The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Nov 052012

I’ll wear your granddad’s clothes
This is f***’n awesome!
I look incredible.
I’m in this big ass coat
From that thrift shop down the road.

OK, let’s all get our minds of the upcoming election with something completely different.  This post requires just a bit of wind up. In 2006, Bill Strauss and I wrote a book with Pete Markiewicz, Millennials in the Pop Culture.  Somewhere along the way in this book, we explain that every new entertainment genre develops through distinct generational phases.

So to get this started, let’s think back on, e.g., rock ‘n roll. Silent Generation bands got it going in the 1950s, performing mainly to Silent youth fans (Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, Elvis). By the 1960s, as the popularity of rock music grew, the Silent were performing it for mainly Boomer youth fans (Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Peter, Paul, & Mary). By the 1970s, Boomer bands were performing it for Boomer youth, often first-wave performing to last-wave (Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin). By the 1980s, Boomers were performing it for Xer youth fans (Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Madonna). And then by the 1990s, Xers started taking over as performers (Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers) to younger Xers as their fans. And so on.

The point here is that every phase is characterized by some very new innovation in style, mood, or theme. Think, e.g., how the emergence of Boomer fans in the mid- to late-60s made possible the huge emergence of protest rock, soul, and “acid” rock—unknown in the ‘50s, and pushing the “generation gap” to its acrimonious apogee. Or how Boomer performers in the ‘70s gave rise to a new privatism and hedonism unknown to Silent song writers. Or how first-wave Gen-X fans in the ‘80s made possible the new energy and pragmatism of “new wave.” And let’s not even talk about the dark pall of edginess and death descending over the ‘90s once Xers started performing for Xers… Such was the intense collective self-derogation of Gen-Xers that no one even wanted to be “mainstream”—hence terms “alt” and “grunge” rock were born. Along with colors like plaid brown and Raider’s-Jersey black. And so on.

OK, forgive me for this long digression.  Now let me extend this schema to hip hop as an entertainment genre. Hip hop too has had its generational phases, only these have occurred just about exactly one generation behind those of rock:

Phase 1: During most of the 1970s, rap was performed by Boomers for Boomers (“old school” MCs like Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Sugarhill Gang). Hip hop remained an informal and largely unprofitable “street fad”—with a huge emphasis on spontaneity and urban authenticity.

Phase 2: In the 1980s, the genre accelerated once Boomers (like legendary promoter Def Jam’s Russell Simmons) started performing to Xer youth. That’s when Platinum “rap” albums began making real money. Hip hop began pushing the edge on violence, sex, and drugs—and acquiring its trademark edge and swagger. Late in the ‘80s, Boomer performers like Ice T and Public Enemy’s Chuck D (along with some first-wave Xers like Dr. Dre) harnessed hip hop to a critique of white racism and calls for a new-style black assertion. Hip hop had become a national “wedge” issue.

Phase 3: In the early ‘90s, a new and younger batch of Gen-X performers emerged who would eclipse the remaining Boomers, dominate the rest of the decade, and take hip hop to unprecedented levels of notoriety and, ultimately, acceptance. All were born between 1968 and 1972—including MC Ren, Ice Cube, Queen Latifah, Jay-Z, Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, P. Diddy, Notorious B.I.G., Eminem, Missy Elliott—and thus came of age at the height of the violent urban crime wave of the early ‘90s. In their first hit CDs, many glamorized “gangsta rap” and pushed the hip hop lifestyle to outrageous extremes of brutality and cynicism.  Several (most famously, Tupac and B.I.G.) perished in shootouts.

Phase 3.5: The tone started changing in the late ‘90s, with the rapid decline in urban crime and the arrival a new generation of Millennial fans. The most popular hip hop artists began blunting their edges, lightening their messages, accepting their prestige, and taking pride in—even boasting of—their success and affluence.

Phase 4: Since 2000, a gradually aging galaxy of rap artists has been performing to virtually all-Millennial youth audiences. In the early 2000s decade, hip hop was at last accepted by mainstream corporate America (recall Micky D’s break-danced-themed “I’m Lovin’ It” campaign) as a legitimate genre–much as Ronald and Nancy Reagan legitimized rock music twenty years earlier (in 1983) by defending the appearance of the Beach Boys on the Washington Mall. By 2004, billboards began showing rap stars dressed in suits reading the Wall Street Journal. By the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, later-wave Gen-X performers (born, 1973-1981: 50 Cent, Nas, Ja Rule, Ludacris, Kanye West, Ma$e, The Game) were emerging from the shadow of their fabled “elders,” who were now in their mid-30s.

So how to sum up Phase 4? And where does it seem to be leading? Let me quote directly from our 2006 book—as far as we could see at that time:

Regardless of the age or generation of the performers, hip hop is changing during the Millennial youth era in a direction sometimes chided as “hip pop” or “pop rap.”  While rappers like Nelly or Lil’ Kim remind listeners that the genre clearly remains on the dangerous side of the Millennial experience, down and dirty is no longer cutting edge.  In theme, the new style is more open to humor, to manners, to commitment, to religion, and to success.  In sound, it has a denser and more digitally overdubbed “produced” feel.  Background melodies are returning.  The mood is often playful.  Often, today’s rap is hard to distinguish from rhythm and blues.

OK, here finally is where I would like to start a conversation on Phase 5 of hip hop—Millennial rap artists performing for Millennial fans. It’s now the 2010s.  And just to get the conversation going, let me start by introducing the following song by Macklemore (Ben Haggerty, born 1983), a white rapper from the Seattle area. This is—no joke–a rap song about how great it is to buy from a thrift store. I found this hysterical.  Thanks here to Bob Filipczak for the heads up:

Let’s get started. What’s Phase 5 about Macklemore?  I suggest the following:

> OK, he’s white.  Yeah, so were Beastie Boys, Kid Rock, Vanilla Ice, eminem, and a very short list of other Xers.  But among Millennials, hey, it’s no longer pioneering.  It’s just not any big deal.

> He’s very local, a big Seattle guy, often performing locally and writing songs about local culture heroes.  He recently performed a rap-obituary to legendary Seattle baseball announcer Dave Niehaus before 50,000 Mariner fans. Hip-hop meets major league baseball. Conventional loyalty to the community. Yes, Millennial.

> He’s grown his music, merch, and fanbase entirely on his own on the web, without any music label support. If you’re interested in his career, see this interesting bio-video. Sure, he’d love big money and a high national profile—but not unless it grows out of his own talent and connections. He’s clearly patient about success.

> He’s musically eclectic, wandering wildly from the austere Xer rap beat.  In “Let’s Dance,” he merges rap with EDM (Electronic Dance Music), which has become infectiously popular in his generation. I know that some would say EDM is like an auto-tuned cancer, but (again) no one can deny its popularity.

> Ever notice that Millennials just don’t do swag like Xers? It’s there, but somehow just doesn’t have the same don’t-care-if-you-die-or-I-die intensity.  Millennial rappers so often like to reveal their hopes, fears, and vulnerabilities that half the time they veer into R&B or self-deprecating satire. Macklemore talks freely about his problems with addiction—like it’s a real problem, you know, that with maturity he will eventually outgrow.  In “Thrift Shop,” he parodies the vintage hip-hop obsession with costly bling.

> He’s progressive about gender roles—unlike first-wave Gen-X rappers, who were often just about the most homophobic “gangsta” braggarts you could imagine.  Take a look at “Same Love,” certainly too polemical for my tastes (as a song), but a good idea of where his head is at. Meanwhile a new generation of female vocalists (most recently, Angel Haze, in a searing new take off on eminem) is using rap—of all genres—to take devastating aim at mysogyny and rape.

> Finally, let’s explore this whole “thrift shop” angle.  OK, it’s one thing for songs around 1990 to obsess over the luxuries I don’t possess, and for songs by 2000 over luxuries I do now possess. But now, young people can no longer pretend. Hey, we just can’t afford it, but maybe we can still be happy without it.

And if you still doubt that Millennials are turning hip hop in a fundamentally different direction than where Gen-Xers took it, let me just leave you with the following rap video—this one by last-wave Millennial Amor “Lilman” Arteaga (age 9), officially endorsed by the Brooklyn Borough President.

Yeah, that’s right you Xers, “pull ‘em up”!

We are indeed entering a new era.

Be Sociable, Share!
  • Thanks for the interesting commentary and hilarious video Neil. I was born in 1977 and am squarely situated in the latch key, Nirvana, Eminem generation but also very much relate to the Millennials, being only a few years removed from them. I shared the Thrift shop video with a Millenial who works with me, and he shared this video with me from Epic Rap Battles: A great late-wave Gen X video (the creators were born in 1977 and 1979)…enjoy on this election day!

  • Oppan Gangnam-style! That’s the kind of thing my 17-year old shows me when he’s not listening to my old Neil Young and BTO CDs. The technological aspect of this generation almost overwhelms any discussion of musical tastes. They don’t listen to the radio and don’t attend as many concerts as their elders did. It’s all social networks and links.

  • neil ridley

    As a true pedant I have to challenege the confirmation bias of this very intereting work you do. It is after all the joy of internet communication how true procrastinators can coalesce.
    I would venture that Sprigstein b1948 is not the same as madge b 1956. I would also take issue with the boomer to boomer selections as there is a marked lack of British influence. Now before you start on Fleetwood Mac, this was in fact a couple of British guys linking up with a Califorinian couple to re invent what had been a blues band in their first incarnation.
    As old git b1954 I don’t comprehend hip hop which has not penetrated with the similar effect in Britain as you are suggesting.
    We had Lily Allen blaze a trail on marketing herself on the internet with her warblings in 2004/05 time. A thing I enjoy is when I go to youtube to find something to help me through the day from the 60s and 70s an advertisement comes along with saga attached or similar pensioner type money spending opportunity.
    I have not read your, what is I am sure fine lexicon, did you do anythying on Jazz there? I bring this up because back in the day Jazz used to be the thing, and enormous influence, over all the types you cite as generational shift, together with blues of course (my favourite type of music, with various of the classics). I have never really got into Jazz, but they used to fill stadiums. Now though Jazz is listened to by more people than ever, and played at more locations than ever.
    I must say I found the fashion for displaying underwear strange, but not so different to what happened in the late 60s when underwear was being over clothed for the hippies. I felt the idea of the male with low hanging trousers was down to the fact that they could, girls as a different endomorph couldn’t thus challeneging the feminist concepts so prevalant in schooling as expounded by the boomers. I formed the view that look I am a boy and I am different and I can do this.
    As to the recycling of clothes this of course harps back to the 60s fashions of using recycled military wear because it was hardwearing, cheap and upset the older folks because of the links to what had been the war a mere 20 years before.

  • AndrewSpearin

    Digressing into television, Lena Dunham is a fine example of a Millennial creating entertainment for and of her generation.

  • Neil, Your are a genius. First you predicted “Walk off the Earth” two months before they went through the roof. Now Phase 5 jumps up the charts 2 months later. This song this past weekend was ALL over the pop charts and Millennial Hero Ryan Secrest’s stations. You should be in the record business.

  • Simone Hardy

    Generation X – A Lament


    As a Gen X’er, I can’t help but love and loathe the Millennials, just like I love and loathe the Boomers. It’s a bitter mixture of jealousy and admiration, you see.

    It sucks being the rancid meat in a generational sandwich. Generation X grew up being criticized by our square, conformist Artist parents who thought we were all awful world-destroyers (as if we’d get off our slacker butts to even try. HAHAHA!).

    We got to listen to the Boomers regale how much fun THEY had and how wonderful it was to get high at Woodstock while listening to the best musicians of the 20th century. What did we get? Starship. Whitesnake. Cyndi Lauper. God help us. Oh wait, I’m an atheist…or am I? Maybe I’ll be a Buddhist today…or an existentialist. I just can’t decide…and I’m not sure if I even care.

    We’re eventually going to help save the world from annihilation during The Greatest Depression and World War 3, but we’ll get NO credit or reward for it, but hey, life will be fantastic for the Millennials and the Artists while we fade gently into that good night. In our old age we’re going to end up begging for food and money from rich Millennials and a new generation (that WE RAISED) of square, conformist Artists who likely can’t wait for our bitter asses to die so they can have THEIR summer of love and raise their own bitter, alienated generation of Nomads.

    Oh, but I’m not bitter. I mean hey, I can always start a promising career as an obnoxious drunk whilst writing bitter, acerbic novels about how life is a lie and the world as we know it sucks – the next generation of Prophets will eat that shit up and I’ll be a bestselling author like Hemingway – posthumously, of course.

    Millennials and Boomers know what they want – whereas my generation is directionless, cynical, angst-ridden and bitter, though we love to laugh about it anyway. My friends and I have often toasted, “To being screwed when we’re old! YEAH!”

    As a Generation X’er, I can’t decide whether I’m liberal or conservative. I’ve voted for both. I honestly still don’t know – I see merit and fault on both sides – and sometimes I just don’t vote at all, because what’s the point? They’re all the same, right?

    Most of my friends in my generation bitch about how they hate their meaningless jobs, their inept manager and how they never seem to catch a break, so I can see why we’re so maligned. We complain a lot. We think that most people are stupid and selfish and out to rip us off or steal our ideas. We’re the ones who make photo memes of overweight Walmart shoppers wearing leopard print leggings stuffing their faces with ham samples on toothpicks and entitle it, “No Hope for Humanity.” We giggle as we upload it, alone in our basements, thinking ourselves clever.

    I look at these Millennials and I see entitled, soft little trolls who tweet about how they hate their Boomer parents for not buying them a car or an iPhone 5 for Christmas. I see “Beliebers” screaming over this smart-assed, self-centred little punk who sadly comes from my country – and yet I can’t help but admire that enterprising little punk, who got his career started on YouTube in his early teens.

    I love Boomers like Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, John Lennon (he was a boomer in spirit, if not by birth) and so many others. I envy them their lives, and often wish I had been born in the 50s. I love what Millennials are going to become, once the late-wave ones grow up and get over themselves. 😉 They’re the “hero” generation after all…and soon we’ll get to see what they’re really made of, and I’m confident they won’t disappoint us.

    But what about those of us in Generation X? Why should we even get out of bed in the morning? Why shouldn’t we drink ourselves into oblivion? Hell, why should we even breed if we’re going to give birth to kids who are robotic, authority-lovers like our parents who will grow up in a broken, overpopulated world?

    We in Generation X have many successful artists we can point to – Lena Heady, Peter Dinklage, Seth MacFarlane, and so many others – but most of us are lost. Most of us were too nice, not lucky enough and not aggressive enough to claw our way through other people to attain our dreams. Our Artist parents told us that Stephen King and other people we aspired to be like were the “lucky ones,” and that we should be “sensible and find a real job.”

    So we bounced from job to job, trying to find something meaningful that fit our unique talents, something that would finally get our Artist parents to tell us they’re proud of us (still waiting for that – not holding my breath), only to be relegated to pushing paper, slinging plates of food to dissatisfied Boomers (“I asked for no mayo!”) and their privileged families while we dreamed of being something bigger, someone better, something more. Yet here we are, years later, still working in the service industry, still pushing paper, steeped in meaninglessness and purposelessness, our dreams unfulfilled because there was someone better than us, or more assertive than us and they got there first. So we’re stuck working at a hotel being screamed at by a manager who’s 15 years younger than us, saying”Hey, these hotel guests can’t check in themselves!” Oh wait…there’s an app for that now. Well damn….can you spare any change, sir?

    We are indeed entering a new era, and there’s more “epic fail” to come that we have yet to clean up. Oh well. In the meantime, I’ll just keep playing World of Warcraft on my time off in resignation, and dance my pert little Night Elf butt off at the Goldshire Inn until the real world requires me to help clean up the mess and sacrifice my “entitlements” that every generation but ours will likely get.

    Or maybe I’ll just pour myself a drink…and write that novel. 😉