The Vulgar Generation

Huh-huh. Huh-huh. You might not realize it yet, but that's the sound of American culture dying.

Just take a look at the October 11 issue of Newsweek: Beavis and Butt-head have made the cover. After this, we can probably look forward to seeing them as Time's Men of the Year, or nude on the front of Vanity Fair.

They're part of a story called "Stupid TV Tricks: The Billion-Dollar Battle to Insult Your Intelligence," which views MTV's animated anti-heroes as harbingers of the downward intellectual spiral of our generation: "They are specifically our losers, totems of an age of decline and nonachievement." And you thought they were just annoying.

The Newsweek story is just the latest installment in the mainstream media's attempt to figure out our generation. Why this insatiable curiosity? Perhaps because our parents are scared of us. They see us riding the wave of an increasingly violent, vulgar culture that threatens to engulf everything in its path.

So media opinion-makers have been grasping at straws for several years in a desperate attempt to define us. Most have jumped onto the bandwagon of author Douglas Coupland, so now this much-maligned generation does have a name--or rather, doesn't: Generation X. That's pretty weak--it's like slaving over a painting for years and then calling it "Untitled." Supposedly, the name reflects our generation's lack of unifying identity, our sense of rootlessness. Translation: Coupland is just as clueless as the rest of them.

Nevertheless, Generation X has been anointed as the "On the Road" of our time. The media loves it because Coupland is thoughtful enough to turn the margins into a manual for the new age, full of improvised jargon and invented slang: "McJob," "recurving" and "cryptotechnophobia." Never mind that no human tongue, including Coupland's, has ever spoken these words; they are comforting grist for the media mill.

In substance, Generation X paints a fairly bleak self-portrait. The narrator drones on about his inane life, his inane friends and their inane lives, and his own pseudo-dys-functional family. The nominal plot revolves around three friends in Palm Springs, California, who spend most of their time swapping wacked-out parables that are supposed to contain within them, somewhere, the meaning of modern life (or lack thereof). The message? You guessed it, Butt-head: it sucks. Everything sucks. "Our Parents Had More," one chapter wails; for good measure, Coupland throws in an appendix of figures illustrating that, in fact, they did.

Instead of culture, we have "the detritus of American cultural memory"--in other words, we've watched too much TV. Coupland's protagonists seem to be intent on demonstrating we are incapable of doing anything about anything. In the final analysis, Generation X paints a disturbing picture of American youth that is "pathologically ambivalent."

Having swallowed this view of our generation whole, Newsweek and its ilk are constantly on the lookout for further signs of our generation's decline. Surely, the pent-up frustrations of these angry young people cannot last forever as harmless apathy. Some day, something's going to snap.

So for those looking for a dark side to the nameless generation, poor Beavis and Butthead are the perfect bogeymen. They represent our youthful contingent--more irreverent and more disturbing than their adult for-bears. These little nihilists are Generation X with an attitude, flaunting every imaginable form of repulsive behavior, and then some. They insult their elders. They torture small animals. They have poor personal hygiene. They think everything "sucks." The fact that we love it must be proof of our depravity.

So are we doomed? Well, there can be no question that the Beavis and Butt-head phenomenon is ubiquitous. Laugh that moronic laugh in any group and people will instantly know what you are doing--and will most likely join in. In 1992, when the "Wayne's World" movie hit its peak of popularity, it was hard to get through a conversation without using the word "not." Like Wayne and Garth, Beavis and Butt-head have become a point of cultural reference.

To many, this seems a disturbing development. Certainly Newsweek thinks so; a profound foreboding lurks behind its expose of "loser television," of which Beavis and Butthead are only the latest installment. Shaking their heads, culture-watchers seem to say, "How sad that the only thing the youth of today have in common is the pathetic TV show they watch." And since we are what we watch...well, just see for yourselves.

The fact is, we do live in a culture that is defined by its diversity--not "diversity" in the sense of a big, happy, multicultural family, but in the sense of fragmentation and separateness. In such a world, it is remarkable that we have anything at all in common. Perhaps at one time, religion or nationalism might have been a source of unity. But such things are not really possible in the modern age, and to a large extent, pop culture has, for better or worse, become that great unifier.

People who know nothing about each other have a few things in common; if our generation watches too much TV, at least we all watch too much TV. Television is our language, transcending all geographical and intellectual boundaries. If we can't always communicate perfectly, at least we can all laugh like morons together. For ages, great leaders of all kinds have failed to bring us together; Beavis and Butt-head have some how succeeded. That's cool.

In an interesting sidebar, Newsweek concluded that the precipitous decline of our generation's culture could be blamed on--guess who--Harvard. Our best and brightest are abandoning their productive careers as high-priced lawyers and are instead flocking in droves to write TV comedy.

Newsweek views this as a horrible tragedy; the article speaks of "the waste of their $100,000 educations and the frittering away on once promising intellectual gifts." Here's how it describes one Harvard alum's abandonment of his graduate studies in mathematics at Berkeley to write for Beavis and Butt-head: "You could read the entire story of American decline in that one career move."

That's hardly fair. If anything, the phenomenon shows that Harvard's spawn has, as always, a keen sense of which way the winds of change are blowing. "Underachievement [is] suddenly fashionable," Newsweek laments. But in this age, who's got a better shot at changing the world: one more addition to a horde of hungry litigators, or a writer whose vignette for "The Simpsons" will be watched and repeated by millions? "Someone has to entertain America," declared one Harvard man. Ah, duty.

Considering Harvard's origins, this new wrinkle should be no surprise. This university began, in the misty days of our colonial past by training ministers to spread the gospel in the wilderness. So it is only right that it should row prepare them to spread the new gospel of pop culture, with folks like Beavis and Butt-head as their animated messiahs.

After all, the new culture isn't all angst and evil. Was it not the venerable Bill and Ted themselves who commanded, "Be excellent to each other?" Words to live by, without a doubt. So, brothers and sisters, let us all join cable lines, flip on MTV, and together chant the mantra of our generation: Huh-huh. Huh-huh.