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November 15, 2011

News & Opinion: Thoughts on "Generation Sell"

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 3:09 AM – Filed under: Current Events & Public Affairs, Innovation & Creativity, Management & Workplace Culture

"The characteristic art form of our age may be the business plan."

That quote comes from an intriguing opinion piece called Generation Sell that was published in the New York Times this weekend. It is a piece about a generation just coming of age and today's youth culture. It really deserves to be read in its entirety, but I think that if one passage can sum up the basic argument of the article, it is this:
Today’s ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it’s the small business. Every artistic or moral aspiration—music, food, good works, what have you—is expressed in those terms.

Call it Generation Sell.
The piece was written by William Deresiewicz, and there is so much I agree with and so much I disagree with in it—and it's all wound tightly together in a wonderful and entertaining piece of writing. I'm a member of the generation he's writing about, "people born between the late '70s and the mid-'90s, more or less," so I probably took it more personally than others, more personally indeed than I should, but I do take issue with some of Deresiewicz's characterizations.

The first issue I ran into was in what I think was an unnecessary or misguided attempt to say something about hip-hop, which has undoubtedly had an affect on the generation and merits mention, but the sentence Deresiewicz offers doesn't do it justice. After describing the (counter)cultural characteristics of the beatniks, hippies and punks, he briefly offers this:
Hip-hop, punk’s younger brother, was all about rage and nihilism, too, at least until it turned to a vision of individual aggrandizement.
Because that's all he offers us on the subject, I feel it would have been better to have left it out altogether. Because hip-hop, like jazz or rock-and-roll, shouldn't be defined as a "youth-culture" in and of itself, but as an art form that influenced youth culture. And while some of its currents may have been "all about rage and nihilism," it began as party music more predominantly wrapped up in a social conscience and commentary, cultural irreverence, and the urban art forms of dance, painting and poetry. There may have been a decent amount of rage there, but I don't get the nihilism. To "punk's younger brother" seems to miss its roots and how it ended up as part of the youth culture he's critiquing. It would be more accurate to define it as a part of the millennial generation in the way he did with jazz and beatniks, of which he wrote:
Theirs was a culture of jazz, with its spontaneity; ... of flight, on the road, to the West; of the quest for the perfect moment.
Something like this might have been more accurate:
Theirs was a culture of hip-hop, with its social conscience and cultural irreverence (and confusion); of finding a voice, of the city street; of the quest for personal invention and aggrandizement.
But, of course, that doesn't ring true either, because it isn't a culture defined solely by rap. The generation wasn't defined by any single movement in music as much as previous generations have been—movements that the major record labels could latch onto and push out into the wider consciousness to become the soundtracks of their generations. I think, if anything, this generation was shaped by the demise of the major labels' cultural influence, the proliferation of independent labels, and all the noise, cross-pollination, creativity and confusion that has spawned from that. The last real uprising or rebellious "movement" in popular music was the rise of grunge music in the '90s. Since then, the only movement I can detect is one toward ever smaller, more focused independent labels. It is, as the author rightly notes, a movement to a new business model, and he's right that "selling out" has largely left our lexicon since then:
It’s striking. Forty years ago, even 20 years ago, a young person’s first thought, or even second or third thought, was certainly not to start a business. That was selling out—an idea that has rather tellingly disappeared from our vocabulary.
But I think there's a more important reason for that. "Selling out" used to mean that a band was abandoning one of the little labels so many cherished for a major. People were passionate about those labels—Dischord, Matador, Thrill Jockey, Touch & Go, etc.—and a move like that felt like an abandonment of something just on the verge of exploding and choosing a paycheck over principle. "Selling out" was also applied to those who sold a song for use in advertising, a move I don't think many begrudge bands for anymore due to the paradigm shifts in the music industry. And I think the larger idea that starting a business 20 years ago was considered selling out is a misnomer. I doubt anyone accused Fugazi's Ian MacKaye of selling out when he started Dischord in 1980, or told Aaron Rose he was selling out when he opened Alleged Gallery in the early '90s. Selling out would have been signing with a major label or taking a job curating art at the The Met.

And this leads me to a the generalized character at the heart of the article—the "hipster" that the author feels is "a lot more representative [of the Millennial Generation] than most of them care to admit." The definition is bandied about and applied to many people, but I'm still not sure what exactly a "hipster" is (though perhaps n+1's What Was the Hipster could help), and putting it in the same category as the counterculture figures that preceded it seems problematic to me. Beatniks, hippies and punks were all actively participating in larger countercultures, and defined themselves with those movements. The one predominant characteristic of a "hipster" is that nobody self-identifies with it. It's always a label attached to others, and usually with a heavy dose of derision. As such, it's not really a counterculture that anybody's participating in or defining themselves with as much as it's, if anything, an alternative lifestyle loosely defined. I do agree with the author that this lifestyle and its bohemian values were heavily influenced by the baby boomers and "Bobo in Paradise" parents that David Brooks wrote about a decade ago.

But outside of the skinny pants and fixed gear bicycles, the irony and the vanity, the defining character traits of the so-called "hipster" lifestyle—being young, urban, fashionable, artistic, and entrepreneurial—are mostly seen as positives. And I think the aversion to the label "hipster" is an aversion to labels and definitions in general. This generation hasn't fully defined itself and doesn't want to be defined by others—even their peers. Statistically, it's more likely to switch jobs many times, move to new cities, to freelance, start a business of the their own or work for themselves. I don't think of this as the end of history of counterculture in any major way, but as the rise of many independent yet interconnected subcultures that are entering the popular culture in a way that mirrors how previous countercultures were absorbed and watered down—except that today's subcultures seem to be entering it with more artistic and economic control and largely on their own terms.

The characteristic art form of our age is not the business plan; it is do-it-yourself, independent local production, scale and control. Most people I know didn't start with a business plan and still don't have one. They started with a vision and are working every day to realize it. They made the decision to strike out on their own and practice their art, craft or trade—and hope people value their vision enough to pay for it. My wife, a self-employed photographer, began Ellagraph Studios. My friend dwellephant is a working artist. My friends Daniel and Maria run Ball & Biscuit, the best catering company in Milwaukee. My neighbors run Orchard Street Press, an eco-friendly printing company. I could go on and on, and wouldn't be able to find a "hipster" in the bunch—just a lot of hard-working, creative and passionate people.

If I could sum up the generation, it would be with the once annoying labels "indie" or "underground" (which became so annoying simply by virtue of being such ubiquitous labels). The indie rock and the underground dance music and hip-hop that grew up in the '80s and '90s dominated the subcultures that we ourselves grew up in, and have since turned into more codified and sustainable (though possibly not very profitable) small business models. That simple yet profound change in how we learn about, purchase and consume (in the best sense of that word) the music that so shaped us during our formative years has fundamentally altered the cultural landscape. The "rockstars" of our generation were closer to us, more accessible, usually a part of our artistic communities. And alongside the independent music sprang up independent labels, music venues, galleries, coffee shops, screen printing operations, skate shops, DIY arts and crafts fairs. The internet then came along and kicked it all into overdrive.

The author says "the hipster ethos contains no element of rebellion, rejection or dissent." But I think that that is what so defines the generation. It's a rebellion of production, a commercial rejection and inner dissent. It's a rejection of corporate principles and a simple consumer choice for the alternative. It's a generation not fundamentally different in attitude than its predecessors, but in the solutions it offers. The heretics of today saw previous generations' protests and rebellions crushed in the street, so they rented the abandoned buildings beside it and started trying to build something new inside them. It's in some ways a return to mom-and-pop capitalism.

Sure, you can call it "generation sell," but I think "selling" is a dirty word rather deliberately used. It could easily be called "generation create" or "generation present." It does often seem as if everyone nowadays has something to present, advertise, market or "sell," but by-and-large I think it was and is being done with good art, the right intention and decent manners. And if one of the results of that shift is that people fault this generation for being polite and pleasant, well... being the affable generation it is, I think they'd be okay with that.