Before it was the name of a Douglas Coupland book, and before it was the designation of people born from 1965 to 1980, Generation X was a band. Formed in 1976 during the first wave of UK punk by soon-to-be pop icon Billy Idol, Generation X also included bassist Tony James. When Idol went solo in the early 1980s, James went on to form Sigue Sigue Sputnik.
If you were looking to get Cliff’s Notes for the 1980s in musical form, you’d be hard pressed to find a better exemplar than Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s 1986 debut, Flaunt It! Tony James described them as “hi-tech sex, designer violence and the fifth generation of rock and roll.” A product of punk in the same way that Big Audio Dynamite and Devo were, their techno-pop sound was laced with samples from movies and media. Even after all of the work Trevor Horn had done defining a new sound for the decade, Sigue Sigue Sputnik was still exciting. At the time, for better or worse, they sounded like the future. In a move of unfortunate prescience, the band sold brief advertisements that played between the songs on the record. Ones for i-D magazine and Studio Line from L’Oréal share space with fake ones for The Sputnik Corporation and a Sputnik video game that never materialized. James touted the spots as commercial honesty, adding, “our records sounded like adverts anyway.” Where the punk that preceded them railed against the dominant culture, Sputnik was out to to mirror it, to consume it, to corrode it from the inside. To interpolate an old Pat Cadigan story, the former was trying to kill it, the latter to eat it alive.
It would take Billy Idol a decade to embrace technology in the cyberpunk fashion that Sigue Sigue Sputnik had done in the 1980s. The reaction to Idol’s 1993 concept record, titled simply Cyberpunk, is perhaps the best example of competing gen-X attitudes. The Information Superhighway, as it was often called at the time, was just making inroads into homes around the world, and its technology-based, cyberpunk, D.I.Y. influence was also creeping into the culture at large. In his 1996 book Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, Mark Dery describes Idol’s Cyberpunk as “a bald-faced appropriation of every cyberpunk cliché that wasn’t nailed down” (p. 76). In contrast, our friends and O.G. cyberpunks themselves Gareth Branwyn and Mark Frauenfelder consulted Idol and were involved in various aspects of the record’s release.
One of the unspoken yet central tensions among members of generation X is this idea of cultural ownership. It’s the old battle of the underground versus the mainstream, but it’s also the desire to introduce one to the other, to be the one who shepherds something from subcultural obscurity to mainstream success. We might be the last generation to feel these contradictions of capitalism. We might be the last generation for whom the concepts of underground and mainstream have any real meaning. The terms are still in use, but they don’t denote the divisions of marketshare they once did.
In another example of this cultural shift, LL Cool J came to fame in the mid 1980s with the Rick Rubin-produced records Radio in 1985 and Bigger and Deffer in 1987. The scrappy rawness of the young Cool J’s raps over Rubin’s reductive production proved irresistible to both the streets and the charts. By the time he released Walking with a Panther in 1989, Cool J was rich. Though the record sold well, it also suffered a backlash. The gen-X led hip-hop community was nonplussed by the overt materialism. Ten years later, during the Big Willie era, conspicuous consumption was one of the prevailing modes of hip-hop culture. From Nas to Biggie to Jay-Z, the contradictions of capitalism were on display, and only the underground was complaining (As I wrote previously, this same shift happened in skateboarding as it grew bigger than ever before during the 1990s).
We rebelled against our parents like every generation does, but the unified nature of that rebellion is a thing of the past. The 1980s were the mainstream’s last stand. With the 24-hour news cycle and the spread of the internet, any sort of monolithic pop culture began splintering irrevocably in the 1990s. Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s slogan was “fleece the world,” and while they railed against it all in 1976, the their punk predecessors the Sex Pistols reunited twenty years later, citing “your money” as the sole reason. These ideas were still somewhat shocking at the respective times, but now they seem downright quaint.