From Griffith REVIEW Edition 13: The Next Big Thing
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Creed O'Hanlon
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Creed O'Hanlon's biography and other articles by this writer
Everything was different when I was a kid. There was no such thing as a colour television or a personal computer, and the internet hadn't been invented. If you wanted music, there was the "wireless" or what my grandmother referred to as a gramophone and the rest of us called a record-player. Discs were vinyl – twenty-minute-a-side LPs and smaller, three-minute-a-side 45s – and musicians recorded them on two– or four-track reel-to-reel tape. The first portable transistor radio was sold in the USA just two months after I was born, but neither eight-track stereo nor videocassettes were even imagined yet. MTV was launched when I was in my twenties, not long before the first compact disc and the cellular mobile phone. "Touch-tone" phones with digital keyboards turned up in the USA in the early '60s. Until then, every phone used slow, rotary dialling. International voice communications were carried only on terrestrial cables, not relayed through satellites, and you still had to ask an operator to connect a call. Facsimile machines – we hadn't yet learnt to call them faxes – were the size of a coffee table, with a bit-rate that transmitted a single typewritten page in ten minutes. Even time was analogue. I was a teenager when the first digital watch, the Pulsar, with its bulky, faux-gold casing and red LED display, went on sale. There were no microwaves, no pocket calculators and no game consoles (arcade games were large and electro-mechanical, like pinball machines). Credit cards were for the rich – Diner's Club, Carte Blanche and American Express – and there were no bank cards, no automatic teller machines, and no point-of-sale processors. A bank's customer records were still kept in a file drawer. Your signature was your main form
It's a sure sign that you are growing old when you start to talk about how things used to be. I'm a Baby Boomer, born almost at the mid-point of a generation whose first members were conceived just before the end of World War II. We came of age in the '60s, in time for a few of us to be drafted into the first large-scale deployment of Australian and American soldiers to Vietnam. We were the first generation to be raised in the suburbs, in the identikit, planned estates of low-rise apartments and brick-veneer houses that spread like a blight from the edges of Western cities during the economic boom of the '50s, and the first whose experience of the world was to be shaped not by direct experience, but by mass media. We were also the first to be immersed in a media-driven culture of consumerism. Ask a Boomer about their earliest childhood memory, and chances are they'll tell you about a TV show.
Now we're the first generation to reach old age within this new millennium – the oldest of us turn sixty this year – and, unlike our parents and grandparents, maybe unlike our own children, we're reluctant to let go of our youth. If anything, we reject ageing altogether, marketing to ourselves the idea that it's just a state of mind: with the right science and medicine (preferably synthesised within a viable consumer product), a healthy diet, regular exercise and a little hybrid spirituality, we might be able to live forever.
DON'T TRUST ANYONE OVER THIRTY. This was the unifying sentiment behind the barricades we built between previous generations and us during the '60s. It didn't just inspire the raucous anthems of post-Beatles rock groups like The Who – People try to put us d-down/ Just because we get around/ Things they do look awful c-c-cold/ I hope I die before I get old – it became the underpinning of a societal upheaval that, in many ways, was as subversive in its bid for power and ideological unity as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution conceived by Mao Zedong in China at about the same time. And yet, by the end of the '60s, before any of the Boomer generation had actually reached thirty, there were few among us who felt a part of it any more. We had learnt not to trust anybody, and there was a tacit resolve to extend the barricades so that we were insulated from not just the generations that preceded us, but the generations that would follow as well. Popular culture had become synonymous with youth – although it only really became known as youth culture with the launch of MTV, the source of a whole new vernacular for mass media and marketing – and we were determined not to let it be pried from our grasp, even when our youth was done.
Baby Boomers didn't invent youth culture. We weren't even the first to recognise the economic and social power that youth had begun to acquire, almost inadvertently, in the decade or so after World War II – how could we have been, we were infants, if we were born at all? The sudden demographic up-welling that spilled across the USA, Western Europe and Australasia to become a surging counter-current of new attitudes and ideas was unarguably a singularity of the '60s, but the source of it was actually a generation whose own youth was muted by the uncertainty and hardships of the Great Depression and World War II. Rock'n'roll, the twentieth century's great, twisted take on an ancient Bardic tradition, was the invention of the Silent Generation. From the hellfire performers who emerged from the God-fearing rural ghettoes of the former Confederacy states – among them, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley – to unsettle the consciousness and sexual mores of '50s America's too-tightly wrapped middle class, to the younger, working-class, urban Englishmen who hero-worshipped them and went on to form bands – The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Animals and, in Australia, The Easybeats – that would eventually overshadow, if not outlast, even Elvis's unprecedented fame, none was a Baby Boomer.
The '50s was the first decade in modern history in which youth laid claim to a discrete identity of its own, and instigated a cultural, social, sexual, political and economic revolution that, half a century later, has yet to run its course. Never before had youth gained the upper hand in a developed society – let alone, as it has turned out, held on to it for over half a century. The allure of youth has haunted the middle-aged of every generation, but you only have to look at movies produced before the '50s to see that, in the popular imagination, youth used to be what today's Baby Boomer demographers might describe as "aspirationally older": Bacall chasing Bogart, not the other way around, until James Dean came along. They wanted more than just acceptance by an older generation: they wanted admission to what was presented as its more responsible, rational and coherently structured society – they couldn't wait to grow up.
Again, the tectonic cultural shifts that disrupted this had nothing to do with Baby Boomers. These began with the frustrated restiveness of the Silent Generation, and the times' nagging apprehension of an intensifying Cold War between the West and the then Soviet Union, with its sombre, ever-present nuclear threat of MAD, or mutually assured destruction. There were also fateful connections made, with what was to become a generational inclination to apophenia, between what were, on the surface, a series of apparently disparate events in the decade between 1950 and 1960 – among them, the American witch-hunts for communist sympathisers between 1950 and 1954, incited by the cynical, ambitious and corrupt Republican senator Joseph McCarthy, the emergence of an Afro-American civil rights movement, and the defiant Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, inspired by the refusal of a middle-aged black woman Rosa Parks to give up her seat on a segregated public bus in Alabama, USA, led by a young black minister (another member of the Silent Generation), Martin Luther King, the launch of the first living creature – a dog named Laika – into space in 1957 aboard the Russian Sputnik 4, or the foundation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in England in 1958 (when the oldest Baby Boomers were just adolescents) by the elderly Bertrand Russell, Victor Gollancz and J.B. Priestley, and the middle-aged Michael Foot and E.P. Thompson. (This last event prompted the designer and artist Gerald Holton to create the peace symbol – a simple, upside-down trident based on the semaphore signals for the letters "N" and "D"; in a world cluttered by graphics and logos, it endures as one of the 20th century's most recognisable and best understood icons.
In North America, Western Europe and even Australia, the twenty– and thirty-somethings of the Silent Generation were increasingly ready to break with traditional social orders: in their eyes, the so-called Greatest Generation that went before them had done nothing but drag them through economic chaos and war (albeit in pursuit of the worthy ideal of creating a better world), then marginalise them in the aftermath. Nearly a decade of economic growth spurred by the postwar reconstruction of Europe and the demand it created for North America's industries – and Australia's natural resources – had given the Silent Generation economic independence, while prolonged peace and prosperity had encouraged it to invest in leisure, despite the slightly puritanical disapproval of older, more frugal generations. As the sixty-three-year-old British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan admonished his fellow Conservatives in a 1957 speech: "Most of our people have never had it so good."
Maybe we over-estimate the impact of a twenty-one-year-old Elvis in his first nationally broadcast TV appearance in 1956, but his hyper-sexual posture and sardonic disdain (mirroring James Dean's character, Jim Stark, in Nicholas Ray's now-classic film Rebel Without A Cause, released the year before) channelled perfectly the pent-up desire of the Silent Generation to get up into the face of its elders. Rock'n'roll, James Dean and the reckless swagger of Jack Kerouac's semi-fictional Dean Moriarty in the novel On The Road, which was published in 1957 and became an unexpected best-seller, were the iconic foundations of a very real cultural identity that would gather momentum over the next decade.
It was an identity that Baby Boomers would usurp and, with the unseemly disregard that was to become a generational trait, eventually "productise" and exploit – as they would so many others.
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.
from Annus Mirabilis by Philip Larkin
EVEN IN 1967, WHEN BRITAIN'S REPRESSED POET LAUREATE appropriated the title of a seventeenth century John Dryden poem for his own celebration of a year of miracles – in which the commercial introduction of the oral contraceptive pill in the USA coincided with The Beatles' first hit records there – it was impossible not to be struck by the irony that, as in the Dryden poem, the year in question was as remarkable for its awfulness as for its chronicle of achievements. Nineteen-sixty-three was the year 70,000 British supporters of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marched from the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment in Aldermarston to London, and American networks shocked their prime-time TV audiences with footage of a Vietnamese monk setting fire to himself in a Saigon street. It was the year British spy Kim Philby sought asylum in Moscow, and the Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to voyage into space aboard Vostok 6. It was the year Betty Friedan published the first feminist best-seller, The Feminine Mystique, revitalising the American women's movement, and Richard Neville, Martin Sharp and Richard Walsh published the first issue of the Australian satirical magazine Oz. It was the year Martin Luther King, delivered his most famous speech – I have a dream – to more than a quarter of a million people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. It was the year one of the most popular US Presidents in history, John F. Kennedy, was gunned down in the back seat of an open-topped limousine during a motorcade through Dealey Plaza, in downtown Dallas, Texas.
It was a year of lost innocence, in every sense. The last of the Silent Generation turned eighteen, not then old enough to vote or to drink, but old enough to be drafted into the military.
It was probably a Baby Boomer who came up with the hoary old line that if you can remember the '60s, then you weren't there. The Silent Generation and the Baby Boomers shared their cheap alcohol, cannabis, psilocybin and LSD, but the context of their experience of those years was different. "There was a pissed-offness about the '60s that gets covered over by flower power now, but it was an angry time," American playwright and actor Sam Shepard recalled in an interview with The Guardian this year. Today, the NRMA resorts to nostalgie de la boue to advertise its insurance policies to aging Baby Boomers – speckled monochrome newsreel footage of us dancing in the mud at some long-forgotten rock festival – but that decade began not with peace and love but with France testing an atomic bomb in the Sahara, the U.S. deploying 3,500 American troops in Vietnam, the Soviet Union shooting down an American U-2 spy plane, and the East Germans beginning the construction of the Berlin Wall. For the Silent Generation, whose childhood and adolescence had spanned a prolonged economic depression and a world war, the escalation of the Cold War and the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation tainted their perception of the early '60s and incited a dark, jittery sense of déjà vu.
As it turned out, 1963 was a pivotal year. It marked the beginning of what would become an acute divergence between the attitudes of the Silent Generation and the Baby Boomers. By then, the Silent Generation had had enough. When their best-loved poet – a geeky Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, Robert Zimmerman, who had reinvented himself as Bob Dylan and earned enough agit-prop credibility to sing for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the occasion for Martin Luther King's memorable address – scored a commercial and emotional hit with his generational anthem, The Times They are A-Changin', the times already had.
By the early '60s, the Silent Generation had the economic clout – not to mention a determination inspired by a childhood in which their parents' attention had been distracted, if not lost completely, in the pervasive tensions of the war – to change the existing order of society, to make it different if not necessarily better. If any generation could be said to have given the late twentieth century its social conscience, it was the Silent Generation. Over the next twenty years, its influence on public attitudes to issues such as the proliferation of nuclear arms, the war in Vietnam, civil liberties, racial and sexual equality, gay rights and the abuse of political power (specifically, the Nixon presidency and its collapse under the weight of the Watergate scandal) was so constant and deeply felt that we took it for granted.
When, inevitably, the Silent Generation grew tired of the fight, no other generation stepped up to take its place. Quite the opposite. Nowadays, in a post-9/11 world, Baby Boomers appear to be almost complicit with the erosion of civil rights, the increasing, covert surveillance of public and virtual spaces, the rejection of accountability by elected governments and the oppressive atmosphere of intolerance that are the antitheses of everything the essential spirit of the '60s – its vibe – was supposed to be about.
Except it never was.
AS THE HARDENED EX-CON PLAYED BY AN AGED '60s ICON, Terence Stamp, in the 1999 Steven Soderbergh film The Limey recalls: "Did you ever dream about a place you never really recall being to before? A place that maybe only exists in your imagination? Some place far away, half-remembered when you wake up. When you were there, though, you knew the language. You knew your way around. That was the '60s. [Pause] No. It wasn't that either. It was just '66 and early '67. That's all."
The so-called Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco in 1967 embodied the hippie ethos of "turn on, tune in, and drop out" – a phrase coined by the psychologist and high-profile advocate of better living through psycho-pharmacology Timothy Leary – but the idyll was less than the season itself.
In 1966 as a million people gathered along Sydney's streets to welcome Lyndon Baines Johnson, the first US president to visit the country – they had been exhorted to "Make Sydney gay for LBJ", which, from the perspective of today's sexually more enlightened age, gave a whole new meaning to Harold Holt's infamous election slogan, "All the way with LBJ" – 10,000 anti-war protesters fought a pitched battle with the city's police, prompting the NSW Premier Rob Askin to order his chauffeur to "drive over the bastards". Neither peace nor love were to be found anywhere by 1968. When a performance by a rock group, The MC5, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago degenerated into a full-scale riot, the then mayor of the city, Richard J. Daley authorised "whatever use of force necessary" to quell the situation. Much the same orders had been given (at about the same time) to the commanders of the Warsaw Pact tanks that rolled into Prague in Czechoslovakia, to suppress what Moscow portrayed as an uprising (even it was really just a badly managed attempt at social and economic reform) and, three months earlier, to French riot police, les Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, when over a million striking students and other protesters took to the streets of Paris.
In 1969, the Woodstock Music and Art Festival, held on a dairy farm in upstate New York, billed itself as "three days of peace and music" – and it was, probably, for most of the half a million people who turned up there – but four months later, at a festival at Altamont Raceway Park in Northern California, a gang of Hell's Angels hired as security by the Rolling Stones stomped an eighteen-year-old African-American boy to death in front of the stage.
Whatever illusions we still had about the live-and-let-live, love-the-oneyou're-with attitude of the '60s were lost or abandoned at the bitter end of the decade. Peace and love were as dead as Wyatt and Billy were after the rednecks shot-gunned them off their motorcycles in the final frames of Easy Rider.
In 1970, a company of National Guards opened fire on 2,000 students protesting the American invasion of Cambodia on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio. Four students, including two women, were killed and nine were injured. Ten days later, police, supported by the National Guard, opened fire on protesting students at Jackson State University in Mississippi. Two were killed and twelve were injured. It appeared that the emergence of a cohesive, politicised youth counter-culture had shaken up the status quo enough that the first reaction of those charged with maintaining it – the vestigial guardians of the Great Generation, the unambivalent defenders of the moral high ground and the guys who had fought the last "good" war for us – had been to try, quite literally, to kill it. "They're worse than the brown-shirts and the communist element and also the nightriders and the vigilantes," the Republican governor of Ohio, James Allen Rhodes, said of the Kent State protesters in a fit of indignant hyperbole at a press conference, just twenty-four hours before the fatal shootings. "They're the worst type of people that we harbour ... I think that we're up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America."
The oldest of the four Kent State students killed was twenty, the youngest nineteen. Unsurprisingly, two of these Baby Boomers had had no part in the protest at all. They were walking from one lecture to another.
SO MUCH HISTORY, SO MUCH INCIDENT, and yet so little of substance has stuck in the collective subconscious of the Baby Boomers, let alone been carried forward by them. For thirty years, we have perceived ourselves, and encouraged younger generations to perceive us, as having been among the instigators of the '60s ferment, those in whom its unarguable revolutionary and creative energies – not to mention its elusive ideals – coalesced, and yet our memories of that decade are remote, vaporous, and not quite real.
Most of us were too young to have been anything other than spectators in the early ‘60s, despite the saunter we feign now in late middle-age as survivors and faux-savants. True, we had been among the casualties at Kent and Jackson States, at Berkeley and several other American universities. We had been roughed up and arrested by police in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. We had even hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails beneath clouds of noxious tear-gas on the streets of Paris, Rome, Prague, Belfast and London – or of Watts, Hough, Detroit and Newark, where those of us who were black had come under fire from police and National Guards during bloody race riots between 1965 and 1967. In the end, though, these were not our battles. They belonged to the Silent Generation. We lent our support, if we were old enough, but we were on the periphery of most of the struggles, and our understanding of what was really at stake – however genuine our sympathies – was often incomplete.
Instead, we watched on television, and listened to the soundtrack on our record-players. We read eye-witness accounts in Rolling Stone.
A generation born and raised in peacetime, during a prolonged period of economic well-being (even in Europe, thanks to the billions invested by the USA under the Marshall Plan), Baby Boomers had no more certainty than the previous generation – forty years on, I sometimes relive the visceral chill of a seven-year-old's terror of The Bomb: cowering with other children under desks during a Los Angeles school drill for a nuclear attack, air raid sirens wailing in the streets – but we were less inclined to hold strong beliefs, let alone agitate for change. We learnt to adjust, to be fluid, to "go with the flow". In our mediated, proto-virtual understanding of the world, everything was, and still is, fungible.
We dreamed instead. More than any previous generation of the twentieth century, Boomers had been raised amid the constant white noise and screen clutter of increasingly ubiquitous mass information, entertainment and communication media. By the late '60s, the counter-culture already had its own media, including magazines like Rolling Stone, New Musical Express and Creem, and aspects of it – all necessarily youth-oriented – were being assimilated by the mainstream through films, TV and advertising. Gradually, we came to believe that these same media, with their McLuhan-esque seductive power and their apparent free flow of images, information and ideas, rather than protest and confrontation, were the key to building the new world of our imaginations. It's a notion borne out by the flood of Baby Boomers – among them Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Timothy Berners-Lee (all born in 1955) – who, since the late '70s, have nourished an age of technological invention to rival the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, even if a genius comparable to Tesla or Edison is less apparent.
Baby Boomers preferred the surface of things, the context rather than the content. We were easily distracted. We grew up with the passive, low-level attention required by "old" electronic media such as TV, radio, film and recorded music to reading – one of the few things we still have in common with other, younger generations. We wanted easy access and the ability to switch between content (we already called it channel surfing) whenever our attention lagged – which was more often than we liked to admit.
Well before the benign effects of the early '60s counter-culture seeped into the community at large, we were drawn less to its ideals than to its image. For us, the medium wasn't just the message: it was everything. For the rest of the century, the Baby Boomers' unconscious reverence for Marshall McLuhan's contention that a medium affects society not by the content it delivers, but by the characteristics of the medium itself was evident everywhere. The best entertainment (and advertising) for Boomers was, to use McLuhan's own jargon, hot or data-plenty, demanding less concentration but delivering ever-greater effect. Social protest gave way to the profane. Rock concerts became "shows", each an extravagant gesamtkunstwerk with complex staging and lighting. No longer happy to stand in one place and just sing or play as older performers did – even Elvis, who insinuated the snakey promise of hillbilly rutting into middle America's subconscious, was still pretty tame – band-members turned manic and feigned sex with a Fender Telecaster guitar (or a half-naked fan), destroyed a wall of speakers, or bit the head off a live chicken before swan-diving into the crowd. Vinyl LPs were no longer two twenty-minute sides of discrete, three-minute songs, but multi-disc concept albums that were almost Wagnerian in duration and structure.
The Boomers' preoccupation with scale and spectacle at the expense of nearly everything else became apparent in other media. Steven Spielberg – born in 1946, the first of many successful Baby Boomer directors – turned his back on the sort of smart, unsettling, contemporary character-driven dramas directed by Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Bob Rafelson, Martin Scorsese and others that had revitalised American cinema during the late '60s and early '70s to create Jaws, a film in which the main "character" was a man-eating shark, and any semblance of coherency in the narrative was subsidiary to the gradual amplification of suspense and the timing of set-piece action sequences. Jaws was the first "blockbuster" (a word only a Baby Boomer could love, meaning then a big-budget Hollywood production that grossed over $US100 million in revenues in the United States alone). More importantly, it was a watershed in the entertainment industry's perception of what the mass audience really wanted – excitement, the more intense the better. With uncanny intuition, honed during a decade of almost obsessive fascination with cause and effect in a variety of media, Baby Boomers knew how to give it to them.
IT DIDN'T TAKE LONG FOR THIS TALENT TO BE ADAPTED as a means of exerting greater control. If the Silent Generation had been raised during times when the whole concept of control, let alone the means to exert it, must have been impossible to imagine – a sense of impotence was yet another compelling motivation for it to try to demolish the rickety postwar social order and establish something in which it could have some say – the Baby Boomers understood (as did the Roman Emperor Titus when he completed the Coliseum in 80AD and ordered that it be used for gladiatorial combat) that attention was a form of currency: acquire enough of it and you could transform it into real capital – which, in turn, gave you power.
And what better way to gain attention than by gaining the upper hand in entertainment media? It was an idea that would come into its own during the '90s technology boom, when Generation X entrepreneurs, in harness with Boomer venture capital, would use the equation to leverage unimaginable value for their development of a new medium, the world wide web, inverting the idea of using fixed programming to capture the passive attention of a faceless mass audience of millions – the measure of value in old media – to create something a great deal more valuable, an infinitely customisable, two-way interaction with a million-fold audience of just one.
Control was – and still is – a big driver for Boomers. It underscored our relationship with the rest of the twentieth century, during which we tried to impose our views on others and to regulate their social and sexual behaviour with a zeal that smacked of a new Puritanism. We were stricter with our children, giving them less leeway to make their own decisions than our parents gave us. We were more ready to get involved in their education, or in any other area where we thought we might be able to exert influence on the shape of their lives. (To give us the benefit of the doubt, maybe we figured that if we didn't, television would do it for us.)
The first of the Boomer legislators, judges and prosecutors were a lot less sympathetic and humanist than those of previous twentieth century generations. They were almost eager to limit or dispense with inconvenient legal and civil rights, impose stiff sentences or resort to the death penalty. As for Boomer politicians, if the Bush and Blair governments are anything to go by (their Silent Generation deputy, John Howard, could be said to be "aspirationally younger"), they are conservative, pragmatic, unethical, secretive and suspicious of free speech. They don't much like the idea of a free press, either. Even if they are not as malignant as Bush, Boomer politicians can be little more than artful constructs (the former New South Wales premier, Bob Carr, springs to mind): a shiney, media-friendly façade, a few well-turned, anodyne phrases and a lack of real empathy. All Boomer politicians have tried to cloak their legislative forays into social engineering as timely, well-intentioned "modernising" of existing political and social frameworks, but their version of modernity is always more intrusive, restrictive and careless of our rights.
There have been several Boomer political leaders who have tried to adhere to a more liberal, pluralistic and inclusive social philosophy, but there appears to be among them a disturbing propensity to engineer their own failure – as the former Australian Federal Labor party leader, Mark Latham (an on-the-cusp Boomer), appears to have done – or to self-destruct. William Jefferson Clinton, the first Boomer to be elected President of the United States, and arguably one of the most intelligent and charismatic men to have occupied the Oval Office, ended up betraying the expectations of his generation because of a shallow preoccupation with what can only be described as "surface effect", a disquieting moral ambivalence, and a tendency to self-indulgent excess and hubris that are archetypal of our generation's flaws.
At the edge of politics, straddling faded dividing lines between church and state, Boomers are among the most vociferous proselytisers not only for Christian fundamentalism – what better way for Boomers to exert control than through a belief system that behaves like an entertainment medium? – but, it might also be argued, for Islamic fundamentalism as well (Iran's Islamic President Mahmoud Ahnadinejad, born in 1956, and Osama bin Laden, born a year later, are notable examples). Whatever side of the political, religious or cultural fence they're on, Baby Boomers have a predilection for dogma that stems from their discomfort with – and inability to control – the confusion and contradictions of the times through which they have lived.
Even before the last Baby Boomer came of age – at eighteen, not twenty-one, entitled to vote and drink – we had stepped out of the long shadow of the Silent Generation, looking for the main chance. We were never really idealists: we were – and still are – innately selfish and cynical (if not downright hypocritical). We focus on achieving a semblance of order, of control – we like to get the façade just right – in the context of right now, but we tend to overlook what it might cost us in the future. The idea that just because something can be done doesn't necessarily mean that it should doesn't occur to Boomers. Maybe it's another indication of our hubris, but we don't waste much time thinking about consequences.
THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN, A FILM DIRECTED BY SCOTSMAN JOSEPH MCGRATH, was released in 1969, the same year as Easy Rider. Adapted by the American satirist Terry Southern from his novel of the same name – Southern also cowrote Easy Rider with its stars, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper – The Magic Christian was an absurdist comic fantasy starring Peter Sellers as Sir Guy Grand, an Englishman of egregious wealth and a wicked sense of irony. Grand adopts a naïve, homeless young man, played by The Beatles' drummer, Ringo Starr, to be his heir, renaming him Youngman Grand. He instructs Youngman in the operation of the "family business": exposing and exploiting in most lurid ways the unquenchable greed of everyman. In one of the film's funniest – if least subtle – moments, Sir Guy fills a swimming pool with excrement and tens of thousands of dollars, then invites passers-by to retrieve as much money as they want. Soon the pool is overflowing with people fighting each other for fistfuls of cash as they struggle to keep their heads about the foetid shit, all under the gaze of a bemused Sir Guy and a troubled Youngman: "Grand is the name, and, uh, money is the game. Would you care to play?"
Indeed we would.
FILM SUPPLANTED LITERATURE IN THE LATE '60s (if not comic books, which we reconceived as "graphic novels" to market them to a younger generation) as the repository of all our myths and parables. The medium appeals to restless Boomers because it enables us to rework these narratives from time to time. Eighteen years after the premiere of The Magic Christian, Sir Guy and Youngman Grand were transformed into Gordon Gekko, a rich and ruthless corporate raider (played by a middle-aged Michael Douglas), and Bud Fox, a young if not-so-innocent stockbroker Gekko sets out to corrupt (a still fresh-faced Charlie Sheen), in Wall Street, American director (and Baby Boomer) Oliver Stone's celluloid eulogy over the fresh corpse of a decade notorious for its avarice and self-interest. Boomers don't like to acknowledge it any more (maybe, in part, because it reminds us of just how old we are now), but the '80s were our best of times. The stern, Boadicea-like Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, and the doddery, paternalistic B-movie actor and pretend-cowboy, Ronald Reagan went out of their way to reassure us that the worst aspects of our generational character, the very traits that still grated on the Silent Generation, were not just OK but desirable in a world in which old-fashioned values like ambition, self-interest, wealth, privilege, heartlessness – oh, and empty-headed celebrity – had made a comeback. The decade's bible (or, as another writer would have it, Yuppie porn), was Vanity Fair, a glossy magazine edited by the Baby Boomers' own brainy it girl, Tina Brown.
Even the collapse of the stockmarket on October 19, 1987 – so-called Black Monday, when the New York Stock Exchange suffered its steepest-ever one-day decline and stripped the Dow Jones Industrial Average of nearly a quarter of its value – by the end of the month, the Australian stockmarket had lost over forty per cent of its value – couldn't deflate our confidence. Within a decade, Boomers would set in motion another "bubble" in stockmarket values, this time partnering with tech-adept geeks of Generation X – our myriad neuroses and obsessive compulsive tics an unlikely match with their tendency to Attention Deficit Disorder and Asperger's-like syndromes – to conceive a New Economy, an alternative system of values underpinned by an entirely new medium of communication, information, interaction, transaction and entertainment.
It was a quartet of Silent Generation scientists at the US Defense Advance Research Projects Agency – Lawrence Roberts, Leonard Kleinrock, Robert Kahn and Vincent Cerf – that developed the technology and architecture to interconnect remote computer networks and thus create the internet, although it was a Baby Boomer, Timothy Berners-Lee – an Englishman working at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (better known as CERN) – who came up with something he called the world wide web. The far-reaching revolution inherent in Berners-Lee's creation was at first lost on his peers (including the hyper-intelligent head of Microsoft, now the world's wealthiest individual, Bill Gates), so it was left to a younger generation – the Xers, whose very namelessness reflected a disconsolate sense of being a generation adrift, disenfranchised from a mainstream economic and cultural agenda now dictated (or, more accurately, obscured) by Baby Boomers – to recognise the liberating possibilities of the web's capacity to interconnect not just documents – text, static images and, later, sound and video – but also ideas.
The Boomers were never big on originality. We were, after all, the generation that invented technology to make the appropriation or "sampling" of anything as simple as a few keyboard strokes on a computer. We were good at refining existing ideas – the World Wide Web was a case in point, so too were the first iterations of Microsoft's DOS operating system – but what we were, and still are, best at was hype. Our aptitude for effect – the gesamtkunstwerk of those '60s rock shows – allied to our almost forensic absorption of mass media over the previous forty years meant that we were well prepared for the '90s dot.com boom. Most of us were less interested in the web's technology than we were in devising its business models (where, almost instinctively, we sensed the real power would be) and articulating the precarious value equation that turned attention into cash. Nonetheless, the early years of internet entrepreneurism were the apotheosis of the Boomer generation. Too bad that they resurrected in us an ethos that had tainted us during the previous decade – excess in all things, especially greed.
In Wall Street's best-remembered scene, Gordon Gekko confronts the restive shareholders of the fictional corporation, Teldar Paper, to convince them to sell off the company's assets. With the fervour of a TV evangelist leading his congregation in prayer, Gekko tells them: "Greed ... is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms – greed for life, for money, knowledge – has marked the upward surge of mankind and greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA." This wasn't just another of those cinematic moments that resonated briefly in the media-sensitised subconscious of Baby Boomers before receding into the ambient low-frequency noise. Gekko's words became our mantra (Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works.) They permeated our attitude for the next twenty years.
The irony is delicious: Baby Boomers turned out to be the Sir Guys for at least two generations of Youngmans.
THERE WAS A PERIOD BETWEEN 1974 AND 1979 – no more than four or five years at most – when it looked as if we might redeem ourselves. Punk rock is rarely identified with Baby Boomers these days, but it is the one enduring cultural legacy to which my generation can lay sole claim. From its raggedy assed, New York originators – among them, Iggy Pop (born 1947), Patti Smith (born 1946), Richard Hell (born 1949), Johnny, Tommy, Joey and Dee Dee of The Ramones (born between 1948 and 1952), and The Dead Kennedys' Jello Biafra (born 1958) – to the rawer, more politicised and subversive Londoners with whom the public most readily associates punk – among them, The Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten (born 1956) and Sid Vicious (born 1957), The Clash's Joe Strummer (born 1952), The Banshees' Siouxsie Sioux (born 1957) and The Damned's Dave Vanian (born 1956) – and its one great Australian band, The Saints, the late G.G. Allin (born 1956) oh, and Nick Cave (born 1957), still the coolest Australian alive, its protagonists were all, without exception, Baby Boomers.
Punk was unarguably a social as well as a musical revolt, and its raw, self-negating anger was directed not only at an older generation, but at the majority of its own who had "sold out" any chance for genuine social and political change. It was no accident that punk first emerged during the mid1970s, when the city of New York, under mayor Abe Beame, teetered on the edge of bankruptcy or that many of its most coherent and vehement songs, such as The Clash's London Calling, were released in 1978 just before the infamous "winter of discontent" under Prime Minister James Callaghan's Labour government, during which the economy began to collapse under the weight of high unemployment, industrial unrest and dysfunctional public services – the rising groundswell of Conservative sympathy (and self-interest) would carry Margaret Thatcher into power the following spring.
Punk's musical prejudices were many, but a constant in all of them was impatience with its own generation's obsession with the surface of things. With its pared-down, DIY approach to recording, total disdain for basic instrumental skills and simplistic, buzz-saw-like songs that were never more than one tempo – fast – two minutes' duration, three chords and four-beatsto-the-bar, with titles like Too Drunk to Fuck, Blank Generation, White Riot and Anarchy in the UK, punk slashed at the tie-died remnants of hippie counterculture – by then, Eric Clapton, the legendary guitarist and founder of the '60s "supergroup" Cream, was appearing in British beer ads – and then directed its razor-edged, amphetamine-fuelled intensity toward the shimmering glitter of disco and the grandiose posturing of heavy metal rockers, whose stadium gigs were becoming as over-produced and robotic as Hitler-Jügend rallies in the '20s and '30s.
Malcolm McLaren (born on January 22, 1946 – one of the very first Baby Boomers) was punk's arch manipulator, its media-savvy Svengali. The then-partner of fashion designer Vivienne Westwood (who had yet to make her name and fortune as a couturier) and the co-proprietor with her of a fetish and bondage clothing shop called SEX on London's Kings Road, McLaren was the dandyish, amoral and rudely cunning (if not downright crooked) manager of Britain's most infamous punk band, The Sex Pistols, fronted by Johnny Rotten (neé John Lydon) The band was a McLaren creation, inspired by both the disaffected, working-class kids – prototypical punks – that hung out at SEX, and McLaren's own encounters with the nascent New York punk scene during a visit there in 1974. The Sex Pistols lasted only a couple of years – releasing just one album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, before Johnny Rotten announced their break-up during a shambolic American tour in 1978, and the band's notorious bass player, Sid Vicious, killed his girlfriend in a drug-addled haze at New York's Chelsea Hotel the same year, before over-dosing on heroin a few months later at a party to celebrate his release on bail from the city's Riker's Island jail – but not before McLaren had demonstrated just how to execute what he would later call "the great rock'n'roll swindle".
In 1976, McLaren showcased The Sex Pistols during punk's first festival at the 100 Club on Oxford Street, London, and talked EMI into signing the band for what was said to be a half-million pound advance – although this figure was probably just McLaren hype – and releasing its first single, Anarchy in the UK, at the end of November 1976. Less than a fortnight after the song hit the UK charts, the band members got into an on-air slanging match with Bill Grundy, the host of Thames Television's popular early evening program Today; guitarist Steve Jones called him a "fucking rotter". It was the beginning of a run of bad press – "Punk? Call it Filthy Lucre" ran the front page headline of The Daily Express – and it was deliberately inflamed by McLaren. It scared EMI enough to terminate its contract with the band at the end of January 1977. Six weeks later, in a ceremony staged (probably by McLaren) outside the gates of Buckingham Palace, the Sex Pistols signed to Herb Alpert's A&M Records. This time the deal didn't last the day: at a party back at the record label's offices, the band members sexually harassed secretaries, picked fights with executives and, in a lurid coup de grace, Sid Vicious trashed the managing director's office and vomited on his desk. A&M publicly cut the band loose less than a week later.
It was left to one of the first of England's Baby Boomer entrepreneurs, Richard Branson (born 1950) – who played in an altogether bigger league than McLaren when it came to both opportunism and shameless self-promotion – to sign the band to Virgin Records for another large advance and the promise of total artistic control. In May 1977, The Sex Pistols released its second single, God Save the Queen. With the help of some well-planned radio airplay and the usual sensationalist press, it reached number two on the UK charts during the same week as the country celebrated Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee. Later, one of the band-members, Paul Cook, told a journalist: "It wasn't written specifically for the Queen's Jubilee. We weren't aware of it at the time. It wasn't a contrived effort to go out and shock everyone." Maybe not.
It was Malcolm McLaren who convinced the band to change the original title of the song, which had been No Future.
McLaren recently recalled that he made money then "by doing the exact opposite of what most people would think would be correct. I acted the irresponsible, the ultimate, child and everything I did was what society hated." His public posturing and game-playing during punk's last gob-spit at "the system" would have made Sir Guy Grand proud. Sadly, by the end of the '70s, punk's truculent nihilism had dissipated, and a corrosive process of cooption and homogenisation had begun. Within a decade, punk and all the other good things youth culture had encompassed over the previous quarter-century – and would encompass, briefly, in the decade ahead, such as rave culture, graffiti art, gangsta rap and mash-ups – would be reduced to an unidentifiable but easily consumable mush. Meanwhile, a faltering global realpolitik, resurgent squabbles in the Middle East, and economic and social disarray in the developed world (especially the United Kingdom) suggested a future more uncertain and dangerous than anything that George W. Bush would have us fear in the aftermath of 9/11. The brittle, pre-Apocalyptic edginess of the early '80s was reminiscent of the '60s.
MTV WAS LAUNCHED ON AMERICAN CABLE NETWORKS on August 1, 1981. The US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention had just recognised the first cases of AIDS, in five gay men in California. Of course, the two events were unrelated but it felt like the beginning and the end of youth culture.
With its all-music-video format modelled on Top 40 radio by former whizz-kid Baby Boomers fresh out FM radio programming and advertising – the first video that MTV broadcast was The Buggles' Video Killed the Radio Star – and its use of young, good-looking "video jockeys", or VJs, who appeared to have been genetically engineered to match a broad cross-section of the racially diverse, financially disparate, youth demography found in densely populated American urban centres, and even if the music it first featured was predominantly white, MTV appeared to dull rather than enliven the collective imagination, despite its popularity. The symbiosis it had with a music industry already absorbed into huge, multinational media conglomerates – MTV was itself the product of a joint venture between Warner Communications and American Express, the Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment Company, that morphed into MTV Networks Inc. just ahead of an IPO in 1984 – was obvious and a little creepy: apart from hourly entertainment news spots and studio interviews with music stars, MTV's only content was music video clips produced by the major labels and provided to the new network free of charge (although it would not be long before the network would charge them to put a video into what was called "heavy rotation"). In other words, MTV was running ads for the record labels twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
None of its growing audience gave a damn. "Too much is never enough" as one of MTV's earliest promotional slogans put it. In keeping with the times, the new network was about as cynical as you
"I think the relationship between authentic youth cultural happenings and youth culture consumption is indistinguishable," Douglas Rushkoff, Professor of Media Culture at New York University, said in a recent interview. He might as well have simplified it to "culture and consumption", because even by the '80s the porous membrane between the two had already been breached – and not just among youth. Shopping was the primary cultural activity of most major cities in the developed world, and with more products competing across more programming choices – if not yet more media – for the exponentially shorter attention of more consumers willing to spend more time and money on themselves than ever before, it was inevitable that marketers would have to look for other ways of ensuring, if not higher (or more conscious) awareness of their brands, then more constant visibility. We needed the brands to become ambient, ever-present. "Turn it on, leave it on" – another MTV slogan.
It didn't take genius to figure out that brands should behave like the media they used to distribute awareness of themselves. Nuances of meaning and emotional engagement could be different depending on how and where the brand insinuated itself into a consumer's awareness: the medium was no longer just the message, as McLuhan had argued when, in 1967, he rewrote his most famous catchphrase, but rather the massage, the effect on our sensorium. Traditional advertising was, and still is, interruptive – it deliberately intersected the periods of attention we allotted to entertainment and information programming across what was, in the '80s, a limited range of passive media – so the logical step was to create opportunities for brands, their product expressions and values to exist not only within the context of entertainment and information (still mainly as interruptive advertising), but also within the content.
Today, a high percentage of the multi-million dollar marketing budgets (and sometimes the $100-200 million negative costs) of blockbuster feature films – usually the action-driven "franchises" such as James Bond, Spiderman or X-Men, the so-called "tent-pole pictures" that prop up the intrinsically rickety balance sheets of Hollywood studios – are funded by "product placement" written into the scripts even before shooting begins. For example, Ford's multi-picture, multi-brand relationship (including Aston Martin, Jaguar, and Range Rover) with the most recent series of Bond films starring Pierce Brosnan was said to have cost the ailing US car manufacturer over $US125 million; and in 2000, international courier Federal Express underwrote much of the production and marketing budgets of Cast Away, starring Tom Hanks as your average FedEx executive who is transformed into a modern Robinson Crusoe when the FedEx cargo plane on which he catches a ride crashes on a remote island in the Pacific.
Pop singers such as Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Kanye West and Nelly supplement their already extraordinary earnings from record sales, music publishing and touring with millions more dollars just for "name checking" brands in songs that will pervade, for a short while, the awareness of a huge number of young, impressionable consumers impatient to realise their potential. Agenda, a US youth marketing company, even tracks what brands are mentioned most in the songs on US music charts to create a Top 40 chart of its own, American Brandstand. (The current Gen Y pop stars have studied Boomer formulae for appropriation and hype, now so refined that anyone can use them. Rather than rejecting them, they have embraced these formulae with such enthusiasm that, for the first time since the '30s, youth culture appears to be "aspirationally older".)
In some cases, entirely new, purpose-built content has been created as brand vehicles – not only TV programming, film and music but also sporting and cultural events. The array of high profile, sponsored literary prizes in the UK is an example. Another is the unregulated, post-apocalyptic version of "the world game", played inside a locked cage, that Nike invented to promote its involvement in the 2002 World Cup hosted by both Korea and Japan. Nike featured it in a couple of award-winning TV ads starring some of soccer's best-known international players. Then the US company built a real-life arena – a playing field deconstructed as theme park and sci-fi movie set – in a Tokyo warehouse, where Japanese youth, its target consumers, could play it as well.
All sides of the marketing/media/consumer equation are still dominated by Baby Boomers. We are the most powerful consumer segment in the global economy, with aggregate gross earnings in the United States alone of US4.1 trillion dollars a year (and with a projected global entertainment media spend of $US1.8 trillion a year by 2010). If we are no longer at the white-hot core of the hyper-mediated consumerism that passes for popular culture these days, our money – and the parasitic tenaciousness with which we have wormed our way into the imaginative ambitions of other generations, usually to their detriment, since the mid-60s – enables us to exert influence everywhere.
Advertising strategists, demographic researchers and academics argue that both Generations X and Y are inured to Baby Boomer attempts to market to them on anything but their own terms. "Young people have grown up immersed in the language of advertising and public relations. They speak it like natives," Douglas Rushkoff writes in his 2000 book Coercion: Why We Listen To What They Say."As a result, they are more than aware when a commercial or billboard is targeting them. In conscious defiance of demographic-based pandering, they adopt a stance of self-protective irony – distancing themselves from the emotional ploys of the advertisers."
To some extent, this ignores the depth of the Baby Boomers' experience. Boomers were still young when passive, pre-programmed mass media began a slow transformation of its hardware, formats and programming, and we not only participated in the early evolution of interactive media – through which individualised information, entertainment, transaction and communication could eventually be accessed any time, anywhere – we were among its inventors. Media are as much a "natural element" for Boomers as they are for younger generations. We have appropriated, co-opted or "remixed" the disparate perceptions, attitudes and trends of four generations of youth culture distributed – and preserved – by old and new media in order to "commoditise" them (while sterilising any inherent idealism): how do you think we came up with the amorphous "hip"-ness of The Gap's t-shirts and cargo pants, or Starbucks' Beatnik-manqué coffee lounges?
Will the younger generations ever break the ageing Boomers' suffocating headlock on popular culture? To some extent, they have already by sharing music, video, games and software online. Baby Boomer executives, lobbyists and lawyers decry file-sharing because it deprives a work's creator of both income and control, and because it threatens all businesses – not just those in entertainment or publishing – which derive revenue and power from the licensing of intellectual property (in other words, most of the world's largest corporations). Our real dread is file-sharing's subversive simplicity. All it needs is mass for it to erase traditional concepts of ownership and value.
The revolution starts there. ♦