Glenn Garvin recalls his first hint that the baby boomers were about to take over the media. While lounging at home on a Sunday afternoon in the spring of 1977, he received a call from his co-worker Terry Jackson, a 25-year-old news editor at the Austin American-Statesman.
Because Sundays are days of minimal adult supervision at most papers, Jackson had been put in charge of picking A-1 stories for the Monday edition and laying them out. Austin had endured an unusually hot and dry spring, and Jackson had just the hed for his drought story. He called fellow boomer Garvin at home to confirm the lyrics to the Temptations’$2 1967 hit, “I Wish It Would Rain.”
When Jackson arrived for work the next day, at least two big bosses chewed him out for placing on Page One the hed “Sunshine, Blue Skies, Please Go Away.” No American-Statesman reader would understand the headline, they said, and they damned him for polluting the newspaper with rock ’n’ roll lyrics.
“This was Austin, the home of UT and the youngest, hippest city in Texas,” says Garvin. “If it had happened in Dallas or Houston, I’m sure Jackson would have been shipped straight to death row in Huntsville.”
Had they sent Jackson to Huntsville, the boomers would have soon freed him. That generation, born between 1946 and 1964, was taking positions of authority and control throughout the media, injecting their ethos into newspapers, magazines, television, book publishing, and advertising. By 1979, you were as likely to hear the tune “Good Vibrations” in a Sunkist TV commercial as on the radio.
By sheer force of numbers, boomers quickly toppled the martini-drinking, WW II generation and substituted their cultural references. In recent years they’ve repelled the next generations—let’s call them the post-boomers for lack of a satisfying rubric that encompasses Gens X, Y, and Z—from taking cultural control.
That’s not to say boomers have locked out the post-boomer sensibility. Quite to the contrary—they’ve co-opted post-boomer references to maintain their position. For instance, Madison Avenue boomers happily mashed up the generations that came before and after them with that Lee Iacocca-Snoop Dogg Chrysler commercial, which alerted everybody in the nation to izzle-speak. But the cultural frame of reference—the odd couple of the duffer meets the ghetto-slangster—remains distinctly boomer.
Demographics should dictate how long boomer cultural hegemony will hold on. While still the largest single generation, the boomers are steadily dying off—or at least going to pasture. They peaked as a percentage of the population in 1980 at 35 percent and currently stand at about 27 percent, or 77 million self-absorbed individuals. But sooner or later, the post-boomers will give them the necessary nudge, push, and shove to sweep their rotting culture from the scene, and references to Beatles tracks will become as irrelevant as references to Mills Brothers songs.
But what post-boomer reference in a mass-media headline or TV commercial will signal the cultural coup? I polled a panel of post-boomers for markers, ruling out all Seinfield, Saturday Night Live, and R.E.M. references as too cross-generational. I sought references outside enough to exclude the majority of boomers, but inside enough to elicit recognition from post-boomers. I awarded extra points to slightly transgressive suggestions on the theory that the ruder the headline, the more obvious that a new generation had taken charge.
The provisional findings of my under-40 panel:
The Simpsonsshould produce a heap of references in headlines, movies, music, and ads, predicts Chris Suellentrop. While cross-generational, the show’s most devoted adherents are post-boomers. Suellentrop suggest such Simpsonia as the words “cromulent” and “embiggen” and variations on the phrase, “I for one welcome our new overlords.”
Daniel Radosh finds the mother lode in his generation’s favorite movies, particularly The Breakfast Club. “If we were running things the headline, ‘Just Answer the Question, Blair,’ would appear over every third London dispatch,” he writes. “Come to think of it, most high school movies have headline-ready quotes that would be instantly familiar to post-boomers, from Heathers to Dazed and Confused to Napoleon Dynamite.” (Ditto Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, Risky Business, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and War Games.) Radosh finds evidence of post-boomer influence in a Scarface reference gleaned from a recent video game review headline: “Say Halo 2 My Little Friend.”
Seth Stevenson points to two post-boomer developments that boomers don’t get and don’t particularly care to get—namely video games and rap music—as a rich source of future heds. Such references will be a slap at all boomers, who will grab their walkers and storm out en masse for a Don McLean concert. Stevenson was too lazy to provide any examples, though, but the industrious Jeremy Derfner sees a news story on the horizon about boomers who won’t slow down despite their advanced age headlined “By the Power of Grayskull.” Josh Levin offers the “cheat code” from popular Nintendo game Contra, “Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start,” as the starting place for a million heds, movie titles, and commercial gag lines. Think, also, of the tunes from “Tetris” or dialogue from “Grand Theft Auto.”
Old-school rap (Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC) and gangsta rap (N.W.A., everybody on Death Row records except Snoop) have aged sufficiently so that lyrics from these artists wouldn’t appear out of place in a 2006 headline. Other exploitable subgenres: If “Lust for Life,” Iggy Pop’s heroin song, can be used to sell Royal Caribbean Cruises, * what’s to keep the codeine cough-syrup raps by the late DJ Screw from selling Mrs. Butterworth’s? Because many white post-boomers consider the Beastie Boys the Beatles of their generation, which daily newspaper will be the first to title a story about a Hollywood star’s entourage “Posse in Effect”? Amanda Watson-Boles wonders how long it will take Kraft Foods to create an ad campaign based on the Beasties’ song “She’s Crafty.” She writes, “I mean my God, Kraft just ruined one of my favorite anthems from high school, ‘Unbelievable’ by EMF, making the word ‘Crumbelievable’ to advertise a new type of crumbling cheese. Does Kraft’s CEO know what EMF stands for?” Rounding out the musical recommendations for headlines, Jeremy Derfner writes, “I don’t know how they’re going to fit it in, but how about ‘My Name Is Luka, and I Live on the Second Floor’ “? Guilty references to Britney Spears songs and not so guilty references to Eminem are sure bets, too, says Avi Zenilman.
Wes Miller foresees acronyms from chat rooms, IM, and cell phone messages beyond the well-known “LOL” and “ASAP” as potential building blocks for future headlines. “LMAO@U” or “NFW GL” or “MOSS” or “LTR” could all do service. He also put in a plug for anything composed in L337. Wes Kosova consulted slang dictionaries to compose these 2006 headlines: “Housing Market Proves Chewy for First Time Buyers”; “President No Longer Kickin’ It With Crashy Defense Secretary”; “Fed Chief Assures Friends Dat Economy Is Crunk.” Josh Levin crosses the decency line by calling my attention to the “shocker,” the hand gesture young people use in the presence of their elders to 1) disrespect them and 2) show how clueless the old fogies (read: boomers) are. When the shocker appears in a New York Times headline, we’ll know the boomers have been vanquished.
Matt Labash pisses all over the concept of this column in response to my invitation to contribute. He writes:
It’s such an icky boomer-like exercise, obsessing over your own demise. It’s understandable I suppose. By now, your health is failing and your prostate has grown to the size of a tangelo—especially considering how you abuse yours. But we don’t think that way. Not because we’re younger. But because we know the Rapture is coming soon. Plus, unlike the boomers, the post-boomers aren’t so generation-centric. Not since Douglas Coupland died.
Thank you, Matt. I validate you. You complete me. Or something like that.
Meanwhile, if Labash or anybody else thinks I’ve raised this vital topic only to move on to comment on the next media maelstrom, sorry. If you have a good idea of a cultural marker in a headline that will illustrate that the boomers have been bounced, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org for the sequel I intend to write. No anonymous contributions will be considered, and all e-mail on this topic will be subject to quotation and attribution.
Correction, Nov. 17, 2005:This article originally misidentified the cruise line that used “Lust for Life” in a TV commercial. The correct firm is Royal Caribbean Cruises. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.