April 2, 2012

The Beatniks as the Silent Generation's form of Millennial indie faggots

During the latter half of the falling-crime mid-century, the Beat Generation and their followers emerged as antagonists of the conformist and materialist majority. Three traits capture the flavor of these efforts:

- A paralyzing self-consciousness -- obsessing over and shouting about doing your own thing, rather than just doing your own thing.

- A retreatist approach to the problem of material abundance, instead of discriminating between the good and bad sides of materialism and technological change.

- And a profound naivete about the potential dangers of blind experimentation, whether artistically, sexually, or drug-related.

In these ways their view of the world was not very different from the mid-century mainstream, just that they took the opposite course of action from the majority, who still shared their assessment of the world.

The mainstream strongly fretted over whether what they thought, felt, and did was within prescribed boundaries, but they chose to stay inside while the Beatniks chose to stand outside. The mainstream had a simplistic view of materialism -- that it's either full steam ahead or withdraw into a pre-industrial age -- but they chose to dream about what gadgets to buy while the Beatniks abandoned material comforts. And the mainstream knew little about what might happen if they got hooked on pot, gave the go-ahead for homos to screw each other, or pushed the shock value of experimental art, but they chose to abstain from those things while the Beatniks blindly cheered them on. Same perception and appreciation of the real world, just a different course of action based on that.

How did the entire generation of Beatniks come to share these traits? Like their mainstream counterparts, they came of age mostly during the falling-crime period of 1934 to 1958. Such periods are marked by higher level of cocooning compared to the rising-crime periods just before and just after. That obviously explains the naivete, and almost as obviously the self-consciousness -- being more cut off from society, you have a heightened awareness of yourself as an island with sharper boundaries. The black-and-white view of materialism or technological change may also stem from social isolation -- being more embedded in real social life allows you to see first-hand what is good vs. bad about buying a car, working hard just to earn more money and not other reasons, and so on. When you're more isolated, you imagine it more simplistically going either one way or the other, with less of a reality check from your social interactions.

To give a brief example of someone who did not succumb to these mainstream tendencies, consider Sloan Wilson, author of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a sincere reflection on mid-century materialism. He was born in 1920, and so went through infancy, childhood, and even early adolescence during the (extended) Roaring Twenties, when people were out-and-about, engaging with the real world. Gregory Peck, who played the title character in the movie, was born in 1916. So they were part of the Greatest Generation, whose formative years were the rising-crime Jazz Age.

A few of the Beats were part of that generation too -- Lawrence Ferlinghetti (b. 1919), the sick fuck William Burroughs (b. 1914), and the halfway likable and conservative Jack Kerouac (b. 1922). But everyone else, including the most visible and hyped-up figure, Allen Ginsberg, was born in the second half of the 1920s and the early '30s, making them part of the more sheltered Silent Generation.

Who are their descendants today? Since the main influence on the zeitgeist is the trend in the homicide rate, we just look at who was born in the same place relative to its peak. The earlier peak year was 1933, and the most recent peak was 1992. So adding 60 years to the birth years of the Beatniks, we get people who were born in the second half of the 1980s and early '90s -- namely the Millennials.

They're in their 20s now, and we're in the same place in the homicide / zeitgeist cycle as the early 1950s. As in that time, most young people today are gadget-worshiping, cocooning conformists. Who, then, are today's Beatniks? They don't want to call themselves by any label since they, like, don't fit neatly into society's boxes, man. Meanwhile everyone can identify them ten miles away. I prefer the term "indie faggots," although the more common terms "hipster" and "hipster doofus" do connect the group back better to their mid-century ancestors.

Given the anti-materialist poses of the Beatniks, I guess I really mean the sub-group of hipsters who try to live off the grid, and not the ones who can't leave the house without their laptop and phone. The funkier-smelling hipsters are also the sub-group more likely to get into weird sexuality, whereas the check-out-my-Mac hipster chicks are as frigid as mainstream girls.

Where will this all lead in the near or medium term? Well, where did it lead before? Once the crime rate began rising during the 1960s, the zeitgeist changed direction, moving away from the '50s and toward the '80s. Because it doesn't change completely overnight, a fair amount of mid-century culture was still hanging around throughout the '60s and early '70s -- just diminishing steadily over time. Kennedy's New Frontier and Johnson's Great Society were fading holdovers from the heyday of liberalism under Roosevelt and Eisenhower. The Sears Tower was a fading holdover from the heyday of the International Style in architecture.

And the hippies were a fading holdover from the heyday of Beatniks. They were not a harbinger of things to come -- they were still sleeping in the naive mid-century, when the rest of the population was waking up to reality in the New Wave age. They were also closest in age to the Beatniks. Of course some of the hippies were Silents themselves -- a 25 year-old in 1969 was born in 1944. The prototypical ones, though, were the oldest Boomers, born in the late '40s. They therefore grew up through childhood during falling-crime / cocooning times, although the environment flipped around when they went into adolescence.

By the time you get to mid-'50s births, you find very few hippies because they went to college in the mid-'70s or later, after the counter-culture had died off circa 1973. Think of Kevin Arnold from The Wonder Years, or perhaps your own parents. The youngest Boomers, like the guys in Duran Duran, probably weren't even in middle school during the Sixties counter-culture.

Now, the next crop of hippies are probably just being born, so it's too soon to draw comparisons between them and their ancestors. But they'll have a similar relationship with the Millennials as the hippies did with the Beats. Sounds fucked up that so many people will come to idolize Millennial indie faggots, but it happened once before. Thankfully most of them won't, and the sheltered generation will be ignored or even disobeyed on account of their cluelessness -- that happened once before too.


  1. The problem with this is that the Silents were pretty darn phenomenal when it came to producing lasting American (and British) culture that people can still listen to and enjoy today. Yes, I find Kerouac a bit annoying ("and then we drove here and listened to some cats play jazz, man, and ..."), and Ginsberg never seemed to get over complaining about how hard Don Draper's America was on a junkie para-socialist Buddhist Jewish homosexual poet with mental problems and a fetish for revolutionary dictators. And those two were the best of an otherwise mediocre lot (how many Gregory Corso novels have you read?). So in its inability to produce truly lasting works of art, the analogy with the present generation stands. But outside the Beats, the Silents later gave us James Dean, Elvis, Marlyn, Brando, not to mention the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, the Doors, Motown, Soul, Miles Davis, John Coletrane, and, well, pretty much every other memorable cultural figure and movement from the late 50s and early 60s. If anything, the hippies lived in their shadow. It's also interesting how after 1969 the culture went into a bit of a lull, only coming back to its full force in the late 70s and early 80s. It seems that the early Boomers had relied so heavily on the Silents to produce good music and culture that, when the Silents finally burned out, everyone was left empty-handed, and they had to wait for the later Boomers to take over. That's probably why early Boomers were so annoyingly nostalgic about the 60s - their missed opportunity, which they tried to make up for by turning our universities into re-education camps and our country into a soulless nanny state. So, if we are going to see a early-60s-like revival of the culture in the next 10 years, I wonder who would be at the head of it. Any ideas?

  2. Have you read about more autistic diagnoses? What do you think about that, if you don't mind my asking?


  3. Most of the studies on the rise in incidence of autism are from 1995 and after, so it's hard to compare to earlier periods, other than seeing that it's risen dramatically.

    But to link it to the trend in the crime rate, or anything else, we'd want to see it move up and down, and see if the other variable moved up and down along with it, maybe a little out of sync.

    I'd also have to look at how much of a role the changes in diagnosis played over time...

    The basic picture fits -- a steep rise over the last 20 years -- but it's not the strongest evidence since we don't have high-quality, frequently sampled data from before then.

  4. I don't think the early rock figures are too representative of the Silents. Aside from Elvis, they're all born in the early '40s, the very tail end of the generation.

    Whereas the Beat scene spanned all of it, from the founders who were born in the later '20s and early '30s through Ken Kesey types born in the mid-'30s, and tapering away only with the oldest Boomers.

    And most of the youngest Silent musicians are famous more for pioneering than for excellence. The Stones and to a lesser extent the Beatles deserve their fame, but most of the others introduced a style that was perfected by Boomers (and sometimes the oldest Gen X-ers) during the '70s and '80s.

    Boomers got their start a little earlier than the late '70s. The ones born in the late '40s were already hitting their stride by the early and mid-'70s -- Ozzy, Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Ted Nugent, etc.

    And they were at it a lot longer. The late '40s births hit age 30 in the late '70s, yet they were still going strong in the '80s (unless like Bolan they'd died). Even the '50s births did a good amount of their top work in the '80s, after hitting age 30. And that's for all genres.

    The early '40s births didn't do as well after age 30, and the late '20s - late '30s births weren't excelling at all musically after 30.

    So it looks like the youngest Silents were more of an opening act or place-holder until the Boomers were old enough to play music for a living.

  5. And that's only on the production side. There's also the audience / community / scene side. If the Silents weren't well represented among performers who perfected rock, R&B, etc., they were even less so among the broader community.

    Boomers were with it on both sides and for the whole ride, except the hippies who got stuck in 1969. The later Boomers seem to have had the most fun, being well represented on the creation and community sides, and starting early in life and enjoying it through adulthood.

    Gen X didn't do so well on the creation side, except for a few of the oldest ones like Slash from GNR. But they were a vital part of the community, and for popular music that "influence" can't be overlooked.

    Even by my mini-generation, we couldn't create good music, and we grew up too late to contribute to the thriving scene. At least we bear some influence from it, though, albeit from hearing it as children.

    The older Millennials don't even have that, although that comparison is hardly anything to brag about for my cohort.

    Within 10 to 20 years, who'll be pioneering a new sound? Beats me. They're probably in middle school now.

  6. Outside the Beats, I think it's kind of interesting to consider how the New Wave age of the late 70s to early 80s harked back to the 50s.

    Check out Grease, Happy Days, Porky's (although there are example of homages to 1960-1963 - Animal House, Dirty Dancing, &c. - that you might assume are 1950s). All the weird 1950s clothing and diners and authoritative men in suits from the government of Twin Peaks.

    The influences on New Wave music from the 1950s (wiki : "In such a way, its style varies greatly, ranging from 1950s and 60s rock revivalism, ska and reggae-styled music, to synthpop-oriented dance.").

    The (admittedly not great and commercially unsuccessful) movie Streets of Fire with its weird neon post-war cum New Wave cultural fusion.

    The whole Rockabilly pompadour haircut thing.

    Marty McFly, although he finds his parents as kids to be total dweebs, kind of empathises.

    It might be because they both are ages where the youth have totally grown up in the rising or falling crime environment they find themselves in, so the majority are in tune with the spirit of their age. They don't have that thing of having a personality formed in childhood with impulses at odds with their age like Gen-Xers in the 90s or Silents and early Boomers in the 60s do.

    They have much in common if nothing else, I guess they don't have much in common, but there's maybe a baseline empathy there. The 1940s-1950s as reconceptualised by the 70s and 80s are definitely rather a different thing to those decades in themselves (like how what Millenials think the 80s is isn't really quite what it was) and the 70s and 80s kids do "empathise" with the weird rockers and not really the "mainstream".

    Of course, the culture creators in the late 70s and 80s, particularly outside of New Wave music, still chiefly have 1950s childhoods - David Byrne was a 1952 birth for example, Lynch was 1948. So maybe it's mainly just that kind of nostalgia and the 1980s kids proper were totally blah about it.

    Still, makes me wonder who the early rock and roll / Rockabilly revival of the future will focus on. Brostep? Gaga? Katy Perry? Fuckin Bieber? That would kind of suck.

  7. Never heard of anyone use the phrase "new wave age" before. I always just thought of it as some passing pop phase emerging as punk faded. Most people who I hear talk about the 80s as a really important era are lefties complaining about that awful Reagan/Thatcher.

    However, I did some googling and the phrase "new wave age" gets 31,900 results (although many are broken up by a hyphen in the middle or something). The phrase "punk era" gets 547,000. Just for kicks I tried replacing punk with rockabilly in that phrase and got 39,900.

  8. "New Wave Age" is something I came up with to refer to the recent rising-crime period, rather than just using the numbers of the years.

    Something evocative like "Jazz Age," although I can't use "Rock Age" right now since that will lead people to think of just the 1960s. "New Wave Age" will make them think more of the second half of rising-crime times, but then so does "Jazz Age" (i.e. late 1910s and '20s). And better to evoke the pinnacle rather than the origins.

    Maybe after awhile people will think more of the later '70s and '80s rock when they hear "rock music." Then "Rock n Roll Age" will serve better.

    I like "New Wave Age" also because there was several fields with movements called New Wave then, like graphic design.

  9. I hadn't heard of new wave graphic design, though I have of course heard of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

    I was thinking about your "waking up to reality" line. You like to talk about going into a sort of trance state, surrendering consciousness to sublime art. Do you think a la Chesterton that if people don't get their religion-esque "trip" in one way, they compensate elsewhere?

  10. Check out Richard Sharp's novel, "The Duke Don't Dance" on amazon.com in paperback and Kindle. The only known novel in print that follows the silent generation from the 60s to the present it has received rave reviews,among other kudos comparing the work to Joseph Heller. It's an antidote for those who blend the generation with either its predecessors or the boomers.


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