Gen Xers are used to taking our bad news straight, even when it’s spun with sugar. We always knew our childhood dogs didn’t go to a farm upstate, our parents weren’t getting back together, and Ms. Hill would never come out with another album. It’s fine. We’re still good. So let’s cut through the cotton candy: This is your last issue of The Arrow.
We had a great deal of fun producing this newsletter, and we hope you had a great deal of fun reading it. But ours is not to question why, ours is to declare Nevermind. So let’s get this issue started with a reminder of how many ways our little latchkey generation has changed the world we’ve passed through—and why we deserve to keep celebrating even after the party ends.
—The Arrow Editors
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Remember educational films from the ’50s — those deadly serious docu-shorts about the things in life we took for granted, like shoes or corn? Without corn, the narrator assured you, you wouldn’t have airplanes, or cereal spoons, or the desk you’re sitting at, or the whiskey that made it necessary for your teacher to kill this half hour.
Generation X is exactly like corn. We’re largely ignored in the broader culture, disregarded in polling, a demilitarized zone between the boomers and the millennials. But we’ve actually contributed a great deal to the society that has spurned us.
Let’s take a moment to acknowledge a few things that wouldn’t exist without us.
1. The Reese’s Peanut Butter Cupsification of pop and hip-hop
Before the algorithm and streaming music, there was the radio. Country music was played on the country station, rock on the rock station, hip-hop on the rap stations. What nobody thought to do was mash it all together. But then came Run-DMC with “Walk This Way” and Sinead O’Connor with “I Want Your (Hands on Me),” featuring a guest verse by up-and-comer MC Lyte. Within a few years, not only was it de rigueur for a pop song to have a rap break, but the concept of white stations and Black stations felt archaic.
2. Sports, taken to the extreme
In the late 1970s, a drought-stricken California forced its citizens to empty their swimming pools, and the latchkey kids of the Golden State had no choice but to innovate. They grabbed their skateboards, turned those empty pools into rudimentary versions of what we now know as half-pipes, and developed some tricks. Now most of this stuff is in the actual Olympics.
In 1994, Swarthmore College student Justin Hall created a website called Justin’s Links From the Underground. The web log (or blog), which can still be found at links.net, was a journal of sorts: an account of his daily activities, a roundup of campus news and hyperlinks to fun stuff he found online. Blogging would become a way for young writers to self-publish, develop a voice and find an audience. Blogging platforms like LiveJournal would give way to a microblogging platform called Twitter. As toxic as social media can be, you still have the chance to connect and click with a total stranger on the other side of the world.
4. The music festival as we know it
Music festivals as a concept aren’t a Gen X invention. But the modern age of the music festival really got rolling in 1991, when Perry Ferrell created Lollapalooza, a touring festival that reflected the spirit of the moment. That first year was pretty rock-heavy, but subsequent years got more diverse. A young fan could show up to see his favorite band, Cypress Hill, and end up with a new favorite band called Pavement. Now the warm months are chock-full of festivals: Bonnaroo, Bumbershoot, BottleRock, Outside Lands and literally dozens more. And they have a curatorial power Lollapalooza and the algorithm never will.
5. Alternative comedy
There was once a narrow lane for how stand-up comedy could look, and a razor-thin one for what it could be: setup and punchline, personal but not too, keep it moving. The young comedians who did not look the part of the Tonight Show comic — too female or too queer or too not white — created their own scenes in the ’80s and ’90s in New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco. Margaret Cho, Janeane Garofalo, Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman, Kathy Griffin: They opened the medium up to personal, confessional storytelling, to cabaret, to experimentation with the form beyond its familiar cadences.
6. Comic books as our new global religion
When Comic Book Guy made his first appearance on The Simpsons in 1991, comics were still a niche business. Kid stuff. Now it’s 2023, and if you’re writing a screenplay, you’d better find a way to work in a Harley Quinn origin story. The 2008 Iron Man movie, masterminded by Gen Xer Jon Favreau, has metastasized into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an empire run by Gen Xer Kevin Feige across theaters, streaming services and game consoles. What was nerdy and niche is now as universal and ubiquitous as a can of Coca-Cola. I bet Comic Book Guy hates it.
7. A new, chaotic and effective kind of political organizing
In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the disease went more or less unaddressed by the federal government. In fact, the first public mention of it by the Reagan administration — at a press conference in October 1982 — was shockingly lighthearted; the press pool giggled at the words “gay plague.” Larry Kramer wasn’t laughing. His confrontational style got him ousted from Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the agency he’d cofounded. But a generation who’d grown up after Stonewall shared his anger and refused to take the indifference lying down. ACT UP got the message out about safe sex and got effective antiretroviral medications through the approval process. Their impact can be felt through Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street and the work of Greta Thunberg.
8. All the information, all the time, like it or not
When I graduated college in 1994, I moved right to New York City, where my friend Mike had a job writing code for the Sony Music website. At the time, I had no idea what the word “website” meant. My understanding of the internet came entirely from Prodigy, a rudimentary content delivery network. But then one Saturday afternoon, Mike and I went up to his office, he turned his monitor on, and after that 20-minute connection process, he opened Netscape and typed in “http://www.yahoo.com.”
“There,” he said, “search for anything.”
“Anything?” I asked.
“Anything at all. Someone will have made a website for it.”
I did not believe him, but I typed “Small Wonder” and hit return. And there it was, in the blink of an eye, if your eye-blinking process takes 90 seconds: a fan site devoted to the weird syndicated ’80s sitcom about the robot girl and the family she terrorized. It has gotten faster, it has evolved, and now, thanks to Gen Xers Sergey Brin and Larry Page, we Google things instead of Yahooing them.
8 Things That Gen X Gave the World
From blogs to activism, extreme sports to alternative comedy, here’s what our generation made possible