Smells like wishful thinking
So I’m doing some research on generations, their characteristics, and their use of technology for a work project, and I came across an interesting illustration of the Baby Boomer v. Gen X dynamic.
Much of the research on Gen X has either lamented (Baby Boomers) or defended (Gen Xers themselves) the alleged apathy, laziness, and wandering nature of Xers in comparison to the supposedly strong Boomer work ethic and moral sense. Granted much of this was written well before Gen Xers starting turning 40 and acting more like old people.
I ran across an interesting 2007 article by Patrick Neate where he talked about being an aging Gen Xer and reflecting on what factors shape the Gen X moral compass:
“It was mostly the Boomers who fought for civil rights and against apartheid, the Boomers who enjoyed the Summer of Love and won the feminist argument (if not the practice), the Boomers who first marched for gay pride. Good for them. All their achievements, however, didn’t stop them being racist, sexist and homophobic. … And Generation X looks on, somewhat bemused. You see, thanks to the Boomers efforts we are typically Natural Pluralists who accept diversity. Of course, this doesn’t make us less racist, sexist or homophobic either, but it does mean that such impulses are transmitted across motherboards hardwired to value difference. This frequently leads to some confusion and even the occasional short circuit. But, in confusing times, it’s OK to be confused.
I would argue that it is our Instinctive Relativism and Natural Pluralism that spawn the accusations of amorality. But it’s simply not true that we don’t believe in right and wrong; rather that we’re often not sure what they are.”
Many other authors, sociologists, and people who supposedly know about these things echo this idea that Gen Xers, while more diverse, don’t take up causes the way Boomers did because for all their effort, we look around the world and question how much has changed. Hence, the famous Gen X cynicism as opposed to Boomer activism.
So then I was looking up the lyrics to the chorus for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” because I think it would be an interesting prelude to the chapter on Gen X, and I find a reference to an article where Kurt Cobain explained how he got the idea for the song and what it’s about on Wikipedia. Because I’m old school and I don’t want to quote Wikipedia, I looked up the reference and tracked the original quote to an article in The Seattle Times that was supposedly published the day Nevermind was released. So I looked up an article mentioning Nirvana published around that day.
Instead of finding the Cobain quote I was looking for I found this from music writer Patrick MacDonald:
“The first single, the powerful ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ challenges the apathy of today’s young people, arguing that racism and sexism are rampant and calling for a return of ’60s-style awareness and protest.
With an aggressive style reminiscent of punk and thrash metal, Nirvana makes its points with cynicism and mocking humor.”
Not what I was looking for. What I was looking for was the article where MacDonald included the quotation cited in Wikipedia from a book about Nirvana:
“We still feel as if we’re teenagers because we don’t follow the guidelines of what’s expected of us to be adults [. . .] It also has kind of a teen revolutionary theme.”
Ultimately, I found the actual article. The interview took place about a month after the album was released when Cobain returned to Seattle after touring in Europe, but this portion of it wasn’t published in the The Seattle Times until April 5, 2004 – the 10-year anniversary of Cobain’s death. Here is the interview reconstructed from MacDonald’s notes:
“I asked what “Teen Spirit” means.
‘What do you think it means?’ he replied. I said I thought it was about a party, with sketches of people there.
‘Hmmm, interesting,’ Cobain said. ‘But that’s not what it’s about.
‘It’s basically just about friends. The friends that I have now, in a way. We still feel as if we’re teenagers because we don’t follow the guidelines of what’s expected of us to be adults. We still screw around and have a good time. It also has a kind of a, like a, teen revolutionary theme to it, too.’
I asked where the title came from.
‘Well, my friend and I were in my bedroom, drunk,’ he says, laughing. ‘We’re having a real fine time talking about all kinds of revolutionary things, and we ended up destroying my bedroom. We ended up throwing my art supplies all over, and paint, and breaking the mirror and tearing my bed up. It was a lot of fun.
‘And so we were writing all over the wall with paint, and my friend wrote “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit,” and I took that as a compliment, and what she actually meant by it was that I smelt like this deodorant that is for teenagers called Teen Spirit. She’s seen that on television, and I guess I stunk that night.’
This is not a call for ‘60s-style protest. It’s not challenging apathy. It’s about getting distracted from revolutionary things by drunkenness and not wanting to grow up. There may be some self loathing and self mocking about being contagiously stupid and screaming “Here we are now entertain us,” but the music writer’s need to call it a protest song is just so Baby Boomer and, ultimately, kind of self indulgent. Although, to be fair, MacDonald wrote his review of the album before his conversation with Cobain, I think he must have really wanted the music to be about challenging –isms, and this made me smirk and issue a Gen X “meh.”
You can read the song lyrics and see what you think. I’ve always liked the song and still listen to it, but I hardly think it’s “What’s Goin’ On” in a call for social justice and change.