much as Seattle.

“Suburban Home” — The Descendents
None other than Nirvana and Foo Fighter Dave Grohl opined: “If the Descendents had made Milo Goes to College in 1999, they’d be living in fucking mansions.” Finally, Dave Grohl has said something this isn’t ingratiating.

AND SPEAKING OF NIRVANA

“About a Girl” — Nirvana
You can’t speak of Generation X and not speak of Nirvana. You can take your pick of songs; I picked this one.

“Laid” — James
One of the lesser-known bands from Manchester (aka Madchester), with one of the best songs from Manchester. Like The Kings on Side One, this is also produced by Bob Ezrin. And any song that has a touch of cross-dressing and opens with: “This bed is on fire with passionate love, the neighbors complain about the noises above, but she only comes when she’s on top,” isn’t gonna do you wrong.

“Push It” — Salt-n-Pepa
Originally released as a B-side in 1987, “Push It” got its own release as an A-side in 1988, where it peaked at #19 on the Billboard Hot 100. This song put Salt-n-Pepa on the map and helped move the needle on female empowerment not only in rap music but music as a whole. “Push-It” is a fun song, but it’s also sexy as hell AND gets serious bonus points for being a straight-up sex-positive song for women. And for a song to score that kind of hat-trick in 1988 and find commercial success for black artists …in Ronald Reagan’s America should not be taken lightly.

[Fun Fact: Sir Ray Davies (yep, the guy from The Kinks) is credited as the co-writer of the song because it quotes “Pick up on this” from “I’m a Greedy Man” and “There it is” from “There It Is” — amazing.]

“Darl” — Buffalo Tom
From the Boston trio’s third album, Let Me Come Over, this is the rare song that is not sung by lead singer and guitar player Bill Janovitz (who bears a striking resemblance to actor Damien Lewis) but by bass player Chris Colbourn. While the band never really broke beyond the college rock scene, their fan base is loyal. Of which, I am a proud member.

“Valentine” — The Replacements
I had mentioned that almost every playlist I make would contain a song by The Replacements. I wasn’t joking.

“That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” — Mission of Burma
This title is a reference to the mistranslated quote from playwright and poet Hanns Johst. His quote: “Wenn ich Kultur höre … entsichere ich meinen Browning!” actually translates as: “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’… I remove the safety from my Browning!” Well, that clears that up.

This Boston band was initially active for only four years, 1979–1983, disbanding due to guitarist Roger Miller's debilitating tinnitus. In that time frame, they released two singles, an EP, and one LP, Vs. And from that, the band cast a VERY long shadow of Generation X bands like:

  • Pearl Jam
  • Foo Fighters
  • The Replacements
  • Moby
  • Guided by Voices

Mission of Burma reformed in 2002 and released four more albums before calling it quits in 2016.

“Fuck and Run” — Liz Phair
Phair was the cool-chick you secretly loved but always felt she was perennially out of your league. As a songwriter, she gave voice to the disaffected women who would choose the wrong guys. The song certainly has a singalong element to it, but its nonchalance and its own indifference make it a pitch-perfect song for Generation X women …and men.

Making dumb mistakes in your 20’s isn’t limited to women or men, and certainly not limited by generation and that makes “Fuck and Run” a song that still captures that vibe.

“Something I Learned Today” — Husker Du
From the band’s 1984 watershed second album Zen Arcade. This album is often considered the foundation on which the Alternative Nation was built, but it’s also thought by many to be one of the greatest albums in rock history. Full stop.

So, if you didn’t know that already, you can consider it something you learned today.

“Feed the Tree” — Belly
Another Gen X girl we all crushed on was Tonya Donelly. And it wasn’t just because she was attractive; much more important to us music nerds was that she was hella talented. Donelly had founded the band Throwing Muses with her stepsister Kristin Hersh, then started The Breeders with former Pixie Kim Deal, and then started and fronted her own band Belly.

Taken from Belly’s 1993 debut album, Star, this was their lone hit. The song is a metaphor about commitment and respect, with the tree being a place on a large farm where a family would be buried. It sounds a bit grim, but it was then, and remains, catchy AF.

“Straight Outta Compton” — N.W.A.
Obviously.

SPOTIFY PLAYLIST:

“Yeah, I know I ain’t nobody’s bargain — But, hell, a little touch-up and a little paint” — Bruce Springsteen

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store