Even Generation X Falls into the Trap of Nostalgiaers

August 16, 2015 | By Adam Richter

Historian Neil Howe said he used to joke that the music of youth becomes "elevator music" 40 or 50 years later.

Think about that when you consider the dark and depressing soundtrack of Generation X. We grew up on gangsta rap and grunge. Can you imagine turning on an oldies station and listening to "Head Like A Hole?" How about "Lithium?"

I shudder to think of such depressing scenarios, but I know that nostalgia for the pop culture of my youth is already here. The only upside is that it's finally starting to crowd out the nostalgia for all things baby boomer. Those of us who grew up in the 1970s and '80s had to live in a world where so many things were framed in the context of the previous decades. We had "Happy Days" to remind us of the 1950s but later, the 1960s became the decade everyone talked about. Music from that era never went away. Even the Monkees - a band from a TV show that may or may not have played their own instruments - had a huge reunion tour.

Every generation commits the offense of looking back wistfully upon the past, under the delusion that bygone days are better than the time in which they're living. Today's music is always worse than it was 20, 30 or even 50 years ago.

This applies to more than just music, but for the sake of simplicity, that's my focus here.

Generation X grew up surrounded by nostalgia, but not our own. For boomers it began in the early 1970s with "American Graffiti," a fond remembrance of the 1950s, and lasted well into - actually, it's still going on. When I was growing up, the shadow of the 1960s loomed over everything. If you think jokes about the Rolling Stones playing to the geriatric set are funny now, keep in mind they've been around for the past 25 years. The jokes, that is.

Then there was Woodstock: No one in Generation X was old enough to attend, but we were all told that we missed out on the greatest cultural event in the history of everything, ever. That was an oft-implied message passed down from our elders: The country's best days are behind you, kids. Too bad you missed it.

Once I was able to cut through the weeds of this past, I was able to discover the pop culture of MY generation. Let the aging hippies keep The Beatles and Bob Dylan; I had found Nirvana and Elliott Smith.

I promised myself I wouldn't cling to it the way our elders had. I would let my tastes evolve and never - I vowed - never would I complain that the music/TV/movies/books/youth of today paled in comparison to when I was growing up.

But it turns out that we Gen Xers were no better. The new century was barely standing on two legs when shows like "I Love The (fill in the decade)" ran constantly on VH-1. Today we have TWO hashtags that celebrate the past: #throwbackthursday and #flashbackfriday.

The problem is, nostalgia blinds us to the present. The current generation has its own musical visionaries, its own great artists upon whom we'll look back in 30 years with wonder and admiration. Madonna has given way to Lady Gaga. Garth Brooks failed at moving from country to pop, but Taylor Swift excelled. Drake has replaced Dr. Dre.

We shouldn't ignore the great artists of the past. But we often fool ourselves into thinking that great artists are ONLY in the past. That's an illusion. When they look back on the music of their youth, boomers likely recall Jimi Hendrix. But they don't think of Tiny Tim. Gen Xers might recall Nirvana. But they won't get wistful for The Soup Dragons.

Nostalgia is just selective memory. The only problem with kids' music today is that everyone else is too old for it.

I recognize that it has a powerful pull. As I write this I'm listening to old Pearl Jam songs and eagerly awaiting the release of the new "Star Wars" movie.

But I hope that Generation X clings less tightly to the past than our predecessors did. I'm not ready for the Muzak version of "Rape Me."