What’s it like being 18?
like shaking hands with a hurricane?
I was wondering over the weekend what it’s like to be 18. This is not because I want to be 18 again. I am deeply grateful to have escaped my youth, a time that now looks to me like Eastern Europe before the collapse of the Soviet, a time defined by arbitary restrictions, ideological immobility, and terrible shortages (in my case, sex, sense and sensibility).
If you are 18 right now, you were born around 1987. You began to move out of the parental orbit around 1997 (when you were 10-ish). Your head began to clear around 2002 (when you were 16-ish).
In 1997, a boy band (Hanson) and a girl band (The Spice Girls) ruled the world. Notorious B.I.G. died that year and hip hop began to splinter and reinvent itself. Around 45% of American homes had a computer and around 40-50 million Americans and Canadians used the internet. Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted on TV introducing a new concept: witty television. In the next few years, you will see the installation of the tech industry as the heart of American commerce. It will look like a gold rush, and it will fail like a gold rush.
In 2002, boy and girl bands were not just a thing of your past, they were a cultural antique. We were one year away from a violent contraction caused by 9/11, but the music scene was still continuing to fragment in all directions, with pop punk, indie, alternative, emo, hip hop, (to name a few), with critical favorites, The White Stripes, The Strokes, The Vines resurrecting the Velvet Underground. A couple of years before, another TV show, The Gilmore Girls, had introduced another bold new idea for TV: articulate television. In any case, you are now spending a big chunk of your disposable time on the computer, a medium that was reinventing itself substantially every 3 months.
If you are now 18, (and I am now guessing, because I haven’t done the ethnography), you live in a world that is noisy with novelty, restless with innovation, giddy with the good natured froth of a pop culture, lively with a new order of intelligence, and swirling with menace and difficulty.
Of course, all of us live in this world (or something like it). But my boomer generation boarded dynamism. We did not have it thrust upon us.
Boomers could see things getting smaller, faster, more hectic. The intellectuals told us so. We could see popular culture and culture drawing together, the sheer liveliness of one now joined to the intelligence of the other. We didn’t have an easy transition, but it was a transition. However we did it (using a bestseller or amnesia as our launch), we were able to pull up beside the new culture and get on. ("Jump, Spot, jump!")
Sure, there were unhappy moments, near misses, terrible spills, hard landings. Not everyone’s dock-siders had quite enough adhesion. Not everyone was quite nimble enough to decide which assumptions were now called for, and which were to be left behind. (There are several million of my generation that are still standing on that ever distant shore, insisting on opera tickets and "civilized discourse," before taking solace in American Idol.) But the rest of us packed our bags and booked passage for the new land of plenty. (Los Lobos/Latin Playboys was my Ellis Island, Ani DiFranco my Lady Liberty.)
If you are 18, it’s not clear to me when you ever had a moment to "get your feet," as the phrase has it. The deck is always wet with something. You go away one summer vacation and "cirque de soleil" becomes the new Vegas. You go away another, and "cage fighting" supplants boxing there. Not, of course, that you care about Vegas very much.
No, what you care about is going to college, and if ever there was an institution like the old Vegas, this is it. The old headliners, aging songsters who are still crooning tunes that haven’t changed for ages. And why change when fan loyalty (aka tenure) protects them for having to rewrite a line? A great buffet is there for the asking, and it is filling, but it’s not long before you begin to wonder if you can ever eat again. Choices, you must make choices! Look, here’s a building that looks like ancient Rome. Here’s another that looks like Tuscany. So life-like, so pleasant, and so utterly implausible as a simulation of any actual Italy, past or present.
Here’s what I was really wondering on the weekend. What if the world has got suddenly smarter? The evidence is everywhere. People thinking without silos, with newly versatile interpretive frames, with newly assimilative powers of survey, with newly rapid and penetrating powers of pattern recognition. And who is it that got smarter? Not me, I can tell you…or don’t have to tell you. Not my cohort companions who continue to pour themselves into well marked forms, the ones that wick away intelligence and culture mobility, their price for this creature’s comfort. No, I think it’s "kids today." (As a concrete test, compare the television created by David Kelley and the television created by Mitch Hurwitz.)
I think this is what happens when you grow up in a world that’s never still. To think at all, you must think well. (Well, not everyone. There’s a "far shore" here too.) But it doesn’t look comfortable. No, it makes me think of a cat leaping up to a counter and landing on a tea towel. He digs in for purchase, only to pull the towel out from under himself…and digs in for purchase, only to…
I leave the rest to Bloc Party and the lyrics of a track called Pioneers.
We will not be the first, we won’t
You said you were going to conquer new frontiers,
Go stick your bloody head in the jaws of the beast
We promised the world, we’d tame it, what were we hoping for?
Breath in, breath out
So here we are reinventing the wheel
I’m shaking hands with a hurricane
It’s a colour that I can’t describe,
It’s a language I can’t understand