Licking the Carcass Clean: Wayne's World, Nevermind, and the Failure of Generation X
"Contract or no, I will not bow to any sponsor." - Wayne Campbell (Gen Xer Extraordinaire)
For those of you not old enough to remember (or who deem yourselves too sophisticated to trifle with silly Saturday Night Live spin-off movies), Wayne's World was a comedy movie released in 1992, fictionally documenting the rise of a Chicago public access television host, Wayne Campbell, and his goofy companion, Garth Algar. After struggling through a laundry list of futile, menial jobs at local fast food joints and gas stations, Wayne has resolved to dedicate himself to the success of Wayne's World and accomplish his dream of making the show into a full-time gig.
To save a lengthy summary, I'll just say that his dreams are made a reality when he signs a Faustian contract with a slimy television executive to broadcast the show to a much wider audience. Almost immediately, this walking suit begins to manipulate the format of the program and integrate advertising into several segments to create larger revenue shares for the network.
Wayne and Garth's DIY attitude and blase' approach to Wayne's World are in direct opposition to the corporate media agenda of their new parent company, resulting in a conflict between the hosts of the show and their producer. The struggle culminates in a hilarious, tongue-in-cheek series of scenes in which Wayne and Garth shamelessly plug various products (Pizza Hut, Pepsi, and Reebok) while waxing poetic about the evils of modern marketing strategies.
For many people, this is the part of the film that has endured for the past two decades. It's more than just comedic genius; the argument transcends fleeting humor and symbolizes a critical moment of the period in which Wayne's World was filmed. The children born during the counter-culture movement of the '60s and '70s were growing up and shunning the bourgeois decadence of their parent's generation.
At the same time, digital media was in its infancy and would soon revolutionize the way that we ingest and interpret diverse forms of marketing. The battle lines were clearly drawn, but the end result was a foregone conclusion.
As usual, music is the best way of framing the discussion.
In 1992, I was 8-years old. My elementary school was set in a small town in mid-Michigan, and I had very little exposure to the "real" world. I rode my bike; I shot hoops; I read choose-your-own-adventure books; I listened to my mother's Supertramp tapes, I fought with my brother, and I had a crush on the neighbor girl down the street (to my mother's indulgent dismay and my father's unbridled pride). I wore ridiculously colored polos to school with elastic-waste jeans and LA Gears. I was your standard sheltered white American kid growing up in a relatively carefree environment. In the fall of that year, my older sister brought home a new CD by a band I'd never heard of that would totally reorganize and reshape the way that I viewed the world. The CD was Nevermind.
Don't worry, I'm not writing the 548,982nd review worshiping the album, or the band. Sure, it may be the greatest album of all-time; it was earth-shattering, it was ethereal, it was innovative, it was violent, but I'm more interested in the cultural damage it caused.
When Nevermind broke grunge to a massive trans-continental audience, America was introduced to a small group of pissed off musicians living in isolation in Seattle. These artists had been born and raised on their parent's massive assemblage of great '60s rock, but had lately become disappointed with the overall direction of the genre... so they picked up guitars and did something about it. The result was the last great rock and roll upheaval we're likely to ever witness.
Nevermind became so big so fast that the band's record company, Geffen, literally couldn't keep up with the demand. The album was flying off the shelves at a rate of 300,000 copies per week. The world hadn't fallen so passionately in love with a band since The Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan. Before you could say George Herbert Walker Bush, America was transformed into grunge nation, and everyone was eager to get in on the fun. This was the greatest media marketing opportunity since the Vietnam War!
Over the next year, every single aspect of "grunge" would be ruthlessly deconstructed, branded, and exploited for commercial gain. Macy's began selling ripped jeans, Cameron Crowe made Singles, and Candlebox signed a major label deal. Most of these things seemed like a good idea at the time, but, ultimately, they all contributed to the untimely death of the aesthetic. I say aesthetic because grunge was so much more than just drop D tuning. Grunge was a collective attempt at giving corporate America the finger; it wasn't about appearing in Gap commercials or selling Dr. Martens. Unfortunately, for everyone involved, it turns out that mass unified rebellion is a very difficult thing to coordinate without the popularly elected leader blowing his head off.
Ultimately, it all boiled down to everyone getting far too big for their britches far too fast and the vultures that be quickly swooping down to lick the carcass clean. Once they got a taste for the meat, the decline of the aesthetic was merely academic. In his book, X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything From Sucking, Jeff Gordinier sums the whole situation up quite nicely, "If Nevermind changed the world, the world changed back pretty fast."
Gen X's Failed Rebellion
By the time 1990 had blissfully rolled around, Generation X was furious! They had been forced to endure the '80s, and they weren't happy about it.
They had dreams of bucking the system and creating a new world where the individual could reign as king in harmony with love and trust for the larger community. Theirs was a strange brew with equal parts Ayn Rand and Hunter Thompson. As is usually the case, historically, the idealism of the individual couldn't withstand the exhaustive and persistent measures taken by the media to corrupt and commodify the purity of the age. Rather than resist the material onslaught, Generation X chose to wave the white flag and accept the tender embrace of The Man.
Once I'd begun purposefully ripping holes in the knees of my Levi's and taping Rolling Stone posters of Eddie Vedder to my locker, the Gen X revolution had ceased and commercialism again reigned supreme. We blinked and we missed it. It's fun to go back and revisit American Psycho and Groundhog Day, because they transcend their time and place; they defy categorization because they speak to the heart of the human experience. But I'm not sure anything new was firmly established by this generation other than the propagation of stuff.
During the '90s, Disney was revived, ESPN became the Machivellian arbiter of sports information, and Bill Clinton made extra-marital relations an acceptable practice. Americans rolled their collective eyes as they took a colossal sip of a triple mocha latte from Starbucks. ("Aw shucks.") Cable television enslaved our youth (me) and our education system began its persistent decline. In short, Gen X accelerated consumerism through apathy and turned it into an art form all its own.
The era produced some amazing art that will be archived among the greatest ever produced in this country (Superunknown, Pulp Fiction, Snow Crash), but the ideals were cashed in for flannels from Saks Fifth Avenue and Seven Mary Three albums from Best Buy. Nike won; Abercrombie won; MTV won; Lunchables won; the consumer thought they were winning, but they were only contributing to the death of a truly singular era of expression.