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Maha Atal ’08: A mainstream that is hard to pinpoint

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

OXFORD, England – My father recently asked me to explain the word “indie” – a term he keeps seeing in magazines but can’t attach a definition to. I played him a selection of my iTunes library – everything from The Smiths to The Strokes – and saw him frown.

“It’s so mild! Where’s the protest rock? You can’t dance to this!”

I tried to explain that at the concerts I attend, people wave lighters and sing along, rather than dance and shout in a socialist rage. I tried to explain that most of my friends aren’t too concerned with “sticking it to the man.” This only compounded my father’s disillusionment.

My mother and I have had similar conversations about politics. Reading newspaper articles about how increasing numbers of female college graduates want to be stay-at-home mothers, my working mother wonders what she and her peers were fighting for when they burned their bras 30 years ago.

Our generation, my parents complain, doesn’t seem to be fighting for anything. We are apathetic, cynical and artistically barren. How, they ask, can the older generation be more radical than the rising youth?

The New York Times’ David Brooks posed a similar question in his recent column on hipster parents – 30-something moms and dads who try to impose indie music and leftist politics on their children (“Mosh Pit Meets Sandbox,” Feb. 25). These days, Brooks writes, “There is nothing more reassuringly traditionalist than the counterculture.”

Brooks is right, partially. The logic of setting established traditionalism against a youth counterculture has collapsed with our generation. But he seems to think it’s because our generation has lost the will to make change.

Our lack of countercultural radicalism is not a sign of unoriginality. It’s an act of radical non-commitment.

Youth movements from the 1950s to the 1990s, though always championing the rhetoric of individualism against an impersonal “system,” were also always about group identity – young people have traditionally banded together against a clearly identified “establishment” consisting of the government and their parents.

Generation Y takes individualism more literally – our act of youth rebellion has been to reject all allegiances, be they political, social, cultural or even generational.

Most of my female friends believe in gender equality, but few call themselves “feminists.” Those of my friends who dress in skinny jeans and listen to Franz Ferdinand would be unlikely to call themselves “hipsters.” Indeed, the most musically minded people I know roll their eyes at such a label.

At Brown, we debate politics constantly, but my most politically savvy friends aren’t registered members of a political party – they’re all Independents. True passion for a cause – for Generation Y – is personal. It goes beyond the labels that set old against young, culture against counterculture.

In a paradoxical way, the unifying cultural preference of our generation is to reject the need for a unifying culture. In the age of the Internet, of YouTube and MySpace, how could it be otherwise?

For the last several decades, it has always been possible to identify major trends, to single out a few dominant countercultural voices – underground rock groups or populist politicians – as separate from and opposed to an established culture they sought to critique. Once upon a time, a well-meaning parent could switch on MTV or open Rolling Stone and be reasonably sure to find out what his teenage child was listening to.

These days, there are no clear demarcations. As a group, young people in America don’t turn en masse to any one TV show or blog for news, music or fashion. In today’s decentralized world, where a band can rise to fame through Web downloads and never appear on MTV, every individual can have a personalized encounter with pop culture. Similarly, we customize our news, setting our homepage preferences to report only on the subjects that interest us.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to identify where the mainstream ends and the “underground” begins – that’s just another demarcation that has disappeared in this age of absolutist individualism. When there isn’t a clear cultural “establishment,” there’s no need for a counterculture to resist it.

But that doesn’t mean we’re a generation without ideas. Rejecting the hyperbolic radicalism of youth movements past is an ideological choice. Our individualism, grounded in a personal and decentralized encounter with the outside world, feeds into more individualized but no less passionate responses to questions of artistic or political import.

Our “feminism” is of the “Sex and the City variety.” The struggles of feminists past are an empty cause for a generation that takes it for granted that individual women will decide the balance of career and family for themselves – a generation that sees no inherent contradiction between liberation and tradition in the first place.

Our politics is Independent (with a capital I) because it’s about the search for candidates who are individuals and, like us, disregard organizing categories. Our favorite politicians are either centrists who can take the best from all sides or renegades who appear outside the system altogether.

Our musical tastes are diverse, and artists like OutKast or Gnarls Barkley succeed because they are able to blend genres. They play to an audience whose encounter with culture is based in eclectism. When everything links to everything else, musical genres and political movements are linked to their seeming opposites.

David Brooks believes the years of revolutionary youth are past. But I wonder if, since the idea of radical youth is no longer revolutionary, our rejection of such countercultural labels is its own brand of nonconformity.

Maha Atal ’08 is really bad at “Categories.”

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